I’ve come to accept that I’ll never see all there is to see in N++. I blame a combination of factors, really. For one, the platforming game, which launches today on the PlayStation 4, is absolutely huge; I’ve made my way through hundreds of levels so far, but thousands remain, including the player-created stages that will begin popping up once the game is out. N++ is also like its predecessors N and N+: incredibly, impossibly hard. Jumps — the heart of the game — require machine-like precision, and you’ll be dealing with homing missiles, targeted laser beams, and all kinds of other deadly obstacles as you glide through the air. Sometimes I just sit and stare at a level, wondering how the hell I’m even supposed to start.
The thing is, even though I’m sure I won’t ever finish the game, I’m just as sure that I won’t stop trying anytime soon.
N++’s unusual name is a part of its legacy. It’s an evolution of sorts: Toronto-based studio Metanet Software first released the browser game N in 2004, and followed it up with an improved version for the Xbox 360, called N+. N++ builds on the original premise even further. At its core the game is exceedingly simple; you play as a nimble ninja, jumping through a futuristic, minimalist world. Each level takes place on a single screen, and contains both a switch and a locked door (there are also optional gold pieces to collect). To escape you’ll need to flip the switch then reach the unlocked exit door.
Platformers might be the most oversaturated genre in video games, but there’s still nothing that feels quite like an N game — even now, more than a decade after the series debuted. It all comes down to the sense of movement. The tiny ninja — who has been streamlined to be even more stick-like this time around — moves deliberately. She floats through the air slowly, as if the gravity has been turned down a few notches, and you can alter her movement mid-air or while she slides down a wall. It takes some getting used to, but once you get the hang of it there’s no going back. N++’s deliberate pace and controls gives you much more control over your character than in comparable games. And you’ll definitely need it.
It can be incredibly hard to outrun your past
There’s a sound you’ll hear a lot in the game: a bloody splat. You’ll hear it when you get zapped by a laser, or when you hit a wall of spikes, or when a huge fall proves too much for your little ninja to handle. The level design of N++ seems to delight in masochism, and the bloody splat is the sound of the game mocking you. Levels are bundled together in groups of five, called episodes, and while each episode starts out relatively easy, they tend to ramp up the challenge considerably. I’ve spent hours trying to complete single jumps, ones that require absolute precision and timing to get around the insane number of obstacles plotted in your way.
One of the new additions to N++, for example, is the evil ninja, and I absolutely hate them. When you hit a switch, it will spawn a clone who will replicate everything you do. If you touch it, you die, and just like in life it can be incredibly hard to outrun your past. In one stage — a narrow tunnel with four ledges to jump on — I had to contend with a total of five ninjas chasing me, while also navigating a maze of explosive mines. Over the hour or so it took me to finish it I heard a lot of splats. When I finally completed the level it felt like I had just pulled off an elaborate heist; my heart was racing, and I was breathing heavily. I had to take a break to calm down before I started up the next episode. And that’s the thing about this game: even as you swear at it, cursing its murderous difficulty, you’re having fun. I learned to love the splat.
I learned to love the splat
The precise controls and brutally difficult level design were true of the previous games, but N++ feels more refined. There are new enemies and obstacles, but they all fit into the game seamlessly, without making the progression feel bloated or overly complex (the same goes for the co-operative and competitive multiplayer modes, which can get incredibly heated). And even though there are thousands of levels, each one — even the rare ones that will take you just a few seconds to finish — feel crafted with love. They work both aesthetically and from a gameplay perspective; a snapshot of a level often looks like page from a book on graphic design. As you make your way through the game you’ll unlock different color schemes — which you can switch between at any point — and they breathe new life into the game. Sometimes when I’m stuck I switch up the colors in the hopes that my brain will see the level in a new way. Sometimes it actually works.
And despite being so plentiful, the levels are incredibly varied; some stages will test your patience, forcing you to slowly make your way through a winding maze, while others will test your endurance, as you make a series of challenging, precise jumps without being able to take a breath in between. Still others will try to overwhelm you with the sheer number of enemies thrown your way. Each episode feels like it gives you something different, and the game is structured in a way that minimizes frustration. Even if you find yourself stuck on a level, you can just leave it and come back later. There are always plenty of episodes to take on at any given time.
N++ is the result of a long, gruelling quest to create the ultimate version of N, and it feels like a game that was made with heart and passion. When I wasn’t dying, I was marvelling over the meticulous attention to detail; everything in the game just feels right, from the amazing, six-hour-long soundtrack to the smooth animations. I love watching the swirling trail of a homing missile on its way to kill me. It’s a game where death is just a tool that pushes you to try harder, to take a different path. I almost wish N++ would tell you how many times you died, because over the course of playing my ninja has come to her demise at least a thousand times.
And here I am excited about the thousand yet to come.
N++ is available today on the PS4.