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Voodoo Vince

As strong as the XBox's library is for a hefty percentage of genres, one of the holes which Microsoft's console has yet to successfully fill is the almighty platformer. Blinx: The Time Sweeper failed to live up to expectations, Tork was ditched in mid-development, and...are there even any other titles -- excluding multiplatform releases like Rayman 3 or Vexx -- to rattle off? That gap has finally been bridged with Voodoo Vince, a recent release from Microsoft and fledgling Louisiana-based developer Beep Industries.

Voodoo Vince stars -- surprise! -- Voodoo Vince, a doll that's been collecting dust on the shelf of N'awlins voodoo priestess Madam Charmaine. A clumsy sorceror named Kosmo the Inscrutable dispatches a couple of his flunkies to kidnap Charmaine and the source of her power, and the resulting struggle animates our bitty burlap buddy. In his quest to rescue Madam Charmaine from the Kosmo's clutches, Vince will have to use his voodoo powers to navigate through a series of treacherous levels throughout New Orleans, including lurking around an unusually-designed mansion teeming with monsters, speeding around the bayou on a fan boat in search of gumbo ingredients, skulking around a graveyard in the dead of night, and duking it out with a giant robot in a carnival.

Voodoo Vince has the sort of intuitive, silky smooth control scheme that most gamers should be able to pick up and play without so much as a passing glance at the manual. The scheme is pretty typical, with the left thumbstick controlling movement and the right stick manipulating the camera. Resetting the camera to lock directly behind Vince is just a shoulder-button click away. The perspective can also be shifted to first-person for a doll's eye view of New Orleans, and Vince also can snag an All-Seeing Eye that reveals the location of items scattered throughout the game. Collecting a hundred voodoo dust bags adds an extra health slot, and grabbing all of the pages of Madam Charmaine's spell book in a stage unlocks a floating purple skull for Vince to chase down. Vince can jump, of course, this being a platformer and all. He can also double-jump, propelling him further, as well as glide while in mid-air. Vince's array of attacks include a powerful punch, a Bonk's Adventure-esque downward flying head bump, and a spinning flurry of fists.

After acquiring enough voodoo beads, Vince can also maim himself to clear out a screenful of creatures. Different voodoo powers can be collected throughout the thirty or so stages, enabling Vince to whack himself upside the head with a mallet, crush himself under a falling anvil or cow, get bombarded by a volley of flying arrows, immerse himself in a barrel of toxic waste, become flattened by a Monty Python-ish assault from a vengeful god, and close to a couple dozen more. His voodoo powers are basically a creative smart bomb gimmick, inflicting harm on Vince as well as every badnik in a pretty healthy radius. There are only one or two moments in the game where activating Vince's voodoo powers is essential, but they frequently came in handy. Vince's voodoo powers aren't always directly activated by mashing a couple of buttons on the controller, though. His abilities are also integral to some of the game's puzzles, particularly the boss battles at the end of each level. The only particularly disappointing aspect is that the individual voodoo powers aren't selectable -- one's chosen apparently at random, though as I played, 'running with scissors' and the default pin-stabbing seemed to pop up more heavily in rotation that anything else.

Voodoo Vince is fairly challenging. In reviewer-speak, "challenging" typically translates to "hard", but that's not the case with with this game, which is challenging in more of a traditional sense. Its approach to puzzles is the best I've stumbled upon in a long, long time. I'm more used to games that repeatedly push the player in a particular direction towards a clearly-defined obstacle, and though Voodoo Vince adopts that sort of structure at times, it's more creative than that for the most part. The solutions to puzzles aren't arcane or overly cryptic, but they're generally not glaringly obvious from the get-go either. It's more of a matter of exploring each level, and the items being searched for as well as any eventual destinations are clearly marked. The puzzles all come together with a pass through each stage, and gamers who've grown weary of mindlessly collecting dozens of keys or dragging crates from place to place may find Voodoo Vince a nice change. The boss battles also take on more of a puzzle approach rather than the usual test of endurance. As is the case with the other puzzles in the game, though, platforming skills are still necessary to make it through in one piece (or in several pieces as the case may be; maybe I should just say "make it through not-dead"). Players still have to learn the boss' patterns and avoid their attacks, navigate around the hazards of each stage, hop around when required, and avoid the ubiquitous bottomless pits.

The platforming elements and puzzles are blended together perfectly, and the level of difficulty is exactly what I went in hoping to find. I rarely breezed through each stage, at least my first time through, but I also didn't find myself hopelessly stumped and begging for help on various message least, not often. There are a couple of brief moments in the game that drove me nuts. One was a faux-Frogger sequence, and the other involved a time-sensitive leap across a chasm in the manor to detonate a barrel of dynamite. Whenever I got hung up, it was a case of knowing exactly what I needed to do, but just getting the timing right. That's obviously greatly preferable to being completely baffled as to what steps to take next, and with some practice (read: lots and lots of deaths), I eventually mastered each section. Even then, I wasn't left thinking "wow, so I'm never doing that again" as I did after clawing my way through some of the more frustrating moments of, say, the Dreamer's Realm in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The gameplay is also fairly varied, involving more than a quest for switches to pull and gliding over bottomless chasms. Vince rides a giant laundry basket while yanking shirts off oversized clotheslines, careens around a Louisiana bayou in a fan boat race, commandeers a submersible mechanized crawfish, zaps cardboard monsters in a fright house, and drags around a highly-flammable cannister while avoiding a series of flamethrowers. Some puzzles even require Vince beating onions into submission and chucking cute woodland creatures into a grinder to make sausage. That's pretty typical of the game's offbeat sense of humor. Vince is well-aware he's in a platformer, making quips about what a lame idea for a hero he is, smirking when faced with a musical puzzle, and quipping about inevitable boss battles.

I guess the easiest way for me to tell how much I enjoyed Voodoo Vince was that I actively decided to explore each stage. As much as I liked Rayman 3, I mostly just dashed from level to level as quickly as possible, with little interest in delving into every individual nook and cranny. I took my time with Voodoo Vince, and skimming through notes on message boards about how long the game takes to complete, the general consensus seems to be somewhere between eight to twelve hours. I'm not entirely sure I should admit this, but it took me closer to, um, eighteen and a half hours to finish. (The time listed on my saved game is 18:31:09, to be unnecessarily precise.) Just to be clear, though, it's not because I'd continually fall into bottomless pits and use dozens upon dozens of continues. Definitely not. No, when I got stuck, I'd get really stuck, and even though I'd eventually master some of the tougher jumps, it often took me quite a while to get to that point. I'm sure I could whiz through the game in a fraction of the time my second time around, and Voodoo Vince is such a blast that I have every intention of finding out just how quickly in the very near future.

The design of the game's sprawling levels is New Orleans-by-way-of-The Nightmare Before Christmas. The levels are colorful and brimming with detail. Some comparisons could be drawn to Blinx, though Voodoo Vince definitely deserves the graphical nod of the two. The buildings and environments have a similar sort of cartoonish, frequently rounded appearance, and each stage is littered with the same handful of types of enemies. Whereas Blinx's rogues gallery consisted mostly of amorphous blobs and bland wizards, Voodoo Vince offers up dragonflies armed to the teeth with artillery, gigantic one-armed crabs, and moles that burst out of the ground, among a few others. Aside from being conceptually more interesting, the enemies are much more attractively rendered. Vince himself looks great as well, though the positioning of the camera generally emphasizes his small stature and belies the amount of detail that went into his character. He just looks neat, striking that balance between being cute 'n marketable while remaining as offbeat and twisted as I'd expect from an animated, one-eyed voodoo doll. Vince and the other characters in the game are nicely animated, and the game doesn't suffer from so much as a single flicker or stutter throughout. Voodoo Vince does not include a widescreen mode, though owners of HDTV-capable displays will be pleased to discover that the game does have progressive scan capability.

After recently miring my way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds, where I found myself spending far more time fighting the camera than the hordes of vampires, Voodoo Vince's excellent camera is more than welcome. The only situations where I feel I can reasonably blame the camera for one of my innumerable deaths was in the carnival, when I'd manage to get myself caught in the interior of the second ferris wheel, and the positioning of the camera made it difficult to tell where I was or where I needed to go. For the most part, though, the camera didn't trip me up or become in any way intrusive. Whenever I'd adjust the camera, it was out of convenience rather than necessity. The camera is intelligent and generally well-placed, and there were only a few scattered instances where it'd zoom in too tight (often when I'd find myself butted between an object and a wall, not leaving much room for the camera to maneuver) or slowly drift after an adjustment. The camera is typically one of the most frequently cited gripes for 3D platformers, but Voodoo Vince manages to avoid the great majority of those pitfalls.

Voodoo Vince takes full advantage of the Dolby Digital 5.1 capabilities the XBox offers. The low-end is at times thunderous, particularly in the boss battles, the grinding gears of a recently re-animated carnival, and the heavy-artillery-wielding insects in the bayou. There's one stage where Vince is trapped in close quarters with a battalion of bugs, and that sequence had my subwoofer lobbing off a series of resounding booms more heavily than any other game I can think of straight off the top of my head and rivaling the best sounding DVDs in my collection. Directionality is solid, and the placement of audio in the front and surround channels is reasonably immersive. Enemies and some environmental effects can be heard panning from speaker to speaker as Vince trots around each stage or they go zooming by. One of the most memorable examples of this is when Vince is pitted against a hurricane that chucks pianos and steamrollers his way, which can be heard zooming across the soundstage. Additionally, most levels have ambiant sounds rooted in particular channels, and some of the voice acting (Madam Charmaine particularly) is anchored in the rear speakers. The center channel is frequently neglected or at most sparsely used in 5.1 games, but it provides a number of sound effects in Voodoo Vince.

The score is a refreshing change from the bouncy, energetic electro-pop that litters most platformers. The extensive, diverse selection of music features live instrumentation, leaning towards a jazzy sound that fits in well with the game's New Orleans setting. Elements from other genres -- a country twang, surf guitar, and, in one stage in the bayou, even an electronic tinge -- are tossed in as well. The music is excellent throughout, and one of the only times the audio particularly grated on my nerves was the tiny snippet of sound that accompanies the loading/saving screens. It's a short "boop-bup-boop-bup" assault that chimes in with transitions from stage to stage, each time starting up the game, as well as with each continue. The sounds of the carnival once the power is flipped back on and the wheels start turning -- particularly the low-end grind and a looped second of a screeching cat sample -- were so annoying that I eventually turned off the sound effects in that level. That's not indicative of the rest of the sound design, which is excellent throughout. The voice acting is also well above average, with Vince in particular sounding somewhat like I'd imagine Bruce Campbell would if he were making the Saturday morning rounds.

The XBox had been lacking a first-rate exclusive platformer, and Voodoo Vince has firmly entrenched itself as the best of the genre currently available on the console. Platformer fans should absolutely give Voodoo Vince at least a rental, and its easy-to-swallow list price of $39.99 makes a purchase even more palatable. Highly Recommended.

Other Notes: The back cover of the manual has a cutout of Vince for sadistic gamers who want to torch or dismember their own voodoo doll. The disc also includes video previews for Grabbed by the Ghoulies, XBox Music Mixer, True Fantasy Live, Amped 2, Links 2004, Top Spin, NBA Inside Drive 2004, and NHL Rivals 2004.