By Josh Speer / March 27th, 2020
|Release Date||February 20th, 2020|
|Age Rating||E for Everyone – Comic Mischief, Mild Cartoon Violence|
In a weird way, I’m kind of glad I only recently found the time to play through Vitamin Connection. Because what better time to play a game all about fighting infectious diseases than during a worldwide pandemic? Dark humor aside, Vitamin Connection is a very hard to explain game. It’s incredibly unique and experimental. I recognized plot elements that reminded me of Powerpuff Girls or Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi, mini games that would have fit right into WarioWare, and controls that reminded me somehow of Yoshi’s Island. That’s a diverse mix right off the bat, and I applaud WayForward for their ambition. The question then was did this heady mixture of disparate elements come together in a cohesive elixir? Or did it erupt in an alchemical misfire?
The entire plot of Vitamin Connection revolves around the Sable family. They’re an idyllic bunch – scientist father, bad-ass housewife mother, energetic young boy, psychotic baby and lovable dog. Something has caused bacteria to infest the entire family, and one by one, they come down with mysterious symptoms. Before you discount this as happenstance, I can tell you there’s actually something sinister afoot. I didn’t realize that until late in the game, but suffice to say the experience is as much about healing the family as it is discovering the source of their infection. You do so as the heroes of the game – Vita-Boy and Mina-Girl. They pilot the minuscule Capsule Ship, which enters bodies, finds bacteria and blasts them to smithereens. Each of the game’s levels has you wandering through veins and sailing towards major organs. Once you find a source of infection, your job is to beat them in a mini game. These can involve dancing, grabbing items, obstacle courses and much more. Oh and did I mention all of the viruses can talk (which is voice acted) and they love to trash talk you? Yea, this is a strange experience, but not without its charms.
When I compared Vitamin Connection to Yoshi’s Island, it was mostly due to the very unique controls found in both games. You can play this game either single player or with a friend. I have a feeling the latter is the way it was meant to be played, but in the spirit of self isolation, I played this solo. In single player, you control all the aspects of the gameplay, whereas you split duties when playing with a friend. Or so I understand, I didn’t actually try multiplayer. In any case, there’s a lot of really cool features to the gameplay. As you wander through bodies, you can rotate your Capsule Ship with the right and left triggers, clockwise or counter clockwise. This is important, since touching any structure harms your ship, and if you take too much damage, you’ll die and have to restart from your last save. You use the joystick to control your beam, which can be shot in any direction you aim, making it very versatile. To make up for that, you have a limited charge to use it with. If you use the beam too long, the power of it is vastly diminished until it has a chance to reboot. You also later get a claw module that can grab and move things. It’s nifty in theory, but in execution it was very different. Mostly cause it was mapped to the same joystick used for firing your beam. So it’s very easy to accidentally arm the claw when you’re trying to blast, or vice versa. And since the claw’s controls are very, very finicky, I grew to dislike its inclusion in short order. You can also speed up how fast the level speeds past you by holding any two buttons on the right Joy-Con, which is handy. Especially since you otherwise can only maneuver your ship around with the left Joy-Con.
In case it’s not already evident, the controls in Vitamin Connection take some getting used to. And even then, they can be a handful. As you navigate about, you’ll come across colored blue and red cords that block your path. You have to rotate your ship around so the proper colored edge is facing the cord, and then by ramming them at the proper angle, you’ll cut your way through. This was fun at first, but the game starts to go crazy with how many cords you come across. It’s also exacerbated by the tunnels you drift through often being very narrow, meaning that if you’re facing the wrong direction, you’ll sometimes have to rotate through the stage, harming yourself, just to be properly oriented. It wouldn’t be an issue if the game previewed that a cord was coming up, but it doesn’t. It’s also nerve wracking since if you get too far behind the stage as it scrolls, you’ll constantly take damage every few seconds. This didn’t happen often, mind you, but when it did I got very frustrated. And keep in mind that you’re not just wandering through harmless areas. There’s lots of bacterial enemies, and they love to get in your way, blast you from a distance or otherwise harass you.
I mentioned mini games earlier, and there’s plenty of them in Vitamin Connection. One of the most iconic ones has you bust a move in dance battles against bacteria. That’s really cool in theory, but actually doing it can be very tough. Reason being, when playing in single player, you have to watch prompts for dance moves as they scroll on the periphery of both sides of the screen simultaneously. I started to feel like a chameleon playing this game, with my eyes trying to focus on two things at once. I did sort of get the hang of it, but it’s just an example of how mechanics in the game aren’t always well-implemented. The worst example was actually a mini game that involves extending a mitt to grab a certain amount of items. The first few times you encounter this, you’ll have to navigate around moving bacteria, since touching them hurts you. The last iteration of the game has bacteria that don’t move. I was totally flummoxed, until I figured out that you’re supposed to extend your mitt upward inch by inch, with minute flickers of your joystick, while simultaneously maneuvering your ship around, and then do the same thing in reverse to bring the items towards you safely. Suffice to say, this mini game was so irritating I nearly gave up on reviewing Vitamin Connection. Thankfully, I found some deep reserve of patience and pushed through. Maybe it’s not so bad with a friend, but if not, then something needs to be done to streamline it for solo gamers.
I don’t mean to make it sound like everything in Vitamin Connection was a slog, cause it wasn’t. Oftentimes this is a very charming and funny game. Even though your heroes Vita-Boy and Mina-Girl are totally unvoiced, the other characters are bursting at the seams with personality. The game almost plays out like an old Saturday morning cartoon, full of humor and silliness. I especially liked the design of the various bacteria, such as giant cyclops bats, happy amoebas, candy colored rhinos and more. This is only boosted by the tremendous voice acting, which even minor characters like bacteria get. Visually, it’s a really attractive experience as well. Though it mostly plays off bright, crayola colored areas, the use of bold colors and cartoon style really makes it stand out. Musically the game is even better, and features tracks that would fit in perfectly in JPOP or KPOP, full of funky beats and mellifluous singing. Honestly, if I were just scoring the game on aesthetic or even creativity, it would probably have gotten a perfect score.
Although I estimate I got through the main game in about 6 hours, there’s actually pretty decent replay value here. Each mini game you play is unlocked for free play later on. Additionally, by collecting all 5 hidden Ion Stars in a stage, you’ll unlock an accompanying bonus stage. These are fun and short affairs that play more like a SHMUP than the rest of the experience. Also, you unlock New Game Plus after you beat the final stage, which apparently lets you play as a different character. I say apparently since I haven’t tried it myself yet. Either way, I always appreciate reasons to come back to a game, and find it laudable Vitamin Connection is trying to put its best foot forward. Having said that, I probably would have preferred a longer main adventure with more story and hijinks to enjoy, since there’s only 6 main levels.
Before I close things out, I need to touch upon some areas that really hurt the overall experience. Earlier I mentioned cutting cords in stages, and how it can get tricky when you’re navigating tight tunnels. This was problematic in one long stretch that leads to a stage’s last Ion Star, and I simply couldn’t manage it. I wish the game offered the ability to switch the color orientation of your ship, instead of just rotating it around and around. Another area of contention is with the save system. It autosaves whenever you are at a junction or after beating a mini game. My issue is that one time I was playing a mini game, about to win, when Vitamin Connection had an error that forced me back to the Home Screen. When I booted it up again, I wasn’t placed right at the start of the mini game, but instead at the tunnel branch which led to it. I also can’t express enough how much I wish the claw controls were separate from the laser controls. I had so many times where not only did I have trouble using the right tool at the right time, but even had tons of times where the claw was ready, I tried to grab something, and instead the claw retracted back into my ship. There’s actually a final boss in the game, in a fight that plays a lot like a battle in Mischief Makers. Problem was, it forces you to use the claw to fight back, which made things far more difficult. Oh and the Love Test game that plays after you beat stages really should have clarified that you don’t actually play it, but instead that it rates you on your overall performance. And lastly, while this is a minor quibble, it seemed odd to me that in a game so full of personality, the main characters are totally unvoiced, and don’t even get dialogue.
Ultimately, I feel there were tons of cool ideas on display here and tons of charm, but that it wasn’t fully realized. Vitamin Connection is still a fun experience, and I appreciate the creativity. I just feel that perhaps some features required more time in the oven, so to speak. Honestly though, for only $19.99, it’s hard to take too much fault with the experience. I’d say if you want to support a cool indie company, you should give it a go. Just be ready for a steeper challenge than you might expect.
Review Copy Provided by Publisher