I’ll be honest, this isn’t the first time I’ve talked about today’s game. In fact, this isn’t the first time I’ve even posted this review. Lyle in Cube Sector was the first review I ever did. At the time, I was puzzled by this little game that everyone said was one of the best freeware games they ever played, even ranking it above games like Cave Story. I decided this was impressive enough to warrant a review and played it. At the time I enjoyed it quite a bit, but didn’t see why it was so special, to the point where it received cameos in games like Blocks that Matter (a game more people should play by the way). However, when I decided to re-release this review, I decided to go back and play it again for a bit and was surprised as I finally “got” the game. I decided to keep the review unchanged, since I feel it still accurately represents a player’s first impressions, but I decided to share my current opinion of the game after the download link.
Lyle is your average green-haired kid. He lives alone with his cat, Keddums, and, considering the trouble he has going one screen without dying, has probably never left his house. Unfortunately for Lyle’s wish to remain alive, an alien appears one night and kidnaps Keddums while Lyle sleeps. Now our extreme hero must brave the dangers of the outside world and save his beloved cat before… stuff… happens to it.
Yeah, Lyle in Cube Sector isn’t here to tell a story (I only found out the cat’s name was Keddums when the credits rolled). It’s here to bring you a retro experience that hasn’t been around since Commander Keen left the gaming world. By the end of this game, you will have fed dinosaur dogs, shot hoops, killed man-eating plants, played a fatal game of Arkanoid, slapped a cow on the ass, and still have no idea what the hell is going on… and that actually makes it somewhat endearing. This throwing up of the hands and the old-school, nonsensical aesthetics (adding balls to things and having green pools of deadly waste for the heck of it), not only makes for a good laugh but helps capture the feel of the old platformers that Lyle is trying to pay homage to.
This isn’t the only way that Lyle captures the nostalgic feeling of booting up a forgotten DOS game: it also has a great chiptune soundtrack that is both catchy and, dare I say “popping.” Writing this now, I can still hum the main theme and bounce my head along with the beat. It’s a good thing that the music is high quality too, considering it was used without permission (though the games been hosted on the same site for six years with a disclaimer stating this, so I guess the composers don’t really mind).
Of course, the main reason I bring up the music is because you’re going to be hearing it a lot. Not because the game is an epically long quest–there are even playthroughs that get 100% completion in under two hours–but because this Game. IS. FREAKING. HARD. For scale, imagine the difficulty of the secret cave from Cave Story stretched out for a lot longer. That’s about how hard this game is overall. Now, difficulty isn’t a bad thing necessarily. Ninja Gaiden Black is one of my favorites and that game is plenty tough. The problem is, Lyle in Cube Sector is just plain unfair.
One way you see this is the fact that there are NO CHECKPOINTS in this game. Now, to be fair, you can save at any time and continuing after a Game Over (which has a nice twelve second animation that plays each and every time you die) will let you keep any power-ups you picked up and save your progression, but you always start at Lyle’s house with five points of health. Now, this isn’t so bad at first, when you have only progressed a few screens away from the house, but late in the game, when you have to run a gauntlet of magic bears, mad robots, killer plants, assassin frogs, and freaking red birds just to make another futile attempt at killing the second boss with only two hit points left, you tend to get a little annoyed. Oh, and you read that right by the way, no matter how many health power-ups you get, you always start at five points, meaning you’ll have to either grind for health blocks till you’re full or pray you find another health power up.
Those aren’t the only things that will tempt you to toss your keyboard through a window: the game also has some rather screwed up controls. The default controls for this game are arrow keys for movement, “Shift” for jump, and “Ctrl” for tossing and creating blocks. Let’s take a break from the review for a second and look down at your keyboard. In fact, let’s just place our hands on these keys and imagine what it’s like to have to make precise movements with this set up and continually switch between the action buttons. It kinda hurts your fingers, to be honest (hope you turned off sticky keys notifications). To be fair, there is a Z & X configuration and controller support, but there’s a catch. If you use a controller (which actually works pretty well and I suggest using it wholeheartedly) you still have to press the space bar to get to the pause screen, because that’s why you plug in a controller, right? So you can set it down every few minutes to check your bearings, which, considering this game has Metroid style exploration, you are going to be doing a lot. The game also has a section at the end which is designed to wear you out by making you use the game’s gimmick jump without pause. It really is frustrating and a beginner’s trap since most players won’t know how far it goes or what they need to do to get through it.
Speaking of those annoying sections, you’ll have to collect a lot of power-ups to even do them. While there are only four bosses in the game and only five power-up types, you need to at least collect seven orbs that will power up one of your power ups (work that one out) so you can perform multiple jumps. These orbs are hidden throughout the map an usually require you to do an odd task. Now, this isn’t too bad considering that you’ll come across most of them on your travels and some of them have creative, but it all leads to a simple question: Why? Why didn’t the developer just have extra power-ups to find? Hunting the orbs stops being fun when you have to search enemy-infested areas and pray that you aren’t going to end up with either a health block or a false lead. This is just padding that slows the game down. In most games that have you exploring a continuous map, power-ups like these usually are kept optional; they make the game easier but aren’t necessary to complete the game.
Speaking of pointless padding, you can also track down a secret room that can only be reached by collecting all ten power-up orbs. This great secret is a huge disappointment–there aren’t power-ups or funny bonuses. There’s just a TV that occasionally changes channels. Yay?
So, what reason do you have to play Lyle in Cube Sector aside from it being a nostalgia trip and sounding nice? Well, despite those flaws, the core gameplay is actually rather solid. Everything in this game has to do with cubes: you will kick them, you will throw them, you will bounce off of them, you will cross death traps with them, and you will even create them out of thin air like a messiah of geometry and it works wonderfully. Learning how your cubes work and all the ways you can use them is half the fun of this game and, even after I played the game into the final stages I was still finding new ways to wreak havoc on the menagerie of foes that stood in my way. The game even steps it up a notch by having you fight robots who will toss blocks at you, which makes for some frantic and fun gameplay.
That’s not the only interesting enemy you will encounter, though. In addition to the previously mentioned enemies, you have worms, spread-shot dogs, armored snails that cling to the ceilings and floors, laser-shooting hornets, and silver bees that hover around you. That’s not even mentioning the bosses, which include one boss that will deviously make you play breakout while it tries to blast you. In any case, you get a varied set of foes that are each unique.
Overall, Lyle in Cube Sector is a game that will cause frustration but is still a fun game to play due to its aesthetics, memorable soundtrack, varied enemies and bosses, and solid core gameplay. This is definitely not a game for everyone and its problems hamper the experience but if you are in the mood for a game that will give you feelings of nostalgia, laughs, and some interesting, if frustrating, gameplay, then Lyle in Cube Sector is worth a download.
All right, now that I’ve had a year and picked up the game again, have my thoughts changed at all? Well, yes. For one thing, even though it had been so long, I easily picked the game back up and found its controls to be exceptionally tight (though I’m using a 360 controller now), the music was as catchy as ever, and I found myself just as fascinated with Lyle’s strange world as when I first played the game. Honestly, it seems the more I play this game, the more I like it and I highly recommend it. It’s hard to pin down exactly why this game is so enjoyable but I’m glad I picked it up.
Freeware Friday is a series by Gabriel B. that focuses on exemplary (or sometimes just plain weird) entries into the freeware genre of indie games.