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Played in 2023
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I can see the intrigue: the use of personal material to fashion a narrative, the sense of having completed a chore in a lightly expressive way, a way to relay the passing of time---I just can't feel it. It's a novel concept, but it's never more than that, it doesn't utilize its concept further than one could lightly imagine it when told what the game is about.
And what is it about really? A middle-class woman's coming of age? I think comfort is maybe the guiding theme. There's emphasis here, and it's on clothing, cooking, forget-me-nots. On entertainment, a lot of it retro in some manner, though the bookcovers and box art are abstracted because of the pixel aesthetic (don't worry about taste or what art these people are passionate about, just throw it all on the shelves). The aesthetic: high-colour, relaxing, gentle, honestly pretty monotonous; I think the game itself is supposed to be a comfort object as well.
But it is about moving, right? Yet there's little here that relays the difficulty of this operation or the physical nature of living in a space. It's always in a nice, clean condition and so are all the belongings, even after decades of presumed use. There's never anything packed that speaks to any sense of actual domain or presence here. Toilet paper winds up in the moving boxes but not a hammer or a light bulb. And furthermore there isn't anything truly revealing. The neatness, in look and all, extends to its portrait of life. Nothing embarassing or terribly specific. Almost nothing superfluous---I was happy to see a box of wires at one point.
It seems like it's all there to give us a presentational image of life rather than an authentic one, which is fine I suppose, but I have difficulty seeing how any of my experiences moving and unpacking play into to the former. In practice it feels more like a decorative shape sorter.
Humanity's greatest achievement is the manner in which it iterates on and bends its mechanics. It's a puzzle game with a nice contour that moves in surprising directions.
Controlling a little dog and placing down commands feels more intuitive than it probably should, and the general aesthetic is attractive and very readable. Further still, it lays out mechanics at an even pace, combining and remixing so relentlessly that the game bends under the weight. It warps into different genres altogether.
While at first it certainly resembles Lemmings with gradually introduced powerups and hazards, it then suspends its flow of time before a stage so that orders become law, then it begins to resemble an RTS or MOBA, some levels even play like a game of Snake, where the trail of humans form the body. The wild thing is that the rules remain the same throughout, and previous structures reappear and interact with the latter regularly. It's a reminder of the fluidity and possibility of game design, that the simple goal of 'get something to this point' can take drastically different forms within the same rules and aesthetic.
Its aesthetic of masses of humans pouring over obstacles, soaring into the air, doing battle, should inspire awe, but the omnicience of the perspective and remoteness of the camera makes it all feel puny. I never believed in a single human, and often times they're presented more like particle effects than anything else. Other games that have aimed to be big or represent large events can feel small (Into the Breach for example), and I think this result can weaken what the game is trying to say.
And on that topic, I sort of have to throw up my hands. It's an abstract thing about evolution, creation, consciousness? I'm not convinced it has anything valuable to say about humanity (or dogs for that matter), but it's in keeping with the creative legacy of Mizuguchi's games that aim for profundity by appealing to a sharp, spectacle-driven aesthetic and vague 'we're all connected' assertions. Seeing a group of bodies soaring around like a school of fish makes us want to find meaning in it because it's so striking, but the puzzles don't really create much in the way of meaning and the cinematics are ponderous and unspecific. Solve the puzzles and don't think so hard about it (outside of the puzzles) and you'll have a nice time.
This review contains spoilers
I think the strengths are easy to identify: the compelling incorporation of animation, the soundtrack, the graphic presentation, the swift combat that's better suited to one on one battles. Most of these finer points (other than the first) are apparent in the original, which feels like a more complete, though more modest game. Yes, it functions on a boy in mech cliche, but it's a cleaner and weirdly more convincing story.
2nd Runner starts in an atmospheric way, but it isn't long until we're flinging exposition and backstories around, manufacturing another reason why the protagonist can't leave the mech. It's all presented by voice actors who bark BAHRAM and AUMAAN, and you never get the sense that they understand what they're saying. Then you're fighting Vic Viper and a zombified Viola and I was beginning to wonder if any of it was worth taking seriously.
I would have hoped Mars as a location was going to be more than rusty crevices and maintenance tunnels too. The mechs are so sharp and imaginative looking, it's a bit puzzling that the environments are so bland. They're dark as hell too, and usually aren't very detailed. This look intensifies into near-abstraction at points, like my favourite part of the game, which involves navigating a cavernous bunker with giant pistons crushing everything in the darkness. It's so abyssal that one loses sense of up or down, or any connection to the rest of the game world.
The boss fights should be where the game shines (fighting multiple enemies can be a bit fussy with the lock-on system), but I found them underwhelming. Too many require a specific approach, usually the exploitation of a single mechanic or subweapon that's spelled out, and they feel more like tutorials as a result. Even the final showdown gives you a limited arsenal and a restricted means of applying damage.
Some nice flourishes don't count for everything when the scenario is prosaic and the combat system doesn't feel like it's being utilized in interesting ways. It all sort of passed by me until I hit credits.