TxK was released by Jeff Minter’s company, Llamasoft, on the PlayStation Vita earlier this year, but became a PlayStation Plus title during the month of September. I feel it necessary to preface this review by stating that if you are a fan of Minter’s work and have followed his games since the early 80’s, you probably won’t need any help deciding. If you happened to simply be a PlayStation Plus subscriber who added the title to your download queue last month and haven’t gotten around to it yet, or were considering purchasing it because the game looked interesting but you missed out in September, read on for out full TxK review.
TxK is a pure arcade experience, having evolved only slightly from the original Tempest and Tempest 2000, the latter of which was also designed by Minter for Atari in 1994. The premise of the game is simple: you control a claw-shaped spaceship that travels about the rim of an object floating in space. Various enemies fire projectiles, shock, or otherwise try to make your life difficult as they make their way up the length of the object. Once an enemy reaches the rim, depending on its type, it will explode you or drag you to your death. Fortunately, though, you are equipped with weaponry and provided abilities and assistance through power-ups so that players with sharp reflexes and an itchy trigger finger can survive the enemy onslaught long enough to complete each of the 100 levels.
The first few levels of the game start out simply enough, but TxK is plagued with infuriating difficulty spikes that drive players mad and leave them wanting to smash their Vita into a wall. I was able to complete all the levels through practice and persistence, but it is most likely that the vast majority of players will never finish the game. There are times when you’ll fight to collect enough power-ups to unlock the jump ability and the assistance of an AI droid to take out enemies and then find yourself restricted to cowering in a corner or small area of the play-field to survive long enough for the level to end. The punishing difficulty of some of the levels only lead to extreme frustration; any sense of accomplishment from finally completing a particularly painful level around the 60’s is overshadowed by the knowledge that there are still more than 30 to go.
the vast majority of players will never finish the game.
There are other times when you’ll practically beg the game for a workable angle to see and attack enemies while the object shifts or rotates along an axis, as TxK is hampered by a seemingly archaic left-right control scheme. The analog stick or d-pad only respond to left and right inputs, often leaving you confused and frustrated as the levels shift about, constantly inverting the controls in later levels. Even if your ship is positioned along a completely vertical axis of the rim, pushing the stick up and down does nothing. This control scheme worked well with the Atari 2600 paddle controller or the arcade cabinets of the early 80’s, but seems out of place in modern control schemes. Tapping the screen is likewise a bit problematic, as your thumb will often touch the screen, inadvertently wasting your bomb. It can be triggered with the press of the circle button as well, but this is of little use when you can’t disable the touchscreen.
Otherwise, the controls seem fairly simple and spot-on, with the X button firing your weapon, the right bumper allowing you to jump, provided you have acquired enough power-ups, as this ability resets after each level, and the left bumper allows you to lean to the left or right to fire weapons into a lane without exposing yourself, though the action is generally too fast-paced for this to be a viable strategy in most scenarios. The level select menu can be a bit slow and clunky to navigate, especially once you reach later stages, as you tap the d-pad left or right to move from one level to the next or up and down to skip forward or backward by nine.
Breaking up the action between levels is a mini-game in which players navigate their ship through the center of a series of rings using the Vita’s gyroscope. This takes some practice to get used to, as it isn’t immediately apparent what you need to do, since the on-screen instructions state that you can use the left analog stick as well, but it seemed to do nothing in my experience. I was able to adjust to tilting the Vita to steer through the rings, but I would often have to change my sitting position to make it respond, and I couldn’t manage to get it to work at all while lying in bed, which seems rather unintuitive considering all the places a handheld is likely to be played. TxK also offers three different modes of play: classic, pure, and survival. None of these modes offer any significant difference from the other, however, with classic allowing you to resume after dying, pure ends the game after you’ve exhausted all your extra lives, and survival mode offers no opportunity to earn extra lives.
Graphically, TxK looks fine. The vector graphics aren’t impressive by any stretch of the imagination, but do suit the retro-style arcade title well. There are always a good number of particle effects happening on screen as you explode enemies or your ship slips into a Star Trek-like warp drive when transitioning between levels. Although other reviews have stated that the game maintains a stable 60 frames-per-second, I noticed several dips when there are a lot of enemies and explosions on the screen, most notably in the last level. Additionally, I experienced a couple obscenely long auto-save times preventing me from quickly restarting a level, and the game crashed a few times during my ten or so hours with it.
The music and sound effects run the gamut from fitting and enjoyable to odd or plain annoying. The electronica soundtrack works really well in the game, but the synthesized voices on the tracks tend to grate on your nerves after you’ve heard it announced that “consciousness is a feedback between the soul and the mind’s eye” for the 30th time when restarting a level. The effects, though, seem normal enough at first, but you’ll soon be scratching your head wondering exactly why the game moos as you pass through a ring in a bonus level, unless you’ve come to expect the quirkiness from Llamasoft games. In later stages of the bonus levels, you’re treated to some rather adult sound effects as you pass through targets. Strangely enough, it all seems to work within the trippy, psychedelic context of the game.
Overall, TxK isn’t terrible; it does offer some sense of accomplishment for players willing to subject themselves to the torturous entirety of the game. However, players who prefer a more strategic, less reflex-heavy arcade experience may want to look elsewhere, and those who become easily frustrated will want to save their money and their nerves, skipping this one altogether.
*Story category omitted, as it wasn’t fair to include it for an arcade game where no story is present or expected
TxK is does offer some fun if you're into chasing high scores, but blisteringly difficult gameplay may put off the majority of players who don't have the patience to die over, and over, and over.