Puzzle games and handhelds. Like peanut butter and jelly, the two have always gone hand in hand with one another. Thanks to the overwhelming success of Tetris and the GameBoy, puzzle games always seem better suited on handhelds, as opposed to consoles. That is not to say that there's anything wrong with console puzzle games, it's just that playing them on the go feels right. Downstream Panic is the latest puzzle game for the PSP, and while it may not sound like much, this little colorful title is quite the gem.
The premise is extremely simple, safely drain the streaming fishes down a path, and avoid having them eaten by piranhas and sharks positioned on each map. You'll be given a host of items to use, all of which will aid you in succeeding. Additionally, your usage of each item has to be precise, because you aren't given any extras. So if a stage requires you to plant three flowers, then you'll only be given three flowers, which means you have to play carefully!
Luckily, before each level begins, you have the opportunity to scope it out, navigate around it and see what should go where – planning your route, basically. If you plan wrong, you may divert the stream of fish into the mouth of a sleeping piranha, or into the mouths of gnawing sharks waiting at the bottom. If you plan right, then your fishies will stream down into a safe zone situated in the water, and you'll progress into the next stage.
Items such as flowers can be planted to be used as barricades that'll prevent the stream of fish from going a direction you don't want them to go. You'll be given rockets to create holes, because many of the stages will feature closed off sections that'll require some demolition. In addition to that, harpoons will be at your disposal so that you could get rid of a piranha or two. But the items aren't available in every stage you visit; some stages will have just one item, others will have two, and so on. As you move through the game you'll be given more items to use: such as a fan which moves clouds and activates hidden flowers; an item that freezes water briefly; an attractor that helps the fish make their way into safer waters, and a fishing net to collect abandoned fish.
Then there are level items, such as rotating drainages that are made out of seashells. Some of the drainages are automatic, some can be toggled on and off manually. There are also a number of different clouds in the game that can be used to your advantage, but also must be used strategically – there are stormy clouds (lightning bolt), snow clouds (create ice and snow), and rain clouds (more water or can store and transport fish). When you're not playing with the clouds, you can hit a few teleporting spots, too. In addition to piranhas, toxic mushrooms and spikey chestnuts will hurt fish, so avoid those. But if you see seeds, they'll grow into flowers at the touch of water or wind. And if you see an egg in a stage, it most likely has a purpose (for instance, to plug a large gap/hole).
As you can see, despite looking like a simple little puzzle game, Downstream Panic features a good dose of intricacies to immerse the gamer. There's a solid amount of strategy involved per puzzle, and even when you think something just isn't possible, that just means you're overlooking something. With 80 puzzles to complete, Downstream Panic will have you going for quite a while. And with a number modes to come back to (Story, Freeplay, and Survival), Downstream Panic makes for quite a lengthy title.
I will say that towards the second half of the game, the puzzles do become very challenging and frustrating. So if you hate being challenged, then this game isn't for you. But if you enjoy a brain-pick, then Downstream Panic's gameplay will suit you well. And for a solid $30, there's plenty of value in this package.
Visually, the game is very basic and simple. There's a stream of colorful fishies flowing down the stages. They're nothing spectacular or detailed, and look 2D, but they get the job done. But unlike the fish, the piranhas are polygonal to separate and give them a bulkier look. The stages are all set on a two-dimensional plane, with hungry sharks at the bottom, some water, and an environment for you to manipulate and poke holes into. I must admit that the colors are extremely lush and beaming with vibrancy, so despite the simplistic visuals, Downstream Panic is still a very pleasing game to look at.
As far as audio, again, there isn't anything groundbreaking, but damn is it cute. The soundtrack consists of cheery melodies, with cute high-pitched voices singing in the background. Admittedly, I have no idea what the voices are singing, but it's still funny. The music also has a tension increase, so if your fish are approaching danger, you'll hear the track tense up, so act quick! To round it all off, there's the remaining splish-splash sound effects, among a few other noises to complete the package.
Downstream Panic is perhaps the first sleeper hit of the year for the PlayStation Portable. Fans of the puzzle genre should really check the game out, as for a mere $30 it offers a plethora of entertainment and fun. Its addictive gameplay will make sure that you play through all 80 missions, and come back for more. Furthermore, it features a solid amount of depth, and its presentation is quite easy on the eyes. Pick this one up.