Based on nothing more than screenshots and a short description you may think that Atari's newest portable puzzle game, Downstream Panic, is nothing more than a LocoRoco rip-off. After all, this is an adorable 2D game that requires you to guide a bunch of happy-go-lucky characters to safety. But in truth Downstream Panic resembles another popular PSP game - Sony's own Lemmings.
While there are certainly differences between these two puzzlers, in theory the two have quite a lot in common with one another. The basic premise, the way you control the game, even the microscopic characters, it all comes out of the Lemmings playbook. Not that this is a bad thing, Lemmings is a fantastic game that has influenced some of the best modern day puzzle games. The sad truth is that twenty years later nobody has been able to match the charm and excitement of the original Lemmings. Heck, I would argue that nobody has even been able to get close ... until now, that is.
Downstream Panic may not be as solid of a game as Lemmings, but it does a damn good job giving this tired formula a fresh coat of paint. This is more than just Lemmings with a facelift (we already have that, it's called <a href="http://www.gamingnexus.com/Article/Lemmings/Item1073.aspx" target="blank_"><b>Lemmings on the PSP</b></a>), this manages to throw in a couple of new twists. It doesn't have as many levels as Lemmings and I have some issues with the variety, but Downstream Panic is a fantastic attempt by Eko System (a company best known for their 3D action games).
The premise of Downstream Panic is simple; it's your job to figure out a way to get every one of your fish into the friendly waters, where they'll be able to breathe and will (hopefully) be safe from predators. Of course, it's not as simple as it sounds. For the most part each of the 2D levels starts with a large floating bubble that houses your fish, after a short countdown the bubble bursts and out comes a steady flow of water and fish. Unfortunately getting your fish to the water below is marred by a number of obstacles, including weird 2D objects, floating platforms and even fish killing creatures.
Thankfully you are able to bypass these obstacles by using the various items that the levels give you. For the most part the game eases you in to using the different items; in the first few levels you are given the opportunity to use only one item at a time, allowing you to experiment with your new found tools. Some of these items make a lot of sense, such as a bomb that blows up a big chunk of the land (thus allowing your pod of fish to get that much closer to the water below). Other items include a fan (which is good for creating wind), a harpoon (which kills enemies), a freezer (which freezes your water), a plant (which blocks the path of the water), and more.
Like Lemmings and other games in this sub-genre, you never actually have control over the fish in Downstream Panic. Instead you control a cursor that you use to dispense items and survey the level. You don't assign the fish specific jobs, like you would in Lemmings, but instead use your items around the fish, which does give this game a slightly different feel. What's more, the items cause interesting effects that you can use to beat the same level multiple ways.
In total there are some 80 levels to be solved, including levels set in the summer, spring, autumn and winter. For the most part the first twenty or thirty levels aren't too difficult, they give you a nice warm up for what you're about to endure. After you've been taught the basics and have seen all of your obstacles the game feels that you're ready to graduate, and perhaps that's why it goes from simple to over-the-top difficult in a matter of minutes. That's not to say that you won't be able to solve these puzzles, but there definitely appears to be a cut off when the game stops messing around and digs in its heels.
Part of the problem with the later levels isn't that they are too difficult, but rather that they are too cluttered with all of the various objects you've met along the way. Instead of being these well planned out levels, it just starts to feel like they are trying to throw everything in the book at you, something that ceases to be fun after awhile. Thankfully those sorts of levels are few and far between. For the most part the level designs are interesting and fun to play through, they may not be as diverse as what we saw in Lemmings, but that shouldn't keep you from having a good time in most of these levels.
While the gameplay mechanics may feel a lot like Lemmings, it's another PSP game that the Downstream Panic most resembles visually. Make no mistake about it, this new Atari game is heavily influenced on the look and style of Sony's own LocoRoco. With its deceptively simple graphics and adorable characters, Downstream Panic and LocoRoco share a lot in common. And really, is that such a bad thing? LocoRoco is one of the best looking games on the PlayStation Portable. This game doesn't look nearly as good as Sony's platformer, but it is still a sharp looking puzzle game.
Of course, you shouldn't go into Downstream Panic expecting it to be a LocoRoco-style game, outside of the visuals the two games share very little in common. Downstream Panic is actually a Lemmings clone, and a darn good one at that. It may not have as many diverse levels as Lemmings, but that shouldn't keep you away from enjoying this charming little puzzle game. This is definitely worth a look for anybody that enjoys a fun and challenging puzzler.