Do you remember Avatar: The Last Airbender – Scorched Earth on the 360? We do. It was THE game for Gamerscore, as we swapped the game with friends so that we could all churn through its combos for 1000G in the space of roughly five minutes. It was from a time when that sort of thing mattered, or felt like it mattered.
If Lab Crisis released back in 2007 with that game, it would have been heralded as some kind of Second Coming. It is a geyser of achievements, and spending five minutes in its presence means that you get soaked with Gamerscore. We’re not talking 1000G, either. For reasons that we can’t fathom (but we’re not going to contact Microsoft in case they take them away from us), Lab Crisis is 2000G. For five minutes of play. Take that, Aang.
Now, that’s clearly not a statement of quality, but for a subgroup of players, it’s important. We’ve stuck it at the top of the review because the rest of Lab Crisis is so devoid of anything else notable. Simply put, nothing else about Lab Crisis deserves to go in those first two paragraphs. In gameplay terms, it’s almost apologetically bland.
But we’re professionals, so here we go. Lab Crisis follows the events immediately after an experiment gone wrong, as three laboratories have to be evacuated following an outbreak. You play a robot, sent into the various levels of those labs to retrieve scientists, who seem to have been shocked into standing completely still by the monsters they have created.
So, you’re wandering top-down mazes, collecting scientists who then chug along behind you like a game of Snake on the Nokia 3310. The more scientists you collect, the longer the tail, which simultaneously makes you more prone to being caught by monsters. Except, the monsters have a glaring weak point: they only move towards you or a scientist when they are in the same row or column as them. If you’re seen, the monster crawls towards you, one square at a time.
There’s a touch of Crypt of the Necrodancer to the mechanic, as monsters and scientists move in unison, square by square, and you’re judging whether your path leaves you in a position of safety. As a gimmick it works reasonably well. We’ll ignore how stupid it makes the monsters and scientists seem, but there are glimmers of cleverness in the use of the concept: you can use monsters to block other monsters, for example, giving you a handy path to the exit.
Nobbles include some keycards for opening gates and doors, as well as trapdoors that open and shut at similarly rhythmic intervals. Trap a monster on the hole and they will disappear, leaving you to guide the scientists to the door without fear.
All of this plays out in thirty levels, spread across three laboratories (nothing really distinguishes one lab from another). Now, here’s the timeline for Lab Crisis: after about five, maybe ten, minutes, you will have gained the 2000G. They’re spaffed out at such a rate that the Xbox can’t keep up, and you’ll be unable to see the bottom of the screen. Once the achievements are done popping, you will quickly realise that you’re on level ten of thirty, and will start to question how substantial Lab Crisis is. And you’ll be right to question it, as Lab Crisis is over in roughly thirty minutes. It is so thin that the scientists could have used it as gauze.
Does it at least challenge you while it’s there? Not particularly. It’s a light massage of the brain temples, only occasionally engaging. We can’t recall failing particularly often – most of those deaths were because we were fiddling about with the mechanics to see what was possible – and the same tactic put us in good stead for the full half hour.
That tactic probably shouldn’t have been allowed. In Lab Crisis, you can lead single scientists at a time to the exit gate and their freedom. Since monsters are ‘triggered’ more often and are harder to pass when you have a longer tail, then there is no reason to ever build one up. The best approach is to deliver your scientists to the door one at a time, yet that process undermines any challenge that Lab Crisis might have had.
We can’t help but imagine the version of Lab Crisis that demands you build a long snake tail and protect it, working out the best order of collecting scientists while keeping them at a tentacle’s length of the enemies. That version of Lab Crisis would have been devious. Hell, it could have been a harder difficulty mode of Lab Crisis, or a source of collectibles. But no: instead, Lab Crisis takes the easy way out – it lets you stash your scientists in safe spots willy-nilly, and it dulls the fun by doing so.
Without the difficulty and campaign length, Lab Crisis has the outline of a demo rather than a full game. It’s not a failure of a demo: the single gimmick was engaging enough that we wanted to keep playing beyond the motherlode drop of 2000G, and there are probably two or three puzzles where we had to think about what we were doing, and even planned ahead in some form. But it’s Crypt of the Necrodancer shrivelled down to become a single raisin. Which tastes nice enough, we suppose.
There is an audience for Lab Crisis. It’s just a shame that the audience will be achievement hunters, who will see this as a significant bounty: 2000G in the space of five minutes. For more discerning players with an appetite for puzzling, we’d suggest that there are far more substantial and memorable crises out there.
You can buy Lab Crisis from the Xbox Store