We've supposedly increased our mental acuity with Brain Age (and every knockoff under the sun), yet we still had our minds melted by the vast majority of Downstream Panic! It's a nearly brilliant (and obscenely adorable) blend of puzzle solving, strategic item usage, and Rube Goldberg-like mechanisms.
Like classic puzzler Lemmings before it, Downstream Panic! challenges you to manipulate the environment to guide small critters to safety, and in this case, the convoluted back-story shines the spotlight on fish swept up by a mighty hurricane. As a stream of 100 such cold-blooded carp flows from the top of the screen, you must use bombs, plants, clouds, fans, portals, and several other entirely unrelated items to reroute the water towards the ocean below. Just avoid the massive sharks.
It sounds like a simple enough task - and for the first 15 or so stages (of 80), it generally is. But with increasingly devious level designs and a limited amount of tools in each stage, Downstream Panic! becomes an absolute head-scratcher, and will undoubtedly drive short-tempered players away with its sharp learning curve and high potential for frustration.
Some terribly complex-looking stages had us sweating before the fish even started to fall, and it's rarely a matter of overcoming each obstacle as you reach it - you'll typically scroll around the entire map, slowly piecing together the proper chain of events to save a set amount of fish (between 50 and 95) and move on to the next stage.
While the included puzzles will keep you busy for quite some time, we would have liked to see additional levels sprinkled in early on to ease the transition towards the tough stuff (or at least a better hint system). Additional annoyances come from the extremely precise tools and occasional physics issue, but fast-forward and quick restart buttons make it easy to learn from your mistakes (as well as those of the game).
Aside from the core adventure mode, you can play the stages individually (and obtain additional items) or take on a brutal survival challenge, but the lack of multiplayer modes or a level editor somewhat limit Downstream Panic!'s replay value. Still, these are thin slights against an otherwise engaging puzzler; one we hope doesn't fade from memory due to a light retail presence and serious lack of buzz. C'mon Xbox Live Arcade and/or PlayStation Network version!
Feb 21, 2008