The PSP has no shortage of racing games, nor is it lacking puzzle games. What it doesn't have any of, however, is puzzle/racing games. That's the niche that Gripshift fills. Think of it as Super Monkey Ball, but without super monkeys, and cars instead of balls. It's an interesting concept, and there's a tremendous amount of things to do, but floaty controls and frustrating gameplay keep it from being as much fun as Sega's wacky game.
When you start the game you select a car, each with its own unique handling. After customizing its looks, you select a driver. The drivers have no effect on the car's performance, and are just there for aesthetic purposes. The courses, which all float in the sky, involve getting from start to the finish in a certain amount of time, while collecting stars along the way. There are no railings, which means it's "one and done" if you stray from the course. Depending on your time you can earn a Gold, Silver, or Bronze medal, but collecting all of the stars seems to be the main goal. If you collect them all on a course you earn credits which can be used to unlock new levels, vehicles, skins, and characters. There's also a GS(Gripshift) icon hidden on each level, and it's worth a credit if you collect it. They're pretty tough to get, so only the hardcore players will even want to bother.
The first group of courses are easy, and are designed to get you acclimated to the game's unique controls. Just so we're on the same page here, when I say "unique" I really mean "bad." Your car slides all over the place, momentum is hard to judge because gravity feels like it's about half of what it is on Earth, and using the d-pad or analog stick to correct these issues is nothing more than a crapshoot. In fact, the controls are so bad in Gripshift, that instead of fixing them, the developers decided to let you brake in mid-air. This is certainly better than just leaving broken controls in the game, but in no way, shape, or form does it make any sense.
As the courses get more difficult, nitro, moving platforms, teleporters, jumps, and extra time icons are introduced. The game is most enjoyable at its simplest, and these gimmicks don't do much but ruin the flow of the game. Instead of driving around trying to stay on course, you're forced to guess which way a transport will take you, or calculate how fast you need to hit a jump. Unfortunately, it's all trial and error, and you don't know if you were right until you've taken a leap of faith. When you do die, you can immediately restart the level and there's no loading, so at least the game gets that right. In fact, the load times throughout the whole game are quite fast and never a bother.
In addition to "puzzle" levels, there are races sprinkled in occasionally. Here you race one other car, but winning does nothing for you. You've still got to collect all the stars or you don't get any credits. That's right – winning the race and getting 24/25 stars is as good as driving off the edge of the course right off the bat. There are weapons and nitro on the track, so really all you have to do is keep close, make sure you get the stars and then blast your opponent right at the end – it's just not very much fun.
Mini-games such as penguin bowling and soccer; similar to what was found in Super Monkey Ball can be unlocked, and while they're a pleasant diversion, most people won't stick with the single-player mode long enough to unlock them all. There's also a playground where you must collect 100 stars in under 10 minutes in a giant bowl-shaped level, complete with loops and jumps. Since it's so hard to judge if you're going to hit a star while in mid-air, the last few stars are insanely frustrating, and being that you get nothing if you don't collect every single one, this mode's a dud.
One feature that's good, but unlikely to be used by most people is the track editor. You can make a course from scratch and even share it with friends wirelessly. It takes a little while to get the hang of, but if you're patient, you can make some very cool courses. It's great watching a friend plummet off the edge of one of your creations while you cackle over their shoulder.
Gripshift, from a technical standpoint looks fine. The framerate is solid and runs at a consistent 30fps. There are some decent effects like lens flare, smoke, and fire, but nothing too exciting. Seeing the action can be difficult since none of the available camera angles are perfect. The close camera view is great for racing, but poor for seeing the stars, while the high camera makes it tough to see what's in front of you. Like the game's entire concept, the visuals don't exude any creativity. The cars and characters are average, and could have been ripped from any number of games or cartoons. The levels, outside of the course are almost entirely empty, and they too aren't anything particularly interesting.
The music in Gripshift isn't bad, but its mix of hip hop and dance tunes won't appeal to everyone. Despite there being no big names, the songs are all of decent quality – which is something that EA Trax can't ever seem to pull off. The characters will talk smack to each other during races and scream when they plunge off the edge of a course, and that's about it. If you never turned the sound on for your entire experience, you wouldn't miss out, but overall, the sound's not bad.
If Gripshift's controls were anything resembling playable, the objectives were time-based instead of focused on collecting, and the game had a little bit of personality, Sidhe and Sony Online might have a sleeper hit on their hands. If you're curious, it's worth a rental, but at its current price tag of $40, there's simply not enough to Gripshift to make it a compelling purchase.