Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment / Developer: Playbrains / Platform: PSN

Sideway: New York is a throwback to classic 2D platformers, with a 3D twist: the levels take place on a flat plane in the form of graffiti art painted on the walls of adjacent buildings that exist in a three-dimensional space. Reach the end of one wall, and you’ll find the level continues right around the corner. Reach the top of a wall and jump, and you might discover a series of platforms on the roof. Such a unique visual concept is sure to get people’s attention…but are they limiting their audience?

The platforming is where Sideway: New York shines most. I could compare elements of the level design to classics like Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country, but the overall quirkiness of the game’s style—and in particular the enemy patterns—reminded me most of Earthworm Jim. Each enemy has a very specific method for best subduing them; though unlike Earthworm Jim, this game at least eases you into this mindset by telling you how to take out the initial enemies, before leaving you to figure the rest out on your own.

To keep the fighting from ever feeling too repetitive, additional special moves are gained as you play through the game, including a limited ranged attack. Gaining new abilities involves finding special collectibles, though thankfully most of them aren’t too difficult to spot, since they’re so essential to completing the game. This also adds an element of replayability for people who like to find every “coin” in each level, as levels can be replayed at any time, and new abilities often open up new areas that weren’t available to you the first time around.

However, the game isn’t perfect. The jump controls can seem a little too slippery at times, particularly when trying to land on a narrow ledge. This became most noticeable the few times that I encountered three small platforms, one directly above another, where Nox would frequently take a few more steps and walk off the platform rather than stopping on it.

Other level design issues sometimes make the game seem artificially difficult, such as running into enemies standing right around a corner, which you couldn’t see due to camera placement, or running into insta-death “spikes” that look like just a design painted on the wall, and could have been painted a color that contrasted with the wall better.

While I compared the game favorably to Earthworm Jim earlier, it also borrows some of my least favorite aspects as well. In particular, defeating bosses always involves a specific sequence of attacks—do this, then this—which often requires some amount of trial and error (and dying) to figure out. That the enemy won’t even take damage until you figure out the correct sequence of moves can initially be a discouraging, while some of the later battles are simply tedious, even once you realize what you’re supposed to do. Even worse, many bosses have little unskippable intros that repeat each time the fight restarts, making the trial and error part of the battle even more frustrating.

But by far, my biggest complaint is the hip hop soundtrack. Not because it’s bad (it’s actually really quite good) or because it’s hip hop (I don’t like all rap, but I do enjoy a decent amount of hip hop), but because there’s only a handful of songs, and they repeat over and over and over. Videogames have a long history of catchy infinitely-repeating tunes, but this only really works when the songs instrumental (or treat the voice as an instrument). But adding lyrics means hearing the same verses continually, which quickly becomes tiresome. This could have been solved by having many more songs, and making sure no song ever repeated twice in a row. Or alternately, by simply removing the vocal tracks, though this would’ve removed the hip hop aspect. Unfortunately, the result is that there are a few nice songs in here that I’d rather not hear ever again.

The story is about as complex as your average Mario game. You play as Nox, a young street artist in New York City who looks like he was designed to be voiced by Jack Black. Nox has been sucked into a flat graffiti realm by a villain called Spray, for reasons unknown. In order to escape, Nox must track down Spray, with the help of a mysterious character called Fume. At the same time, a fellow street artist named Cass has similarly been sucked into this realm, and must be rescued by Nox, because she is the girl.

Yet for a game with so little in the way of story, it wastes no time in developing some problematic themes. Having the only girl in a game end up needing to be rescued is something I’m somewhat used to from old school games, mind you. But I felt more than a little awkward playing a game steeped in hip hop culture, featuring a hip hop soundtrack, where the first boss I encounter is a strange black caricature with dreadlocks who the white kid star of the game must fight in Jamaica Ave. Though to be fair, Nox does have a black friend, who is featured for about five seconds in the animated intro of the game.

In a video discussing the story of Sideway: New York, one dev comments: “Most videogame heroes are based on fantasy, cartoons, or reality so removed from the players’ lives that we wanted to fill that void, and create a character that players could really identify with.” Why they thought a cartoon version of a street artist in NYC who enters a fantasy world wouldn’t be removed from most players lives is beyond me. But if I could give a suggestion to Playbrains, it would be that letting players choose between Nox or one of his friends (including Cass) as playable characters would’ve gone a long way towards possibly giving players a character they could actually identify with.

I realize that I’ve raised a lot of negative points, which makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the game much at all. However, I did enjoy the platforming a great deal, which is what makes it frustrating that they dropped the ball in other areas of the game. But I do hope we might eventually see a sequel (Sideway: Los Angeles? Sideway: Chicago?) with improvements and refinements that will reveal the concept’s full potential.