Splash Cars, a new release for consoles developed by Paper Bunker and published by eastasiasoft, is a lovely idea in principle. Describing itself as a game about freedom of expression and anti-authoritarianism, Splash Cars tasks you with driving a series of automobiles around some attractive low-poly environments that, initially at least, are presented in greyscale.
Rather than racing around circuits or defeating opponents in vehicular combat, your goal in Splash Cars is simple: bring colour back to a lifeless world by spewing paint out of your car. The more of the stage you cover, the more bonuses you unlock, up to a maximum of three “stars” worth of bonuses.
The challenge factor comes from your rapidly declining fuel level, which can be topped up with green jerrycans scattered randomly around the environment, and the unwanted attention of the police, who will chase after you and attempt to damage you until you can go no further. In practice, the latter is more of an inconvenience than a threat, but the rate at which your fuel declines is… pretty ridiculous, to be honest.
This was my first sign that something wasn’t quite right with Splash Cars. I was already a little wary of it for using the “three stars” mechanic that has been beloved of mobile games since the earliest days of the iPhone App Store, and even more so when between every stage I was bombarded with multiple types of currency, two different “levelling” meters to unlock stuff and in-game content being branded as “rare” for some inexplicable reason.
But when I got to the fourth level and found it literally impossible to finish with the provided fuel and collectible power-ups, I could very much smell an all too familiar stink: the rancid stench of free-to-play mobile gaming.
To clarify, Splash Cars for console is not a free-to-play game, thankfully — there are no microtransactions at all — but it did originate as an ad-supported mobile game with in-app purchases, limited energy mechanics and all the other bullshit that everyone has been complaining loudly about for years, but still inexplicably puts up with. And, as anyone who has spent any amount of time with the very worst that mobile gaming has to offer will attest, “fixing” the scourge of free-to-play for a premium-priced release is much more complex than just removing the microtransactions.
Free-to-play is built around the concept of “fun pain“, you see — a particularly odious term coined by Roger Dickey of Zynga during the genesis of the free-to-play mobile and social gaming boom in the early 2010s. “Fun pain” describes the idea of something that is simultaneously mildly enjoyable and slightly frustrating, and the two elements very much interact with one another.
Optimally monetised mobile games provide just enough enjoyable gameplay to capture your attention, then hit you with something that is annoying enough to make you want to pay money to bypass it: a long wait time, an inconvenient number of things to tap on or, indeed, a sudden and seemingly insurmountable difficulty spike. There’s just enough fun to make you want to keep playing, and just enough pain for you to be willing to do whatever it takes to overcome that inconvenience.
In Splash Cars, the fun pain will be obvious when you get to the fourth level. Driving around and recolouring the world is inherently satisfying. It’s a very well-presented game from a visual perspective — though the single musical backing track quickly gets very tiresome. It’s enjoyable to outrun the police and see yourself having a visible, obvious impact on the little diorama that each level is, and the discovery that you can “paint” the vehicles of fellow public servants such as bin lorries so they will continue to colour parts of the level for you in your absence is simply delightful.
But then you see how quickly your fuel gauge declines. And you run out of fuel without having achieved a single star on the level. The game generously offers you the opportunity to “save” yourself, either with one of the limited “free saves” it occasionally provides you with, which doesn’t even fill up your fuel tank to full — or, you guessed it, by spending the in-game currency to pick up where you left off.
Level four is just the first of several levels in Splash Cars that work this way — but they’re not all clustered together, oh no. They’re scattered throughout the complete game in such a way that you have a few levels of thinking “ahh, this is all right, I’m actually having a good time”, but then you’re hit with another difficulty spike that is impossible to surpass. And what’s worse is that even with the “saves” option — which you can only use once per level — many levels are completely impossible to attain a full three stars on when you first encounter them, instead requiring that you return later with better cars.
Thankfully, the absence of microtransactions means that the console version of Splash Cars at least doesn’t expect you to pay up to bypass these difficulty spikes — but instead, you have to take the “free to play” option of simply grinding currency until you can afford a better car. And, of course, unlocking the cars to purchase, which requires grinding of a different resource.
The problem here is that Splash Cars’ console version has had its free-to-play elements stripped out, but it hasn’t been rebalanced in the slightest. The game is still designed around the assumption that its players are going to feel so much “fun pain” that they will be willing to pay up to feel better — but now there’s no option to pay up, your only choice is to either put the game aside in frustration (which I suspect most people will do) or make the pain even worse by grinding endlessly, acquiring in-game currency at an excruciatingly slow rate until you can afford the things you need in order to progress.
It’s a genuine shame, because at its core, Splash Cars is an entertaining and enjoyable game. Had it just been a straightforward game where you drove around a bunch of neighbourhoods painting everything in sight, dodging the police and gradually unlocking cool vehicles as you progress, it would have been an easy recommendation.
But sadly, the complete lack of care with which this game has been ported from free-to-play mobile game to paid digital game for console means that it’s impossible to recommend in its current state. The balance is just way too far off to be in any way enjoyable or compelling — and fixing the problem would require a fundamental rethink of the entire underlying game structure, which I suspect is something that is not going to happen.
I’d say give this one a miss for now, then — and here’s hoping that any other developers hoping to successfully make the jump from free-to-play mobile game to paid standalone game learn from the lessons that this title has to teach!
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