Metanet Software has come a long way with its acclaimed N series. Ten years ago, the studio launched N as a freeware Flash game, and released an expanded version on consoles a few years later. Fans of the series have had to wait a long time for the sequel, but it's finally here, and it positively dwarfs its predecessors. With a frankly ridiculous 2,360 levels across a variety of modes, N++ is truly a plus-size platformer.
The premise of the game is pure and simple: you control a stick figure ninja, traversing screen-sized levels to unlock the door in each as quickly as possible. You're given 90 seconds to complete each episode (a set of five levels), which doesn't sound like a lot, but scattered throughout each level are gold pieces, each granting you a further two precious seconds upon collection. That's all there is to it: run, jump, hit the trigger, and get to the door.
It might sound like there's not a whole lot to N++ in terms of gameplay, and that's because, really, there isn't – but that's sometimes a positive thing. Here we have a concise and clean game that can be a refreshing break from the complex, multifaceted juggernauts that dominate our disc drives. This is a straight and true, no-nonsense platformer – and that's great.
That's not to say that it's an easy breezy experience; the controls do take a little time to get used to, and the levels can get very difficult later on as more complex combinations of enemies and hazards are thrown at you. N++ does ease you in with some straightforward levels, and then slowly folds in the door switches, mines, and death rays, among others. Naturally, as you progress, unlocking that door becomes increasingly hard to do, but the curve feels expertly judged, and you find yourself improving at the same rate as the levels get tougher.
Luckily, the minute-to-minute gameplay feels absolutely spot on, so as the challenge ramps up, you'll always be hungry for one more go. The platforming is heavily momentum-based and requires precision. As your character starts running, he can feel surprisingly slow and heavy, but he accelerates quickly and behaves exactly how you'd expect. Holding down X will give you a higher jump, you can wall jump to your heart's content, and you can adjust your trajectory in mid-air. All of this combined with the many hazards means that you will see your ninja careening across the screen like a ping-pong ball in a tumble drier, but once you learn the game's rhythm, it feels utterly superb to control.
Some players may find that N++ gets a little too hectic, as death comes in many forms, and it comes often. We didn't find dying frustrating, though, as it is only ever a result of your actions – a mistimed jump triggering a mine, for example. One hit from an enemy or hazard is all it takes, but fortunately, restarting is just as swift, with a quick tap of X immediately placing you back at the beginning.
A game like this that relies so much on timing and player skill would fall apart if the performance was poor, but there are no worries of that here. This is one of the slickest, smoothest gameplay experiences we've played for a while. We never came across one dropped frame or glitch at any point during our play time. N++ also looks as good as it feels to play, with a beautiful minimalist aesthetic – all sharp edges and wonderfully vibrant colours. It even gives you a multitude of colour schemes to choose from if you fancy a change. Metanet brought in graphic designer MASA to help with the game's looks, and it shows. The music is perfectly suited, with a selection of electronica providing a pumping soundtrack.
Metanet's sense of humour is prevalent in this game. An option in the main menu is 'Story', which features a short yet delightfully self-aware backdrop to all the running and jumping. Deaths are often quite funny, too; they're so swift and restarts so immediate, that we found ourselves laughing more than anything. The game also says "Oops" every time, which helps lighten your spirits when you've just failed attempt 46.
If you somehow make it out of Solo mode with all your DualShocks intact, you can tackle the local Co-Op and Race modes with up to three friends. The co-op levels are even harder than the single player, and require players who are in sync and focused. These remind us of the tricky co-op levels in Portal 2 – they take a little bit of brain power to figure out sometimes. Just one player needs to touch the opened door to achieve success, so occasionally the other players must sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
Race mode is more chaotic, with the focus placed on getting to the exit first. Your score is, again, based on your time remaining, so the winner after the episode is over is the player with the most time left overall. Finishing spawns a homing missile, making it even harder for straggling players to succeed. Both of these modes make for some hilarious, arm-punching multiplayer.
The amount of levels across Solo, Co-Op and Race is staggering, and though they only occupy a single screen each, there will be players who will find great depth in trying to beat their personal best score for each episode, as well as playing to outdo their friends. Speed runners will love this aspect, climbing the leaderboards and pulling off increasingly impressive manoeuvres.
There will also be players who want to make their own levels and share them with the world, and N++ caters for them too. The editor doesn't have in-depth tutorials like LittleBigPlanet, but it is a far more concise and simple set of tools. We created and published a small level in about 15 minutes, after some slight confusion with the editor controls. Thankfully the controls are detailed onscreen when editing, so you shouldn't get too lost, but it does take a bit of getting used to.
The culmination of a decade's worth of iteration, Metanet's latest is a success in every sense. It's super stylish, feels excellent to play, and has that tough-but-fair balance just right. There may only be a few modes, but within them lie a vast number of levels, and when you're done, you can browse for even more created by players. This certainly won't be a game for everyone, as some people may find it too difficult and possibly a little obtuse. However, for those who like a hard-as-nails platformer and want a fresh compelling experience, you can't do much better than N++.