Games are usually fairly consistent in quality from start to finish, with the latter third or half perhaps showcasing more bugs and less interesting level designs. It’s a typical effect of the rushed production schedule that developers go through as they’re forced to hit a release date on time. While I’m used to a slight drop-off in quality as I get farther into a game, nothing prepared me for Tentacles’ downward spiral. The platformer-esque Windows Phone exclusive from Press Play, makers of the whimsical Max & the Magic Marker could have been one of the best games on the platform. Instead, it comes across like a malicious bait-and-switch.
Before we get into what went wrong, let’s look at what Tentacles does right. First is the unique premise, told through slightly animated story sequences. In the 1960s, Dr. Phluff, a mad scientist, loves splicing species even more than Dr. Moreau. Replacing his own head with that of a dolphin was just the start! His latest experiment has created Lemmy, a microscopic, three-tentacled Cyclops.
After a typical lab accident, Lemmy ends up inside of the good doctor and starts wreaking havoc on his internal organs. Over the course of the story, the doctor becomes increasingly frustrated and aggressive towards Lemmy, often to hilarious effect. It’s not often you get to play a bad guy, or an invasive organism, anyway. It all pays off with a great ending that almost makes the pain of the latter levels worth enduring.
On top of the story scenes’ clever comic-like art and writing, Tentacles also looks and sounds beautiful during gameplay. The game uses a 2D perspective and 3D graphics to bring Dr. Phluff’s inner space to life. I love the weird color palette, which utilizes far more blacks and yellows than most games. The ethereal soundtrack from Danish artist Rumpistol (aka Jens Christiansen) perfectly complements the 1960’s sci-fi vibe. Throw in some catchy sound effects (particularly when Lemmy eats things or pulls parts away from enemies) and Press Play’s artists have really outdone themselves all around.
Tentacles utilizes a truly unique control mechanic. Lemmy doesn’t walk with his three main tentacles; he clings to things. Tap anywhere within Lemmy’s range (about a third of the screen) and he’ll grab onto it with a single appendage. Tap the same spot or another and he pulls himself towards the new spot. It sort of feels like individually controlling a person’s feet, which I initially loved.
Lemmy also has a fourth clawed appendage which he uses to grab the eyes out of enemies. See, all of the native organisms inside of Dr. Phluff want the invader out. And for some reason they each have at least one eyeball – Lemmy’s favorite snack. Pulling away a bad guy’s eye (or all of its eyes) kills the aggressor and refills the player’s health. Simpler enemies are fun to fight, though the ones that can only be hit from behind prove far more annoying, as do the huge bosses.
At the outset, I had a blast zipping through levels and fighting simple bad guys along the way. So did a lot of people, as Tentacles’ positive reception from the mainstream press reveals. But right around level 20 (out of 40), the game starts to change. The fun peters out, replaced instead by almost unending frustration. What went wrong?
As I see it, the following problems basically ruin the experience of playing Tentacles:
Health and damage system: In lieu of a life meter, the screen turns increasingly red as Lemmy takes damage. The only way for him to heal is by eating eyeballs. Unfortunately, eyeballed enemies are often hard to come across after you’ve been hurt. Even when you do find one, it might be of the risky-to-fight variety, killing Lemmy during the battle.
Once injured, the remainder of a level tends to be super tough and punishing, like the game is rubbing in your mistake. The developers could have easily rectified the problem by simply allowing Lemmy’s health to recharge over time. The game would still be pretty tough then, but at least players wouldn’t be punished so much for their mistakes.
- Swimming upstream: Since Tentacles takes place inside of a human(ish) body, it makes sense for liquids to swirl around in there. But the sections with forced currents are without a doubt the most frustrating and unfun portions of the game. These parts quite often result in bashing Lemmy against spikes or other objects that will kill him. They usually don’t give you much time to react before Lemmy is diced to pieces. Worse, the actual safe route in the forced current sections is often unclear. The developers basically had exactly one solution in mind, and if you can’t find it you’ll simply die over and over again.
- Oh, those tentacles: The currents often exacerbate another issue: controlling the length of Lemmy’s tentacles is difficult and unintuitive. With spiked and electric death dotting the walls just about everywhere in later levels, it’s often essential to keep Lemmy’s body at a specific distance from the floor and ceiling. Unfortunately, even after beating the game I can’t regulate his tentacle length with any consistency. I often had to brute force my way through difficult passages – simply trying to run through them repeatedly, until I finally managed to survive unscathed.
Press Play famously added an Easy Mode to the game in an update. But Easy Mode only allows Lemmy to take more damage before dying. It doesn’t address the horrendous level design and infuriating currents. Even with more life, Lemmy still gets pushed into inescapable death far too frequently. Easy Mode doesn’t feel like a proper easy difficulty – it’s just the difficulty the game should be anyway. Worse, enabling Easy mode (a simple toggle from the Level Select menu or Options) prevents players from earning progress towards a couple of Achievements.
Besides the story-based ones, many of Tentacles’ Achievements revolve around earning three stars for every single level: Pickups (collecting all pickups), No Death, and Challenges (completing irksome Speed or No Damage challenges). Pickups are probably the easiest of the stars, but they’re also annoying because you usually can’t go back to get stuff you’ve missed. Turn on Easy Mode and you automatically miss the No Death star, another bummer considering how hard it can be to avoid dying even with Easy on. If playing Tentacles is like rubbing a cheese grater across your skin (and it is), then trying to earn every Achievement is like pouring hot grease on the wound.
I wanted to like Tentacles so badly. Even after finding that I hated the game, I held out hope that the version 1.1 patch would fix its woes. Unfortunately, the patch did very little to address Tentacles’ flaws. Mobile games are supposed to be played in short doses and enjoyed by as wide a variety of players as possible. Sadly, Tentacles proves to be far too challenging and frustrating for playing on the go. Only a certain kind of gamer enjoys nut-kicking difficulty; it’s a shame that Press Play didn’t design the game with a wider audience in mind.
Tentacles costs $4.99 and there is a free trial. If you can handle a beating, get it here on the Marketplace.