By Josh Speer / October 1st, 2019
|Release Date||August 13th, 2019|
|Platform||PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One|
|Age Rating||E for Everyone – Mild Fantasy Violence|
I first played Exception a year ago at PAX West. At the time, I was impressed by the colorful graphics and the cool premise. You are a data thread in an old woman’s computer that has been infected by a virus, and your job is to fix things. You play a lone thread enhanced beyond the normal scope and equipped with powerful weapons. The question is, does Exception live up to my early impressions? Or was it less than the sum of its parts?
The game is split into 16 chapters, each comprised of 8 stages. At the end of each chapter, you face a boss fight, and upon defeating them you are given a new sliver of story to digest. You can always skip these and check them out later, but I like doing things in sequence. The story starts with an old woman opening up a suspicious email and contracting a computer virus, but there’s a lot more complexity at play. You play a character who starts as a run-of-the-mill thread in her computer’s system and who becomes a representation of something much more. Along the way, you meet allies who inform you of what has transpired and guide you on the path to finding the power to stop it. Your primary goal is to stop Titan, who has taken charge of the entire system after it was affected. There’s a lot of big themes at play here, such as conformity versus individuality, paranoia and authoritarianism. Not what I expected from a game about a computer virus, but cool nevertheless. My only complaint about the story is that it’s very verbose, and perhaps could do more with less. That said, I do appreciate the effort to tell a compelling tale, as well as the style of the comic book story panels.
No platformer is all about story though, and Exception is no exception (I had to). Most of the game is pure platforming, split up with short segments of combat and boss battles. Every level pretty much has you going from point A to B, finally slashing a cubical data Node to complete a level. While most every stage is pretty short, and can generally be beaten in less than a minute, that’s not the same as easy. I consider myself capable at the genre, and some levels really gave me a run for my money. Thankfully, that’s usually due to my own impatience and not bad design. One especially cool aspect of Exception‘s levels is that they twist and contort as you progress, literally flipping around and turning gravity on its head. You typically do this by hitting switches, which can affect the stage or teleport you someplace else. It’s very fascinating to watch, and it gives this digital world a truly organic and dynamic sensation.
As far as navigating the levels, you have a few tools at your disposal. You can run, jump, wall jump and slash things, but that’s not all you can do. At set progression points you’ll unlock new attack skills, and these can do a lot to increase your combat flexibility. Examples are throwing a shooting star forward, doing a downward slide through narrow apertures and much more. It’s cool in theory, but I have a problem with these skills: most require too much wind up. Exception is a very fast game, and one that’s focused entirely on speedrunning. Since that’s the case, I thought it was a bit contrary that each of these skills not only is complex to utilize, but also comparatively time consuming. To be fair, you can use Bytes well-hidden in levels to upgrade these skills (something I didn’t discover ’til I beat the game), making them more powerful and wider ranging, but I just wish the attack skills were simplified. If the game’s about speed, why not map each subsequent skill to a single button? It’s a technical complaint, but an important one. I was also surprised that I had gotten all the new skills by about the halfway point of the game, meaning there was nothing new to unlock in the latter half.
I feel I should touch upon the boss battles. Frankly, I only enjoyed half of them, and felt the others were a slog. While there’s a good variety of bosses, it’s often not clear where you can damage bosses, and if they beat you, you’re forced to restart from the very beginning of the level. Sometimes there’s a long run up to a boss, so this was a bit of an irritation. By far the bosses I preferred were the ones that felt more like a puzzle, with set rules on how to avoid and deal damage. An example is one boss armed with gatling guns and missile launchers. By watching how it moves, you can tell which one is gonna come at you, and avoid them accordingly. There’s also one really clever fight where the boss can’t be hurt by you at all, so you have to trick it into hitting itself with his projectiles. And the final boss fight against Titan is fantastic, where you literally use the stage itself to smack him around as he tries to destroy you. If all the boss fights were like these examples, I would have liked them a lot better. Thankfully though, most of the game is about the platforming, and I rather enjoyed most of that.
Exception‘s platforming is complex yet simple. Sure all you do is run, jump, slash and get to the end, but there’s a lot of ways they mix things up. I can’t express how cool the level transformation that occurs constantly is, and my screenshots don’t do it justice. You really need to see it in action to appreciate it. But even then, there’s a lot of ways the game keeps you guessing. There’s a bunch of foes, some who charge you and others who use projectiles. There’s laser beams, blocks that move when you do, gates that block your path and oh so much more. When you factor in that there’s 128 stages total, you’d expect things get boring or predictable over time, but that’s really not true. Each set of new levels will introduce new mechanics to keep things fresh, and I really enjoyed jumping around and causing mischief.
Now, there is something that bothered me the farther I got in Exception. While I’m okay with speedrunning in general, I also found myself wishing the game was more of a standard platformer. If this was more in the vein of something like Mega Man X (which it already has some parallels to), I think I would have enjoyed things much more. Instead, you’re pushed to go faster and faster, and the achievements the game provides only reinforced that. It also was quite irritating to me that, even when I was beating stages in less than 40 seconds, I always got the Tortoise achievement. That’s not the best way to encourage players to try again. If instead this was a standard platformer without a focus on the clock, I feel instead they could have focused on the combat and platforming, as well as the precision with which you do both. That would have been good, since on occasion the physics of the game left something to be desired. I often overshot platforms with my jumps, and my wall jumps dipped down before I ascended, making it hard to scale vertical heights. I commented in my PAX impressions that the game felt kind of slippery, and unfortunately that’s still the case. It’s usually not a problem, but in those levels that require platforming perfection, it becomes irritating.
While the above may seem nitpicky, the next part is not. It’s just a quick summary of the largest problems I found in Exception. They aren’t game-breaking, but they could have used some extra polish. One great example is a level called Condition. Every time I played the level, once I reached the halfway point I started taking damage from some unseen source and dying. I’m still not clear what caused it, though I suspect sparks I took for a visual effect were the cause. A more recurring issue is that many levels it can become unclear where to go after you twist the stage. Though there are arrows that point you in the right direction, these are translucent and often hard to see when you’re racing about. I also thought it odd that the shooting star attack seemingly cannot trigger the many switches in the game. Seeing as how these are in pretty much each stage, and I often used the shooting star, this was a problem. I was also frustrated foes can see you before they’re on screen, often resulting in me eating a bullet or getting charged without warning. It’s also not clear how much health you have at any time, other than a digitized look the screen gets when you’re really hurt. I would have loved a simple health bar instead. But my biggest hatred in the game were the homing missiles. They come out of nowhere and slowly fly around you, forcing you to waste precious seconds slashing them or running and possibly getting hit.
Visually, Exception is truly stunning. Not only is this a very pretty game, it’s one that’s constantly showing off. And I love that about it. It looks a bit like a mix between Mega Man and Tron, and I’m a big fan of it. I know I’ve talked a lot about the level transformations, but honestly those are one of my favorite aspects of the visual style. There’s a lot of bold usage of colors too, and everything just pops. Musically, this game is equally lovely. It’s all synthwave, and it fits the futuristic aesthetic very nicely. I know games that are playable on Switch often don’t get lauded for their graphics, but Exception is a perfect example of what this console is capable of.
Overall, I still rather enjoyed Exception, despite its missteps. It’s not perfect, but then again, it’s also a really impressive effort for a first time developer. Traxmaster Software has put a ton of ambition and style into the game, and none of that goes away just because of the problems I recounted. For $14.99, I got roughly five to six hours out of the game, and that’s also pretty good for a platformer. Best of all, there’s a tremendous twist in the game, and that helped make this a truly memorable adventure. Sure, Exception isn’t perfect, but it’s also a game I recommend platformer fans check out. Here’s hoping the next one by Traxmaster Software learns from this title, and makes an even more stellar next game.
Review Copy Provided by Developer
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