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Polar Panic (Xbox 360) artwork

Polar Panic (Xbox 360) review

"With his home destroyed and family captured, this Ursus maritimus snuffs out Globoco, one life at a time. Sounds like the setup for a gruesome action adventure, but Polar Panic is actually an adorable puzzler. Murder may be the main goal, but the animated adversaries make sure it isn't morbid."

Polar Panic preaches about the perils of evil corporations. When greedy Globoco Inc. lets their oil drillers, loggers, and trappers loose in the arctic, they ravage natural resources and leave destruction in their wake. It's not enough to wipe out the habitat, they literally take the wildlife hostage. It's from these dire circumstances that lone bear Polar raises resistance. With his home destroyed and family captured, this Ursus maritimus snuffs out Globoco, one life at a time. (Or more, if you want bonus points.)

Sounds like the setup for a gruesome action adventure, but Polar Panic is actually an adorable puzzler. In each of the fifty stages in Story Mode, Polar is dropped in a frozen maze full of funny, unfriendly faces. Gunners shoot bullets that leave a wobbly trail of green smoke all the way across the screen. Fat Pyros waddle around, melting the surroundings with their flamethrowers. Dyno Dudes lazily toss sticks of explosives through the air, content to blow up anything that moves. Polar will even have multiple encounters with the diminutive Mr. Big, as the crafty old tycoon tries to finish him off with an array of harebrained heavy machinery. All the while there's a timer ticking down, and Polar can't move onto the next stage until he's killed every person in the level. Murder may be the main goal, but the animated adversaries make sure it isn't morbid; whimsical background tunes only further lighten the mood.

The basic modus operandi of Polar Panic is identical to Pengo, an ancient arcade game that featured a cutesy penguin wandering through a room with walls made of ice cubes. Pengo would crush his enemies by sliding those blocks along empty corridors. Polar walks along a similar grid, trying to take out as many trappers with each frigid cube as he can. Now, though, there are extra ways for our hero to even the odds against his armed assailants. Boxes of dynamite can be set to explode; Polar can escape while his victims walk into the destructive radius. When he embarks on a fishing boat, he can set loose barrels that roll back and forth with the rocking waves, smashing anyone who stumbles into their path. Special powerups freeze all the enemies, giving you a precious few seconds to shatter them into tiny fragments.

It's hectic action, especially because there are other hindrances as well. Some levels have combinations of switches that can open restricted areas. Others feature members of Polar's family held in cages that he can free. You can destroy cozy igloos lining the field, along with the reserves of trappers residing therein. Something as inconsequential as smashing snowmen will even provide a bonus. These dizzying options aren't always for the better, as the landscape can turn into a whitewash; sometimes it can be hard to tell how the rows line up horizontally. With all these distractions and tight deadlines, it makes for a game where you have to keep replaying the levels to plan a perfect run.

In case that sounds too crazy, Polar Panic does provide two other focused challenges. Puzzle Mode eliminates the enemies in favor of fifty block-pushing brainteasers. Here the seconds tick up instead of down, giving you plenty of time to ponder the quickest way to clear obstacles to the exit. Speed is still the key, though, as higher scores are awarded for low times and fewer moves.

Conversely, Survival Mode drops the puzzles and simply floods the screen with trappers. It's a suicide mission, and the goal is just to take as many of them with you as possible. The hook here is that it can be a cooperative struggle for up to four players. As long as all the players are in the same room.

Of course, none of these modes make Polar Panic an original experience. Polar himself isn't a star; and his surroundings are only charismatic enough to get your attention, not capture your imagination. However, the game works because every setting delivers a satisfying increase in challenge as the game progresses. It could be just the game if you need a quick puzzle fix.


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Staff review by Benjamin Woodhouse (February 03, 2010)

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