As we played Color Pals, we stopped to imagine the game it could have been. It’s really not a hard ideal to form in our minds: Color Pals isn’t too far away from it. But with unerring timing, just as things got good, Color Pals would crap the bed. It turned a standout premise into a spluttering mess.
For a budget indie title, the premise really is that good. To stay alive, you need to stay in the sections of a level that are your colour. If you’re green, you need to stick to green floors and green walls. Step onto red ones and you’re a goner.
But the exit is often in areas that are not your colour. So what do you do? Well, in Color Pals, you can hit colour-changing paint pots that switch you to the hue you need, but you need to time it right. Jump from a green platform into a red paint pot, and then land on a red platform, and you will survive. Additional complication comes from that red paint pot disappearing: you’ve exhausted it, so you better have used it at the right time.
Through these simple mechanics, you have ambrosia for puzzle-platformers. Because, on the puzzle side, you have a mechanic that means you have to carefully order the colour-changes and where you need them. On the platforming side, you have to time your jumps so you land on the right colours and don’t nick yourself on the wrong ones. It’s an obstacle course where the enemy, the hazard, is the level itself. You don’t need goombas or zombies when the floors and walls are the ones that can kill you.
It’s all rather clever, and – like all the best ideas – feels so elegant that we wonder why no other game has really done it before (we’re waiting to be told otherwise: undoubtedly there’s a game that’s covered this ground, but we can’t recall it). Yet, why are we here, telling you not to pick Color Pals up?
Chief among the reasons is some shoddy controls and collision detection. We don’t know why it’s so poor – perhaps Double Mizzle got so enamoured that it didn’t bother to refine its execution.
Make a jump, and any number of frustrating events can occur. We found ourselves caught on the side of platforms, unable to move, with the only option to jump and swan dive to our doom. We were able to land on wrong-coloured platforms and survive, yet we could also land miles away from them and die. We’d get caught on pixels that stopped us moving for reasons that Color Pals would refuse to reveal. Altogether, Color Pals is a technically slipshod game, full of rough edges.
The interfaces kept making us check for joystick drift. Because, after every level, we would find a different option highlighted. Sometimes, the ‘next level’ would be highlighted, other times ‘menu’ and other, other times it would be ‘replay’. It meant that we would end a level and accidentally replay it or skip to the main menus. We couldn’t even successfully complete a level and feel good: we’d get ejected based on interface shenanigans.
There’s a distinct lack of charm in the art, too. You’d be hard-pushed to look at Color Pals and think it’s an attractive game. It has ‘make-do’ graphics that achieve a baseline expectation of being clear. We’ve played 79p games on the Xbox Store that look more premium than Color Pals.
Saving the day to a degree is the level design. It’s never as intricate or as interesting as it could be, and there are some odd difficulty troughs, as you overcome a hard level only to find yourself in one that is vastly less challenging. But the levels are made with care. The designs chuck in Mario-like Thwomps, keys and harder platforming sequences to accent either the puzzling or the platforming side.
But they’ve also got a generic whiff about them, as – over the fifty levels – precious few additions are offered to the level designers. With a few more tools and traps, Color Pals could have done more with its colour-switching premise. What you’re left with is Thwomps and keys that don’t actually leverage the colour mechanics: they could have been included in any platformer, rather than one that threatened to be as original as this one.
We can imagine the ideal Color Pals. First, we’d create a charismatic main character, artfully designed. Then we’d sharpen up those platforming controls, creating something intuitive and without constant, strange edge-cases where the character gets caught on a pixel. The collision detection, too, would get a tweak.
With that in the bag, we’d move on to the levels. We’d give the developers more time to come up with hazards that play to the colour-switching strengths. Perhaps the player could activate paint cannons that re-colour walls, or would be able to mix paint to survive on multiple colours. There must be something that makes use of the colour stuff.
But daydreaming about the ideal Color Pals gets us nowhere. We’re stuck with the reality: a game with a great idea that failed to exploit it. Then it implemented controls that would have been dismissed as clumsy on a ZX Spectrum. Colour us disappointed.