Review – Slide Stars

Maybe it’s a result of the pandemic or recently watching Class Action Park, but lately I’ve been really nostalgic for water parks like the one I grew up near. That’s why when Lion Castle Entertainment offered us a code for their newest release, Slide Stars, I leapt at the opportunity.

From the trailer, I anticipated a Donkey Kong Country mine cart experience. I thought that playing Slide Stars would entail playing as social media influencers surfing down flumes, dodging obstacles to summery tunes, and collecting goodies along the way. To be fair, I got exactly what I asked for; I simply should have asked for more. Slide Stars takes the mine-cart-formula, rubs it in the dirt, pours salt in the wound, and then politely asks to be thanked from behind a Stepford Wives grin.

Players begin by choosing one of the available social media stars and their themed floatation device. At the beginning, the only options available are Luciano Spinelli and a pink flamingo tube. A tutorial will guide players through the basic controls for jumping, directions, and controlling speed. They’ll also run players through how to pull off “stunts” by tilting the control stick in one direction or another while in the air.

The golden seahorse is one of the “fancy upgrades” available.

Each stage is a race to the finish, competing only against your own time clock. If you fall to an obstacle or monkey throwing dynamite, you respawn at the last checkpoint where the clock is continuing to run. The faster your time is and the more stunts you pull off, the more likes you earn for your star. As you race along the tracks, you’re also aiming to collect coins, star pieces, and medals. 

For the most part, characters only differentiate in appearance. The one exception to that is the affinity feature. Each character has an affinity symbol tied to them. These symbols represent the topics that each of the influencers cover in their social channels, but they also serve a functional purpose in each stage. The checkpoints in every level also have affinities symbols like a commercial jet for travel influencers. If players pass one of these checkpoints while using a player with a matching affinity, collectibles that were otherwise ghosted out with a red hue will turn opaque and can be grabbed on contact. All of these collectibles can be spent to unlock new playable social media stars, outfits, and inflatable rafts.  

Thanks to the affinity system, in many stages, players will have to go back and replay the same levels in order to gather the remaining collectibles. But when the only unlockable rewards boil down to cosmetic changes, doubling back to replay an old stage just isn’t worth it; even less so when all of the stages feel the same. 

I have a lot of problems with Slide Stars but I’m going to break it down into three.

It looked a lot worse when a guy rode the hot sauce and it started spraying everywhere.

For starters, the level design is simultaneously illogical and underwhelming. There doesn’t appear to be any design strategy in Slide Stars. It’s simply a series of connecting slides and loops that come to a sudden end in the mouth of an alligator. Threats often appear too suddenly to be able to avoid them. But even for those players brave enough to keep slogging through the mess of this game, there aren’t enough environmental clues in the stages.

Without clear landmarks throughout the stage, even those players who want to repeat levels to earn collectibles or beat their personal records are going to have a hard time. The environments are so repetitious that it’s difficult to identify where on the course you are at any given moment. I went back a few times to collect all of the star pieces on a course and found that I always missed at least one because I would pass by it unknowingly. The lack of any discernible landmark is simply poor design.

Typically in a game like this, there’s a natural escalation of challenge in each stage. A type of obstacle or emerging pattern would be introduced early on to show players what they’re in for and then as time goes on, that obstacle or pattern shows up with increasing frequency or difficulty. By the end of a level, it’s on the player to have mastered the presented challenge or fail. That structure is entirely absent from Slide Stars. Instead of a logical progression of challenge or pathways, Slide Stars offers a mess of obstacles that are incoherently organized and entirely forgettable. 

Banana float! Now with all-terrain features!

I only found Slide Stars to be a little fun while I was speeding through the courses. However, it doesn’t appear to be designed for how I was playing. I know that I keep making the Donkey Kong Country minecart reference but it’s easily the best comparison I have. The reason why the same format works so well in DKC is the camera width. At any given moment, players can see the tracks far enough above, below, and ahead of them to anticipate and plan for incoming obstacles. But Slides Stars doesn’t offer players that same vantage point.

Instead, the camera is close enough to the controllable characters that it’s remarkably difficult to see the obstacles up ahead. If you go too fast (which was the only time I was enjoying Slide Stars) you’re immediately punished by a parrot that casually swoops down to deck you in the face. Don’t get me wrong, I love challenging games. But the design intention should be that the game be fun and challenging, not just one or the other.

Death by banana.

Similarly, the controls were simply not intuitive. Despite the rushing water below your characters, the current doesn’t always carry you forward. Instead, players need to push the left stick to the left or right to move. In most cases, this is just fine and gives players a little bit more control. However, if you are like me and forget to release that left stick whenever you jump, you’ll find your character slowly leaning into a flip and then face plant and die. Were any of these influencers to watch me play and see how many times I broke their necks or drown them and watched their lifeless body rag-doll down the track, they’d be guaranteed to send them into an existential spiral.

This is such an obvious design flaw that I’m surprised this wasn’t corrected early one. As every platform Slide Stars is releasing on has multiple directional control interfaces, it would have been an easy switch to use the right control stick exclusively for tricks. That simple change would have had a tremendous impact on making Slide Stars a more enjoyable experience. 

I wish I could be kinder to this product.

At its heart, Slide Stars isn’t a game so much as it’s an expensive promotional experience for a select few internet personalities. I can absolutely understand the business sense in making a game like this and selling it as an arcade style experience for $10-15. Instead, Slide Stars is selling for an appalling $40. I bought Control: Ultimate Edition for that price just last week, and believe you me, Slide Stars is not even close to the same value tier.

Playable characters are designed to look like a The Sims version of the influences they’re based on, and to be fair, the dev team did create decent adaptations. What really rubbed me the wrong way is that each character has a bio section that not only reads like a high school theater student’s program describing their personality traits as successes, but it also highlights each and every one of their social media accounts. There’s also a whole list of kitsch quotes like, “Life isn’t measured in the number of breaths you take, but the number of moments that take your breath away,” and “Do what makes you happy.” Put it all together and it feels like Slide Stars is trying really hard to make you get the warm and fuzzies about paying for an ad for twenty influencers trying to sell you a disingenuous image. 

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Given its advertisement-based nature, Slide Stars is far better suited for a freemium mobile release model where consumers don’t have the same level of investment. I turned 30 this year so maybe I’m just out of touch with what the youngins want. I don’t know. What I do know is that selling an ad for social media influencers under the guise of feel good, earth friendly, “seize the day” quotes and cheesy bios to young consumers in a half-baked game for $40 is an outright unethical move that undermines every ounce of Slide Stars attempted positivity. If you can ignore the poor control schemes, bad level design, and the fact that the entire game is just an ad for something else, you might be able to have a little bit of fun. But at a price of $40, you’re better off buying Race with Ryan. At least that janky money grab might be on sale.

Graphics: 7.0

While I’m disappointed in the overall design elements, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the graphics. Character models look to be inspired by The Sims and environments are bright and colorful. At no point did I experience any frame rate drops or visual bugs. 

Gameplay: 3.0

The core concept is there and functioning but poor control schemes, bad level design, and a lack of gameplay variation makes Slide Stars a dry water park experience.

Sound: 4.0

Loud casino noises and uninspired music reinforces the mobile game freemium feel that I get from Slide Stars. I score it higher than I wanted to as there are the audio functions as intended without any bugs, despite poor design.

Fun Factor: 2.0

I had fun for a few brief moments before, like a theme park lifeguard, Slide Stars punished me for going too fast while they were on duty. This review was my only incentive for turning the game on more than once.

Final Verdict: 3.5

Slide Stars is available now on Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One.
Reviewed on Playstation 4.
A copy of Slide Stars was provided by the publisher.