- CLR Rating:
Release Date: January 11th & 17th, 2012
Platform: Xbox LIVE Arcade, Playstation Network, PC
Publisher: Lexis Numerique
Genre: Downloadable Autistic Survival Horror, or DASH!
Auteur Attached: Paul Cuisset
ESRB: M for Mature
An Amy Not Worth Chasing
After the tumult of 2011’s holiday season, with one fantasy epic after another, a slew of series getting their trilogy toppers, and so many “Arrow to The Knee” jokes that killed a meme faster than putting Milhouse in it, it seems that the gaming industry needed a moment to catch its breath. Or at least that’s my explanation for all the tumbleweeds rolling around; for the gaming scene, January of 2012 has been slower than Forrest Gump reading War & Peace. Especially since all the big releases are jumping ship to next month or just hanging on the edge of it .
These “Dead December Doldrums” are not uncommon, and for most gamers it’s a great way to catch up on titles they missed, or start their third character in Skyrim. However, as a reviewer and critical malcontent I am legally obligated to try and rustle up something to look at, at least once a month, which I did. At first it seemed as if I would be spared as no major releases reared their heads, but then I checked the downloadable space and . . . well I’ll let the verse speak for itself:
A black wind blew from France intending to betray me.
An original affair, even though the plot seemed a bit samey
As ‘twas the thousandth time zombies did their best to slay me,
And with the baggage of a child! It could end up quite cockamamie.
All I hoped was that the creator of Flashback, once again “Cuisset” me.
Alas! It was not to be. For I had begun VectorCell’s AMY.
Blindly trying to follow in the footsteps of the Legendary Zelda series, AMY thrusts you into the role of a protagonist who isn’t the eponymous character, a NPC in the form of a mute, autistic little girl, but her protector, Lana (no last name given). The pair work together to survive a vague and confusing nuclear/zombie apocalypse, in the near-future year of 2034 and the isolated Midwestern “town” – it has a subway system for goodness sake – of Silver City (no state given). Along the way the duo encounters roaming infected, limited lighting, worse dialogue, trial and error puzzles, stealth sections, jump scares and a plot that would be generic if it weren’t so poorly told or contradictory (no ****s given).
Now you may ask why Lana is protecting such a charge, especially if it means the game ends up 100% escort mission (and it does). That’s a fair question. But after analyzing the game with a team of forty or so Aristotelian Astrologists, we can only say for certain that I have absolutely no idea.
Lana and Amy are running away from, someone, at the start, who I must assume is the vaguely alluded to antagonist we never really see in some of the brief cutscenes who might be named Raymond. “Raymond” (whom nobody seems to love) is after Amy because like most fictional Autistic children she has abilities greater than awkward socialization; in this case, psychic powers. The most important power being the main reason the player only begrudgingly lets go of her hand while dragging her along: Amy’s “aura” cures the disease (that’s never explained) turning folks into zombies, and in the game’s one clever twist, a disease which Lana has.
Hence, Lana protects Amy from physical harm, while Amy protects Lana from succumbing to infection. It’s a solid concept. The more’s the pity that a decent idea like this actually appears in a game overwhelmed with terrible ones.
All this convoluted plot and disappointment is brought to the player in a series of six relatively short chapters that were obviously originally intended to be played episodically with gaps in between each, since playing AMY for extended periods is a form of torture recognized in the Geneva Convention. I say “relatively” short chapters, as you’ll retry most of them over and over for several hours. Primarily because your progress is constantly slowed not only by arbitrarily plodding animations and tedious back-tracking, but also by the one-two punch of instant failure trial and error gameplay and the fact that checkpoints in AMY are as rare as seeing Mitt Romney in the unemployment line.
This is to say nothing of the poor craftsmanship on display like a museum dedicated to failure. There are the technical issues, like the stilted and stuttering screen refresh that makes Max Headroom look smooth. There are obvious tells that the game was rushed and out of budget, like the animatics that stand in for cutscenes, and the fact that Lana’s voice actress is obviously a different person for different lines. There’s the idiotic choice of making it difficult to see or use items in the environment. There’s the poorly balanced combat featuring hit detection clumsier than Inspector Clouseau if he were played by Gerald Ford.
I could go on. So I will!
Actually, there’s really only one other major problem, but it’s a core one: control. The controls are obtuse, overly complicated, and only feel natural several hours past when you’ll want to quit. Combined with an oddly nauseating camera, you’ll spend most of the game stumbling around as if the “disease” that’s infecting Lana is a metaphor for alcoholism.
But to me all of these problems, though not insignificant or ignorable, aren’t the worst aspect of AMY. No, what truly hurts is that AMY squanders more potential than a philosophy student. Especially to me, as the game combines a favorite genre, Survival Horror, with a favorite game, ICO, and adds a dash of novelty by using a character you don’t often get to play as: an average woman ill-prepared for combat using her cunning to get by.
Considering the dearth of games starring women, let alone characters that can’t otherwise be found in military propaganda, AMY could have been a refreshing take on Survival Horror. With the added focus the game has on cooperation with an NPC, it could have contained the next great character moments in the medium. If it managed to use legitimately terrifying scare tactics as opposed to recycled design from Clock Tower on top, it might have helped the genre to return more to its roots.
One of the reasons I enjoyed the Survival Horror genre before it could be renamed Action With Some Possibly Horrific Imagery, was that it was one of the few game genres where role and setting took precedence over usability. Where having a character awkwardly stumble around can be used to convey that they’re frightened and fragile. A genre where the developers can lie or withhold key information to make things scarier; where it’s OK to ignore “fun” or “cool” in favor of “morbid curiosity” and “ Disturbing yet alluring nurses.”
The fundamental problem in AMY is that things are taken too far down Screw Usability Street and make a hard right onto Pretentious Atmosphere Road. The issue isn’t that it’s hard to control Lana, or that she moves slowly, or that her combat prowess is set to toddler; she’s not a space marine after all, but the “average” woman. No, the issue is that the amplitude of this unnecessary but intentional player hampering is excessive.
The difficulty is too unforgiving for the complexity of the puzzles. The wait time on opening doors, healing with syringes, or shimmying gaps is too long. The enemy detection is too sensitive and too inconsistent. The game simply goes too far in ways which might be forgivable individually, but are like the Taco Bell menu: taken all at once and together will result in death.
Perhaps because it worked out for him once before, director Paul Cuisset thought he could get away with mysterious vagary in an otherwise generic situation; that the player’s curiosity would fill in for motivation. However, he forgot that this technique only works if the player has some other hook to keep them otherwise occupied until the mystery pays off. Solid or novel gameplay can work in the interim, but the most unique thing AMY does with its concept – using the infection to blend in with enemies – doesn’t occur till over halfway through! By then we’ve already been assaulted by the pretentiously overextended intentional sluggishness of the genre and enter the dreaded fifth chapter, where the already harsh difficulty is turned up from “annoying” to “so ludicrously unfair and broken it make me pine for Dark Souls again.”
It’s genuinely surprising to see a game released that’s as poorly expressed as fan fiction , but with AMY somehow VectorCell proved all the naysayers and common sense wrong! They did it! They’ve actually managed to lower my expectations enough that the upcoming year might not be disappointing!
As for the game’s director, Paul Cuisset, I’d say this was a new low. Except that for all his successes the man’s also responsible for Shaq Fu, and I wouldn’t want to make myself a liar, would I?