Thursday, 6 March 2014

Review - Nom Nation (PSP Minis / PS Vita)

Playing with your food

The word 'Edutainment' is usually enough to send gamers running for the nearest exit. Whether it's the unnecessary addion of arithmatic or spelling in games such as Donkey Kong Math or Word Rescue, tedious historical searchings in Carmen Sandiego, or the downright laughable (for all the wrong reasons), diabetes related shenanigans in the appalling Captain Novalin, throwing learning into the mix is usually a recipe for boredom. Even Nintendo superstar Mario isn't infalable, with his shoddy educational exploits, Mario Is Missing and Mario's Time Machine proving that the classroom has no place in gaming.

So, we have been bored whilst learning about numbers, words, history and life-long illnesses. Now, probably due to spiralling obesity levels in the Western world, Channel 4 have seen fit to teach us the benefits of a healthy diet. To impart this message they commissioned indie developers, PlayerThree to provide a puzzle platformer for the PSP and iOS which aims to bring home the, rather obvious, message of, vegatables and rice = good. Burgers and sweets = bad. 

The resulting game, Nom Nation tells the frighteningly realistic tale of a large fast food company, the hilariously named McFatAss Corporation, ran by Jabber The Gut, flooding the market with their artery clogging abominations. It is upto the hero, an unamed chef, to right this wrong by shutting Jabber's factory down permanently, and bringing fresh greens, wholegrain pasta and musli into the limelight. Clearly he doesn't consider the fact that people can make their own decisions, choosing instead to force his lentil-munching, food-nazi agenda onto the populace. It all sounds rather like a certain Mr. Oliver, the rubber faced TV chef whose crusade to nag Britain's children into eating healthily failed to make any difference whatsoever, when it turned out that people don't like being told what to do.

Despite the holier-than-thou attitude of the protagonist, his platform-centric exploits are rather engaging and, dare I say it, enlightening - I actually came away from the game with a little extra knowledge about the various items I shove down my word-hole on a regular basis. The aim of Nom Nation is to locate the pages of his healthy eating recipe book, which have been scattered over the ten stages that make up the game world, while avoiding hazards and Jabber's army of burnt bits - tiny black creatures out to do you harm. The stages take place over five different locales, including familiar platforming staples such as forests, fiery caves, icey mountains, a world made of sweets, and a factory - the source of the mass produced swill Jabber is feeding the public. Throughout each level are a large number of edible items, called noms, consumption of which empowers the little chef with temporary special abilities necessary to make your way to the end of the stage. Chef has an ever depleteing energy bar - much like Wonderboy / Adventure Island - which must be kept topped up by chowing down on the noms. These foodsorts belong to one of five food groups, from protein and dairy, to fruit and vegatable, each of which grant the chef with a different power-up; Eating protein foods such as sardines or sausages will empower chef with the strength to punch through breakable walls; chowing down on greens such as sprouts and broccoli will enable him to propel himself skywards via the gift (if you can call it that) of flatulence; whilst sugary treats and drinks will send him into a sugar-induced frenzy, enabling him to dash across the landscape at a speed that would leave Sonic The Hedgehog feeling envious. 

Chef has room in his gut (displayed in the top left of the screen) for two noms at a time, meaning he can mix and match abilities to create freakish, and often undesiarble effects. Munch on a gaseous nom and a strength nom and he can then hurl brick-shattering fart bombs, while wolfing down two sugary treats will lead to projectile vomiting consequences. Noms can also be carried, one at a time, in order to move them to a more suitable part of the stage in order to make the most of their temporary effects. Certain food also alter Chefs appearance, with the obvious culprates such as burgers, nachos, McSlurries (ho ho), kebabs and battered fish turning him into a flabby behemoth. He may no longer be able to see his own junk, but he can fall through breakable floors and use weight-sensitive platforms to reach lower parts of the level. Being a disgusting slob isn't the only option, though. Chef can use the power of exercise - via dancing to the boomboxes that appear in certain areas or, more bizarrely, by stroking a cat - to slim down enough to fit through narrow gaps in the floor. Oddly, this method of weight loss comes with a rather muddled message - exericising causes him to become almost skeletal, complete with 'Way Too Skinny' message emblazoned accross the screen. What is this supposed to be teaching me? That exercising while normal weight will turn me into a bag if bones, capable of slipping through cracks in the pavement? It's hardly the encouraging message I am sure they were going for.

As in real life, cholesterol is a concern. Chef's lives are represented in the classic videogame staple of red hearts. However, here these hearts can be clogged up with fatty muck and eventually stop completely. Each time a fatty nom is devoured, cholesterol is added to one of the quarter segments that make up each heart, turning it a sickly shade of biege, before eventually turning black. Once all four segments reach this sorry state, you die. With no way to reverse this process, special care must be taken to avoid over-consumption of the fattier food types. 

Aesthetically, Nom Nation is delicious (sorry), with some gloriously retro pixel graphics that feature large cutesy sprites and colourful worlds to explore. Accompanying the food-related shenenigans are a handful of fairly laidback chiptune tracks that are pleasing to the ears. The main character is well animated and full of charm, and there are plenty of small background details in the enviroments that bring them to live. The world map is a nice touch, as is the Temple of Nom, which allows you to check out all the noms you have collected on your adventure and test out their effects. The stage-complete screen, which details all the rice grains you collected (Nom Nation's equivilent of coins or rings), and noms you discovered (complete with humourous and educational dietry information) is the icing on the cake. The only thing that lets the presentation side of things down is the occational graphical hiccup in the game - including blocks that shake, and boxes that glitch into each other. These bugs also affect gameplay, with chef often getting stuck in walls or falling through floors, though this is quite rare.

While Nom Nation is great fun to play, it does have several annoying elements that tarnish the experience. The main thing being the enemies you face along the way. The pesky critters can be stunned via the standard head-stomp manoeuvre, then picked up and thrown into other enemies in order to dispatch them. Unfortunately, these irksome monsters are a real pain in the ass due to their speed and erractic movements, and also showcase some fairly iffy collision detection, which often leads to unfair deaths. The flying ones are especially obnoxious, swooping down instantly and repeatedly in order to drain your health without warning. Also ramping up the frustrating factor are the hazards in the last two stages. With huge buzzsaws, spike walls, underwater mines and, worst of all, multiple instant death falls, these stages really test your patience and turn the mood from a light and jovial romp, into something akin to Super Meat Boy's most anger-inducing moments. 

But despite these grievences, Nom Nation comes highly recommended. It's a fun puzzle platform adventure that achieves the almost impossible - improving the experience with the educational elements rather than turning it into a massive snoozefest. It's engaging and informative, and will keep you playing until you have discovered every nom that the game has to offer. Sure, it may lack polish in some areas, and it can cause you to grind your teeth on occasion, but it's charming nature allows you to forgive it. It's also as cheap as chips... sorry, carrot sticks... so if you have a PSP or Vita (or iOS) and have even the smallest interest in the substances you put in your guts, then you owe it to yourself to pick up this tasty little treat. You may even learn something.

Title : Nom Nation
Developer : PlayerThree
Year : 2012
System : PSP / PS Vita (Minis)
Also On : iOS
Price : £1.74
Genre : Platformer, Educational