The gaming market these days is increasingly full of genre-hybrids: the action-shooter, the puzzle-platformer, the rhythm-simulator, the metal-adventure-RTS (Tim Schafer, how do you come up with these things?). In such a conceptual melting pot, it's hard to imagine anyone could come up with yet another genre mutation. Somehow though, modest little DS game WireWay does it, adding yet another conceptual genetic variant to the gameplay mix.
WireWay looks at first like your garden variety puzzle-action-adventure game. The thing is, it doesn't play that way. Really, the game could more accurately be called an “un-platformer”; it plays just like a platformer without containing a single one. WireWay's Quest Mode is about cute, bite-sized alien Wiley Springer and his TV monitor-headed buddy Refresh. One day, Wiley notices Refresh's latest UFO-bay purchase—a shiny bit of cosmic energy called “Elan”, and an obsession is born. From then on, Wiley and Refresh's main purpose in life is to get rich by collecting as much of the universe's Elan as they can. That is, until Wiley lays eyes on a sexy little girl alien named Cythera. From then on, it's all about defeating an alien Boss and his alien gang in order to get their hands—er, pincers on the Super Elan, something Cythera desperately wants.
WireWay's “unplatformer” gameplay is exceedingly simple and surprisingly fun. Instead of navigating the environments by jumping onto or climbing ledges, Wiley moves around via wires set at different intervals. Wiley hangs from these wires by his spindly little arms and you slingshot him where he wants to go by using the stylus to pull the wires up or down then letting them go. You can aim Wiley toward other wires using the handy trajectory indicator, or send him zinging all over the place by bouncing him off collections of pinball-like bumper balls. An occasional double-thick super wire can also be used to shoot Wiley even faster and farther than usual, which can be extremely helpful in getting to some of those hard-to-reach places.
The purpose of all this flinging and zinging is twofold; to collect as many Elan stars as possible, and to reunite with buddy Refresh at the end of the level. Collecting Elan is as easy as making contact with the stars via jumping or falling, which is a good thing considering how important they are. Not only does collecting the minimum requirement of Elan give you access to “Wired Up” mode (which makes every wire a super wire for a short time), it prevents you from meeting an untimely death. Solid as he is, Wiley can still be hurt by falling rocks or enemy fire but as long as he has at least one Elan star in his possession, he'll be alright. In addition to Elan, if you look carefully, you'll find little pink puzzle pieces which unlock options allowing you to customize Wiley's appearance and voice in the main menu.
In between Quest Mode levels, the story plays out in short still-frame sequences, although these seem to have a disappointingly minimal effect on gameplay. Where story and gameplay mainly intersect is when bosses appear to challenge Wiley every few levels. These bosses vary (you might face a dinosaur, a boss alien or a giant chicken) but all are defeated the same way—by gathering enough Elan to gain a temporary protective shield, then flinging Wiley repeatedly into the boss's vulnerable body part. It's tougher than it sounds and at first, figuring out how to do it can be a wee bit frustrating. Story is also vaguely hinted at through each level's art, which incorporates environments like alien planets, lava flows and underwater locations. Aside from giving the nod to WireWay's narrative, the different environments also affect gameplay, though not as much as they probably should. Some levels feature swirly wind gusts that'll throw off your aim, sending Wiley tumbling all the way back to the bottom of the level and others have a low-gravity affect, making control more difficult as your jumps drift farther than they normally would.
With its many variants, WireWay offers up an extremely simple premise that stays interesting much longer than you'd think. Once you've mastered the basics, you can learn to use things like Wiley's “Super Flick”, an advanced move that sends him flying to ridiculous heights when you catch him in mid-flick and forward him on using a second stretched wire. You can also touch Wiley when he's in mid-air to make him air jump which is very useful for reaching those wires that are just out of reach. The levels get more challenging too as you go, adding in teleportation portals, hazards (like spike-filled pits), more difficult wire placement and more areas to explore. In some of the more complex levels, where you find yourself zooming all over the screen like some super-charged rubber ball, the game often feels like the highly-rated N+, without the frustration.
In addition to Quest Mode, WireWay has two Challenge Modes: Flick Trials and Strategery. Flick Trials challenges you to navigate through an environment using only a limited number of flicks while Strategery functions almost like a level editor, allowing you to place wires and bumpers wherever you like. This creates some amusingly unpredictable results and gives players some real insight into how well the main game's levels were designed for maximum flickage. If you get tired of keeping your WireWay skills all to yourself, you can jump into Versus Mode and show off for up to four other people in multi-lap races via DS Download and Play (meaning only one player needs to have the game for everyone to play.)
WireWay is most definitely about gameplay more than aesthetics but even so, most gamers will get a kick out of its flat, cartoon cutout style. Sound too is good if pretty bare-bones; there's not much in the way of VO aside from the cute little “d'oh!” and “whee!” sounds made by Wiley when he's jumping around. The game's music fares slightly better, being obviously indebted to John Williams' Star Wars music. You might think this is a coincidence until all doubt is removed by Wiley's meeting with a very Yoda-like mentor named Kundo.
WireWay is a surprisingly entertaining little game. While the main Quest Mode is a bit short at about four hours, the game offers considerable replay value with its Challenge and Versus Modes. Featuring quirky artwork, a suitably silly storyline and simple but varied gameplay that can be enjoyed in short, five minute chunks, it's perfect for a commute or for those much-needed mid-day gaming breaks. That said, the game feels somewhat overpriced at $29.99 so rather than buying it new, try buying it used, renting it, or waiting a month for the price to go down.