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This is absolutely bursting with charm. The joy it takes in the materiality of its arts and crafts framing is unparalleled, constantly playing little games and jokes with the idea that it is a physical game constructed by your schoolyard friend while also overtly juxtaposing that with the fact that it is in fact a video game. This kind of clever play between the represented materials and the actual materials is something I rarely see outside of Kojipro games, so it's kind of shocking to see it in this little indie game for children.
At the same time, it's impossible to forget that this game is aimed at kids. The writing is often fun, but it's in a very simple and educational register, more Humongous Entertainment than Square Enix. The moment-to-moment mechanical movement is intentionally slow and deliberate, often requiring extra confirmations or slow-to-progress dialog. This can make the game feel sluggish at times even though it's relatively short and certainly not difficult.
Nor does it have much real mechanical depth: it's essentially a series of light puzzles and minigames, with an RPG theme laid on top like a costume. It's fun enough to bounce your way through, but the difficulty is low and there's nothing at all crunchy. On the other hand, it also has a needlessly sexy demon king, so who's counting?
This is a fascinating little object. Of the Metal Gear games not written by Kojima, this seems to be the one that's closest to actual canon, with Kojima himself reportedly holding different positions on the subject at different times.
The plot acts as almost a direct sequel to MGS3, and although it has some weird threads that seem to have been totally dropped (like the shadowy figure said to have orchestrated all the events in the prior game) in many ways it fits well within the canon. The conflict between different people's interpretation of The Boss's dream is at the heart of the series, and this game provides one of the clearest explications of that: Gene's and Big Boss's views of what a nation of soldiers could be is front and center. The tension between the CIA and the DOD is similarly a clever real-world touch that follows the political interests of the series as a whole.
Mechanically this is much less "MGS3 2" and much more "MGSV 0". Here is the genesis of a vision of Metal Gear as discrete levels you can revisit on your own recognizance rather than a linear path through a story. Here is the first time the idea of "a nation of soldiers" is encoded mechanically as recruiting enemies in-game. This recruitment mechanic is achingly clunky, involving massive amounts of time just searching for hiding spots and dragging bodies for minimal in-game payoff. But it's so immediately enticing the player is compelled to engage with it anyway. It was wise of them to expand this into an entire game in its own right (and to dramatically smooth out its mechanics).
The game has its frustrations, as well. Boss fights are frustrating on beyond their usual annoyance, not just because of the clunky PSP camera controls but also the nature of the game itself. The player has extremely limited inventory slots and is generally incentivized to go into levels with them empty so as to be able to carry home more resources. Health and particularly stamina are often low across multiple levels. But when a boss fight shows up by surprise after an involved sneaking section, the player has only the resources on hand to fight it. If they think one particular piece of equipment is needed, they have to do the entire level over just to test their theory.
For that reason, I set the game down upon encountering the Null fight and just watched the rest of the dialog and cutscenes on YouTube. But even so, I'm fond of it: it's a black sheep, it's undeniably flawed, but the series after this (and particularly my favorite MGS game) wouldn't be as strong without this strange entry's existence.
The third entry in what would become known as the "World of Assassination trilogy" certainly has the absolute strongest levels in the series. Dartmoor and Berlin present compelling twists on the core formula that expand upon the core of what makes it compelling: it presents levels as living worlds, intricate clockwork dollhouses that the player can poke to see what happens. Dubai and Ambrose Island are excellent bread-and-butter Hitman levels, which is crucial for making the game feel whole. And Chongqing stands out as having possibly the best background character writing in a series which is known for excellent background character writing.
(Mendoza is mostly there, but suffers from a few odd mismatches between how it signals the player to play and the modes of play it actually offers. It's certainly fun for the most part, but feels decidedly less baked than the rest of the game.)
The only serious drag on this game is its increased interest in linearity in service of plot. Although I think the plot itself is well-done, the way it intersects with the game itself—the escape sequence the first time you play Chongqing and the whole of Carpathian Mountains—doesn't play to the series's strengths. Hitman is intrinsically a non-linear experience that excels at creating a holistic view of a story through glimpses of small moments and conversations. Trying to force that into straightforward "move through these zones and solve these puzzles" mechanics weakens the storytelling and leads to uninteresting zones. But fortunately, that's a small part of this otherwise excellent capstone to one of my favorite series.