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PSP Fanboy review: Downstream Panic!

Don't let its saccharin sweet exterior fool you. Downstream Panic! is one hardcore, ****ing difficult game. The colorful LocoRoco-esque presentation will easily trick gamers into thinking this is for kids. However, when you see your fish friends explode in an amazing display of blood and guts, you will think again.

The basic gameplay of Downstream Panic! is simple to grasp, and the game does a terrific job of teaching players the core essentials throughout the game. Like any good puzzle game, the game is easy to learn, but hard to master. Like in Lemmings, players must use the various tools at their disposal to safely create a path for the adorably helpless fish. Players will have access to bombs, spears, growing plants, and more in an effort to safely navigate the shark-infested, trap-riddled world of Downstream Panic!

Gallery: Downstream Panic

A cute and hilarious CG scene illustrates the ordeal at hand: fish have somehow been magically transported into the sky, and it's up to you to somehow return them to the safety of the oceans below. The game starts innocently enough, with just one tool at your disposal: rockets that blow holes into the terrain. When the level begins, fish will burst free from their bubble at the top of the level, and as the steam of water comes pouring down, players must use their tools to route the stream to safety.

Additional tools are slowly introduced throughout the adventure. For example, you will be able to plant seeds that will grow instantly, and will block the flow of water. You may get a spear that can kill on-screen enemies. There are also fans that activate switches, and an ice beam.

These tools work in tandem with an ever-increasing supply of in-game elements. Enemies are the first thing to worry about. Sharks, for example, will slumber at various points of a stage. Should a hapless fish bump into it, it will be immediately shredded into bloody guts. There are other enemies later on that are even more terrifying: carnivorous fish that actually jump out to your doom, and flying birds that'll stalk you from afar. They are all horrifying.

Additional mechanics are introduced later on. For example, there are bridges that expand and retract whenever water (or wind) passes through a special switch. There are boulders that can be freed to blog certain arterial paths. It's up to the player to figure out how to use the limited resources at hand to take advantage of all the tricks hidden in each stage.

Downstream Panic! requires a great deal of forethought, and masterful execution. To complete a level, players must not only have a certain amount of fish survive, but actually make it to a specific point at the bottom of the stage. For example, if a fish goes too far to the left, they will be eaten by very, very hungry sharks. The buoys at the bottom indicate the "safe zone" for fish to fall into. The requirements for how many fish must survive varies per stage, and it will range anywhere from 55 to 90. It's clear that in later levels, a few sacrifices must be made for the greater good of the troupe.

Not only is the proper placement and use of all the tools vital to one's success, timing is a huge factor. Players must consider when to leak a certain contained area, for example. Water that flows too quickly may clog a certain passage, causing an overflow that will undoubtedly mean the doom for fish. Players will discover that their fish can die in a number of ways -- a single mistake will certainly mean failure in many of the stages.

Ultimately, each of the stages relies on trial-and-error guesswork that'll frustrate many gamers. The amount of things to keep track of, and the number of gameplay elements in use, increases quite rapidly, making every stage after the tenth one quite a challenge. Puzzle gamers will welcome the brain-twisting devilry on display, while others will simply be turned off by the surprising difficulty.

Overall, we were pleasantly surprised by Downstream Panic! It certainly hasn't garnered the attention it rightfully deserves. Not only is the gameplay surprisingly deep, it is challenging. The visual presentation is superb, with fantastic execution of the art. The audio elements may be grating to some, but there are a number of cute, fun tracks that'll have players merrily bouncing to.

There's also a lot of content and replayability. There are a large number of stages, and each of them can be revisited. Within each stage are a number of difficult-to-reach coins -- getting them all while surviving the minimum requirements for success can be qutie a challenge! For even more sadistic challenge, players will try the Survival Mode, which goes through the adventure, without replenishing the player's stock of fishes. Will anyone be able to get through such a daunting challenge in one piece? Unlikely.

An Atari rep told us that Downstream Panic! may be difficult to find in stores due to low retailer demand. That's a shame, really. This is an inventive title that really takes advantage of PSP's incredible power. Yes, it's much too difficult for the average gamer. However, hardcore puzzle fanatics are going to love this daring PSP exclusive.

PSP Fanboy score: 8.0

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