Play Time: 1hour
So I randomly spotted this game at Gamestop on Friday night because the cover art looked intriguing. Issam and I had never heard of it before, and the description on the back of the box sounded interesting, so we decided to go for it. In this case, I watched Issam play, as opposed to playing the game myself, but I tried it out for a couple of minutes to get a sense of the handling.
This is an interesting game! In the game, you are a young boy who may or may not be the last person alive after the old man he was living with died. You start off in your shared home and find the man's dying note, in which he expresses deep regret for the things he's done in life and for not opening up to you more. He tells you to head to the "red tower" where you might be able to find answers, so off you go.
Now the intro cinematic starts (which is very pretty!)and you see a girl (who is not wearing very much... since I guess she's not used to having other people around? Still, some of the shots in the opening make me wince). You also scenes of a deserted, destroyed Tokyo.
As you are wandering (the "red tower" is Tokyo Tower) you run into the girl, some stuff happens and she runs away from you. You chase after her because she's the only person you've ever seen, and end up in the terrifying post-apocalyptic Tokyo subway. Here, you meet the "Personal Frame" computer, who will become your traveling companion. Some more stuff happened, but I'll leave it there.
The bulk of gameplay is basically wandering around dark, frightening places with your flashlight (wiimote controlled) and looking for the girl. Along the way, stray, hostile memories attack you (sometimes they look like jellyfish, sometimes they look like arms), you meet ghosts (and someone who may or may not be a ghost), and you collect items which store memories that you can listen to. Saving and resting can be done wherever you can build a fire - which at this point in the game are points which appear frequently. By returning items to ghosts, you can help them achieve peace and move on to the next world. There is a lot of narration, and sections where control is taken away from you and you listen to dialogue.
This game is compelling because it is so mysterious - we found that we were willing to bear with many aspects of it which were a bit sub par, simply because we were so intrigued. What happened to the world? There are references to earthquakes, is that what happened? Will we ever even find out? So far, I feel that it is similar in mood and intrigue to the anime Haibane Renmei - overall, it's very quiet and understated, and takes its time. I'm not convinced that they'll ever actually tell me what happened, but I'm dying to know.
What I Liked:
The Intrigue. As I said above - they pretty much don't tell you anything in this game about what's going on! I think this works very well. I can tell that something horrible has happened to the world, and I want to know what it is!
Tokyo. The destruction of Tokyo is handled well. It really feels as though something awful happened in like, the middle of the day. There's stuff everywhere - personal items, abandoned offices full of things, shoes - and it's all dilapidated and over-grown. It's very rich with detail, and very, very creepy.
The Boy. Although I dislike the voice acting (see below) I think the boy is interesting as a character. His character is very subtle. At first it seems like he has no character, but then you see that he arms himself with a stick, or that he's cheerful and optimistic enough to say that a 75% chance of something being successful is a great chance, and he's perhaps just a bit too literal. He feels like someone who has grown up virtually in isolation.
Personal Frame. The computer is also a really great character! In particular, the way that the boy and the computer interact is surprisingly fun and interesting. She exists to take care of the emotional and physical needs of her user - so she seems concerned with the boy's feelings, but she's a computer so she's awkward about it. I find their conversations to be heartwarming.
Tension. Something I love and hate. :) This game is pretty creepy, and you're never really sure what's going to happen. Maybe particularly because the protagonist is a vulnerable young boy (hahaha, reminds me of the Zero Punctuation review of "A Shadow's Tale") you feel that anything could appear at any moment and wipe you out and no one would know. There's a good balance of those sort of 'pop out at you' moments and sections where you're just really sure something bad is going to happen and it doesn't. The way the enemies appear is handled very well - you get audio cues from your Wiimote, and the music changes, and they fade in (but it's a fast enough speed that you can't do anything about it).
Sense of Respect.This game could have easily taken all of the left behind memories that you listen in on and made them disturbing (totally what I thought was going to happen), but they are sweet and innocent - which makes them all the more heartbreaking since you know they were left behind by people that have died. For example, in the train station you encounter a number of memories shared between a mother and daughter who have a wonderful relationship (although the voice acting makes them a liiiitle too saccharine sweet - I'm willing to let it slide.) Anyway, it feels like good people have died, and it's a sad thing. You feel this.
Ghost. Speaking of the little girl whose memories you hear, you get to meet her! I think she was (besides the voice acting) handled pretty well. Her animations in particular made her feel like an actual little girl - and it was sad!
WiiMote Audio. This game uses the wiimote audio in a number of places pretty effectively. First, you use it to find the Personal Frame - depending on which direction you are facing, you can hear the computer in the distance. Likewise, when you are playing hide-and-seek with the little girl later, you can hear her giggling through the wiimote. It also lets you know when enemies are approaching. That being said, it could stand to be a bit more subtle - it sort of felt like the audio cue was on or off - and when you were close to what you were looking for, it was a bit too loud. Also, the speakers on the Wiimote really aren't spectacular sounding. But! I think it was a neat gameplay idea!
What I Didn't Like:
Voice acting? When we pick this up again, I think we'll look to see if there's an option for listening to the voice acting in Japanese. It just doesn't work well in English - and I think most of it is the timing. It's the same as anything where the audio was originally in Japanese - English words take a different, usually shorter amount of time to say, so you're left with really awkward pauses, and a sense of much, much slower editing overall. Any brilliant voice actor would probably struggle with it - but the guy voicing the main kid is just a normal guy, so it's extra bad. I also don't feel that his voice really fits with the visual of the boy (he sounds too much like an adult trying to sound like a kid).
Enemies. It doesn't feel as though a lot of care went into the enemies. The way that they appear is very well done, as I mentioned above, but once they're there, they're kind of lame. You just sort of whack them a few times, and there isn't a real sense of danger. For example, you'd think the creepy hands might grab onto you, and try to suffocate you or something - but they don't animate, and they don't really seem to inflict a lot of damage. The dogs, in particular were pretty lame, since they animated more complexly than the hands or jellyfish - so you could tell that they were not animated very well.
Chicken Man. To be fair, I both like and hate the chicken man. First off, he scares the crap out of me, mostly because someone had a stroke of brilliance and decided to put just the tiniest little dots of perceived reflected light into the head. This gives the terrifying impression that something not entirely human (and you're assuming he's not human) is staring out at you. They're almost imperceptible, so when you notice them it's all the more scary.
Cheesecake. Like I said before, the girl's lack of clothing bothers me. I get that you might dress like that in a world with no need for modesty, but this game is made for the real world, and in the real world it just feels like fan service (particularly when she's on her hands and knees in the intro). It feels out of place in this game.
Budget? This one isn't really fair, hence the question mark - but it seems that they were working with either a really limited time frame or a small budget in relation to animation. Before you get the flashlight in the start of the game, the boy is playing the same animation as when he's holding the flashlight - so yes, his hand is simply held out in a fist in front of him. Also when the boy does things which are not in his usual animation set - like pulling a lever, or pulling open a door - the screen simply fades to black until the action is done. But really, what else can you do if you simply couldn't create all of the animations?
Start. It felt like this game took awhile before you really got to play. You'd get an EDC, then a cutscene, then control for like, 2min, then another EDC..
Pacing. On the same note, this is already a slow, sort of understated story - which is good, I think - but they seem to have made a number of choices (I'm assuming many were out of necessity) which make it feel even slower. One is that whenever an EDC starts, the screen first fades to black. You learn in editing classes that a fade to black is generally used to imply a sense of passing time -- so when you do this all of the time, the game starts to feel extra long. Also, whenever the boy and computer are speaking, EDCs take over and you do not have control of the character. It's a shame that this was the case. Finally, whenever you sit at a fire, the same camera move plays on the same visual of the boy sitting in front of the fire - and they felt compelled to make him say something each time, in his already-too-slow manner of speech. All small things that I think were done because of technical limitations, but something to note nonetheless. Be careful before you use 'fade to black'!
How Do I Feel About Continuing?:
Like I mentioned above, at this point I'm intrigued to the point that I can look past whatever isn't working about this game because I want to know what the heck is happening. I think Issam and I will definitely be picking this one up again. That being said it's definitely slow, so I think if in the next session or two we don't feel like any questions are being answered, we'll probably drop it.