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PlayStation Vita Launch Games

The first generation of games for a console are driven, to varying degrees, by the console-maker’s desire to showcase the potential (read: justify the existence) of its gizmo. The trouble is that developers rarely understand a new device’s potential—it’s too new! That’s the catch-22 behind the PS Vita’s lineup. It consists of original games that are slavishly built around Vita’s headline features, and familiar sequels that incorporate those features as an afterthought. The result is a solid yet unspectacular selection of titles. Below are brief impressions of a few Vita games that were available at launch. (A full review of Uncharted: Golden Abyss will appear next week.)

Lumines: Electronic Symphony

Developer: Q Entertainment
Publisher: Ubisoft
Price: Download—$35.99; Physical copy—$39.99
Rating: E
Tetris is the granddaddy of games like Lumines, but granddaddies aren’t cool. Lumines is cool. It’s a falling-block game that seems to have the eyes and ears of a Tokyo VJ. On the basis of a simple concept—use little squares to build bigger squares—the game uses pulsing music tracks and trippy visuals to produce an entrancing effect. And every few minutes, the playfield transforms itself into an entirely new aesthetic, creating profound shifts in mood. Electronic Symphony is more or less the same Lumines that became a must-play hit for owners of the original PSP; the old game has been updated with new tracks and an even more dazzling look. There is a disappointing paucity of extras beyond the main endurance mode. Lumines players could face off against a friend or against a murderer’s row of computer characters; Electronic Symphony ditches the “versus CPU” option. The PSP original also had intriguing side games that asked players to create elaborate shapes. In Electronic Symphony, you’ll have to settle for squares. But oh, what mileage Lumines gets out of squares… B+

Little Deviants

Developer: Bigbig Studios
Publisher: Sony
Price: Download—$26.99; Physical copy—$29.99
Rating: E10+
“Sure, we’ll publish your game, but you gotta use all of the Vita’s features” is the videogame equivalent of “Sure, we’ll produce your screenplay, but my nephew’s going to direct.” There’s a sad sense of obligation to Little Deviants, whose cute, lively characters are employed in a stultifying now-let’s-use-the-gyroscope-because-it’s-there format. The Deviants are smiling amorphous blobs that fight robots in a series of mini-games, or, to put it more accurately, a series of exercises. One of the exercises is a take on whack-a-mole that uses both the front and rear touchpad, perfect for three-handed players. Another uses the Vita’s camera to superimpose an outer-space dogfight on a real-time image of your living room. In other words, it’s a ripoff of Face Raiders, the 3DS game whose novelty evaporated in its first five minutes… C-

ModNation Racers: Road Trip

Developer: Sony San Diego
Publisher: Sony
Price: Download—$26.99; Physical copy—$29.99
Rating: E
ModNation Racers and this Vita sequel, Road Trip, are a product of Sony’s post-LittleBigPlanet belief that the key to a great game is to pump absolutely everything full of social-networking bullshit. “Share ModPostcards with your friends!” screams the Road Trip box, as if this meaningless phrase would be enticing to any human being. ModNation Racers players can also build their own terrible, slapdash racetracks and share them online—or download more than half a million similarly awful tracks that have already been created by others. Here’s the secret of ModNation Racers, though: All these inane social features are pieces of flair, obligatory gewgaws that please the developers’ corporate overlords at Sony. Brush aside the SHARE THIS! buttons, and you’ll find that the makers of Road Trip have deviously concealed a pretty good kart-racing game amid the Facebook Jr. camouflage. The tracks are well-designed, with plenty of hidden shortcuts and curves that reward expert drivers without punishing novices too much. The weapons are standard-issue kart-racing fare, since the concept of firing a rocket into your opponent’s exhaust pipe can only be dressed up so many ways. Best of all, racing acumen matters—Road Trip doesn’t operate on the “If you’re in last place, we’ll give you a magic toy so you can win” logic of modern Mario Kart games… B

Touch My Katamari

Developer: Namco Bandai
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Price: $29.99
Rating: E10+
The Katamari series has lost some of its verve since original creator Keita Takahashi left it behind, but at least Touch My Katamari doesn’t feel as perfunctory as some of Namco’s other post-Takahashi sequels. Touch’s premise is mighty confusing—some business about the King Of All Cosmos getting back in shape, or being forgotten by his fans. Or something. In any case, the upshot is that you, as the little Prince, must once again roll stuff up into a big blob (the katamari), and it’s fun, though familiar. Thanks to the Vita’s dual analog sticks, Touch plays much like the original. There are no major interface kludges, as there are in the iPhone or PSP Katamari games. You can also choose to roll the ball around using the touchscreen, but that’s optional. The only required touch-control wrinkle is a rear-touchpad move that allows you to stretch the katamari, making it flatter or taller. It’s a nifty trick when you need to fit your big blob through tight spaces or want to cut a wide, steamroller-like swath. But it’s also a bit erratic, and players may find themselves invoking the feature accidentally, when their insolent fingers drift from the slivers of non-touchpad space that the Vita so generously provides on its rear end… B

Wipeout 2048

Developer: Sony Studio Liverpool
Publisher: Sony
Price: Download—$35.99; Physical copy—$39.99
Rating: E10+
Of the games available at launch, Wipeout 2048 may be the best example of the Vita’s graphical power, and the worst example of its load times. The landscape of this futuristic arcade racer is rendered in luscious detail and with smooth motion, which helps create a strong sensation of speed for a five-inch screen. The thrill of velocity is less keenly felt on the game’s ubiquitous loading screens, which regularly ask players to wait upward of 45 seconds for a race to begin. Wipeout’s combination of combat and racing captures some of the fun of ModNation-type kart racers, but Wipeout is more challenging and feels more adult, so good things come to those who wait… B

Escape Plan

Developer: Fun Bits Interactive
Publisher: Sony
Price: $14.99
Rating: T
Escape Plan, like Little Deviants, aims to utilize as much of the Vita’s gadgetry as possible. Unlike Little Deviants, Escape Plan manages to do so without losing its soul. In the most winningly eccentric Vita game so far, you must help two prisoners—a twiggy one name Lil and a behemoth named Laarg—escape an evil overlord who wishes to feed them into his recycling machine. Each room in the prison complex is a puzzle, and much like in a point-and-click adventure, you find solutions by a two-step process. First, experiment to find out what your taps do—tapping a coffeemaker, for instance, gives Lil the ability to perform a caffeine-fueled dash across obstacles—and then figure out how these newfound abilities can get your characters to the exit. The touch controls hold Escape Plan back to some degree, especially when the cumbersome rear touchpad comes into play. Yet Escape Plan’s macabre humor and beautiful black-and-white chiaroscuro look make it a welcome respite from the noise and flash of the other Vita launch titles. Sony has a knack for finding and funding indie developers with a refined sense of style. B