Review: Elebits (Wii)

[ editorial ]
To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from Elebits. I was kind of put off by the demo at last year's E3, in particular the long-winded movie of all of the Elebits dancing. It just looked like a bunch of overweight salarymen shuffling around in an embarrassing stupor. Not the best criteria to form an opinion of a game on, I know, but still. The game looked pretty simple in general, though, and I foresaw a quick and shallow excursion that suffered from the typical low quality of most titles that float, belly-up, in the quagmire that surrounds a hardware launch.

After I got my Wii, I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time in the photo channel's puzzle game. Not because I'm particularly enamored by that fashion of puzzlery, but because I found myself almost hypnotized by the novelty of "pointing at junk". Zelda was great and all, but it wasn't really a Wii game. I needed something that would let me revel in my primal need to point at junk. Elebits, as it turned out, was that something. My former disdain for the title was overridden by a marvelous new appetite for destruction, and the game entered my collection without delay.

I think it's fair to describe Elebits as a combination of Katamari Damacy and the gravity gun from Half Life 2. Aside from similar stylistic choices to the former, the main overlap is in the "interact with small things until you become able to interact with larger ones" gameplay style. You use your "capture gun" to tear up your surroundings, limited to objects of a certain weight when you start, and increase your capacity for destruction by finding and consuming a certain class of Elebit. Levels end when you achieve a critical "wattage", accomplished by accumulating a vast array of various Elebits, though you can continue playing until your time limit runs out in an attempt to improve your score.

The mechanics themselves prove to be exceedingly intuitive—a hallmark trait for a game developed entirely around the Wii's interface. The main game really only uses one button (technically two, but they do the same thing), and all actions are performed by moving the Wii Remote in a logical fashion. You pull out drawers, open cabinets, twist faucets, and heave dressers down stairways as if you were manipulating them via a magnetic pool cue. There are no "gestures" where you perform an arbitrary action to create a similar in-game effect; all actions are based on pointer-positioning and remote-twisting. For the most part, you can easily do what the game expects of you, though there are definitely times where items will simply refuse to behave the way you want them to—especially when trying to make objects physically interact with other ones.

Curiously enough, despite my initial concerns, Elebits hardly feels like a "launch window" title. While it's true that the game engine itself feels fairly primitive at times, the actual feature set is surprisingly robust. Initial game media focused entirely on the inside of a house and interactions with various household objects, but that really only comprises about half of the game's locales. The environment opens up significantly, and the number of levels ended up being much higher than I was expecting. There's a ton of variety, with new classes of Elebits, occasional sound and destruction limitations, and even varying levels of gravity.

You'll also be able to unlock a wide array of enhancements as you play through the main game. Each level comes with three additional modes: score, challenge, and eternal. You access these by locating three devilishly hidden pink Elebits scattered throughout each level. Score lets you replay the level with an emphasis on maximizing your wattage, challenge is a trial of accuracy and speed in a custom-designed scenario, and eternal removes all time limits and restrictions and lets you try to find every single Elebit in the level at your own pace. It's worth noting what while many challenges are definitely doable if you're relatively competent, certain ones seem absolutely impossible. Even my most blazingly amazing runs leave me only half-way done before the time limit is met. If you're the type to leave no challenge unconquered, wrist-straps are definitely recommended. There will be rage. My god will there be rage.

The extras don't stop with the additional modes. There are hidden items in certain stages that permanently enhance your abilities, other enhancements obtained by beating challenge levels, a viewing gallery for every object in the game, another gallery for every Elebit type, a screenshot-taking utility that lets you send images to your friends online, and even a full level-editing mode that's also online-compatible. You choose any environment from the main game and place objects and Elebits to your heart's content—or at least until they tell you to stop. You can construct an elaborate maze of houses and trucks, or even a ludicrous series of upended objects that replicates a game of dominoes.

While the editing mode is neat in its own right, though, I can't help by find myself turned off by various limitations. For example, you can't place "power" Elebits. This means the entire "leveling up" mechanic is utterly absent from custom level play; even electric appliances that would typically spit out power Elebits now just produce normal ones. That's my second complaint, actually. While you can choose to place objects that contain Elebits, you have no idea how many or what type will be in the object until you play the level and find out for yourself. The limitations lead to a clear conclusion: you can't create levels that reproduce the feel of the single player game. It's really just a huge sandbox, which isn't what I was hoping for.

What the game does successfully deliver on is the promise of pointing at junk. I've never pointed at so much junk in my life. There really is a lot of satisfaction derived from the sheer act of interacting with your surroundings. It's a game that I can doubtlessly dub impossible on non-Wii hardware, as every aspect of its design is based on the idea of tactile interaction. There's a certain level of enjoyment derived from trudging down a hallway and casually flicking items out of your path. The physics can be floaty at times, but I can imagine a perfectly realistic physics model making many of the crazy things you can do in this game impossible—things like tossing a semi-truck into the air, grabbing the Elebits beneath it, and catching it again in mid-air only to chuck it a block down the street.

It definitely would have been nice if more effort were placed on making the game run smoothly, though. I'm not usually a framerate stickler, but Elebits really does chug. Even in places where it doesn't seem like there's any reason for the game to slow down, you'll really start to feel the slowness—which isn't helped by your character's super-slow walking speed. Occasionally the game will actually jump up to a very high framerate for seemingly no reason, which makes you even more aware of the generally slow clip the game runs at normally.

Elebits really caught me by surprise. It's not like I was expecting it to be awful; on the contrary, I was really looking forward to it right before I got it. What I wasn't expecting was a fully-fledged title rife with modes and extras. I could go back to it and sink in another 10-20 hours easily, trying to get the rest of those pink Elebits and complete some more of those damn challenges. If anything, it's proven to me that if a developer really sits down and thinks about it, they can make a Wii game that uses the system's functionality in an intelligent fashion, instead of just tacking it onto a tech demo or a game initially designed around conventional controls. Here's hoping that the rest of the development community can catch up.