Friday, January 19, 2007

Contact - Review

Contact was billed as a game that would bring a breath of fresh air to role-playing games. No more cliched plots, spiky-haired kids, or same old battle systems. This game would be different and special! Early screen shots showed an aesthetic that was similar to Earthbound, a cult classic for its humor and presentation on the Super Nintendo. Thus, I came to this game with high hopes, not even dashed by the luke-warm reviews it received.

Contact certainly is innovative, especially in the story department. It is post-modern in that it involves you, the guy pushing buttons on the DS, in the game. There is no fourth wall here. When the game starts, a professor has been sending out messages and makes contact with you. Your DS gives you the ability to communicate with him and you begin telling him about yourself. You two are interrupted when his spaceship is attacked by an unknown force and crashes on the nearest planet. While doing so, it picks up a local boy, Terry. Once the professor and Terry recover, the professor realizes that the energy source for his ship, cells of the mysterious element 117 are gone and scattered all over. Terry agrees to help the professor find his energy source. Then the professor has a private conversation with you where he tells you that you should control Terry and help him along and figure out where to go. As the game goes on, you find another group, the CosmoNOTs are also looking for element 117, and are responsible for crashing the professor's ship. Apparently they want to use it for some nefarious purpose.

As stories goes, the one in Contact definitely holds your interest because it seems to unfold like a mystery. You slowly learn more about the CosmoNOTs and their plans. It kept me going so I could see what happen. I was disappointed that, even at the end of the game, the motivations of the professor and the CosmoNOTs are still not clear. Certainly, neither is presented as purely good or evil at the end of the game, but I wasn't much closer to understanding what their eventual goals were.

While the story itself is fairly good, the localization of this game is amazing. Clearly, the guy from Atlus that localized this game put a lot of effort into making the characters understandable and sympathetic. Oh, and funny! There are a lot of great uses of language ("He put his eyes on the prize and used his thighs!") and plenty of inside jokes which admittedly may not stand up so well many years on ("Hit his weakpoint for MASSIVE DAMAGE!", "I wish a base like this belonged to us."). Still, when the text of a game that is very Japanese in origin makes me smile like this, I know it is doing something right. I mean, Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime also had a great and roughly equivalent localization, so for a much smaller market game like Contact, I am impressed.

The gameplay consists of you controlling Terry, either with the D-pad or the stylus. Occasionally you also use the stylus to interact with something on the bottom screen (such as shaking fruit off of trees). When you encounter an enemy, you can press B to go into combat mode where Terry will periodically whack the enemy with whatever weapon he has equipped. Because combat is real-time and there is no menu system to choose what to do, positioning Terry in battle and choosing special attacks at the right time is important. The game doesn't rely on reflexes so this isn't an action RPG, but it does make the game different from a more typical menu-based system.

Terry has a variety of statistics such as health, stamina, strength, wisdom, blade proficiency, blunt weapon proficiency, blade resistance, fire proficiency, fire resistance, courage, karma, cooking, fishing, and thieving. You raise these statistics by using them. So, attacking an enemy will raise strength, aim, and blade proficiency (if have a blade weapon equipped). Getting attacked increases agility, and if you get hit, health, stamina, and resistance to whatever kind of attacked hit you. Thus, Contact is different from the traditional RPG by eschewing the level system in favor of skill increases.

Throughout the game, you will acquire various costumes. The costumes you wear changes your stats in various ways and gives you special powers you only have available by wearing the costume. For example, the Knuckle Mole costume increases your hit points, slows you down (I think), and allows you to dig and make special earth-based attacks. The more you use these earth-based attacks (or weapons that include an earth component), the more your earth proficiency goes up and when it goes up enough you get new earth-based skills and attacks.

Besides being a costume for each level, there are three "job" costumes: Mr. Cuisine, Fisher King, and Shadow Thief. Mr. Cuisine allows you to cook. In the game, you restore health (and raise attributes) by eating various kinds of foods. These foods also fill your stomach to a certain extent and take a certain amount of time to digest, so you can't just keep eating. Cooking is the art of making one food into another. You may cook meat and turn it into tasty BBQ. Or cook lettuce and tomato to make a salad. Fisher King allows you to fish when you are near water. When fishing, you wait until a fish yanks down your bob then pull up. If you have enough fishing skill for the fish that bit your line, you will reel it in. To be honest, I never found fishing to be very useful. Finally, Shadow Thief allows you to pick locks. This gives you access to extra treasure chests or rooms.

The game also makes use of decals - stickers you can peel off and use. ? Decals are ones that boost Terry's stats. You will find them in treasure chests and monsters drop them. You then peel them off to find out what they do (such as +2 Strength and +1 Defense) and then choose whether to attack or discard it. There are also super decals that have special functions in the game. Some have utility like recovering a cell or returning to the ship, but most effect the enemies on screen in some way.

The game world is divided into a series of islands. The professor has attached his ship to an old galleon and you use it to sail around to the different islands to find the cells. Islands do not show up on your map until you have heard about them. Generally, you go around a new island talking to anyone on it, figure out where you are supposed to go, then trek through the "dungeon" of that island (the dungeon may be a pyramid or a military base or a huge store). There are quite a lot of people to talk to in the game and various side quests you can do involving them. The island dungeons themselves are put together well and fun to explore, though you generally won't get too far on your first time through. You'll trek through, raise some skills, then have to retreat. Eventually you'll be able to make it to the end, fight a boss, and then get a clue as to where the next cell is. The Habara dungeon is clearly the best of the game, putting Terry into 8-bit video game worlds.

The biggest problem with Contact is the tedium. RPGs have long since passed the day where you need to spend hours fighting and leveling up before progressing on to the next area. Some grinding can definitely be required, but it should not detract from the game. The game is very difficult early on and it can take 20 tries to finally get through the second dungeon. This necessity to sit and fight enemies instead of progressing seems intended to length the game as there are only six major dungeons in it. Beyond just fighting, plenty of other things seem to just serve to take time unnecessarily. If I want to fish while the ship is crossing the ocean, the time it takes to get from place to place is fine. But if I want to just get there, the only way to skip ahead is to save. And saving takes time because, after you actually save the game, you then have to play with Mochi (the professor's dog) for a period of time. Cooking, which becomes necessary later on to make the health items you'll need to survive in dungeons also has an unskippable animation. This may have been the first negative paragraph I have written in this review, but it is a huge issue. The game just ceases to be fun when you have to pound monsters for 10 minutes before progressing or wait forever when traversing between islands to complete a side quest.

The graphics in this game are quite nice. As mentioned, the graphics of the professor and Mochi in his spaceship are a nod to Earthbound. They have a very minimalist stylization. The rest of the graphics are a mixture of nice 2D art and 3D modeled-looking art. It works very well and makes the game colorful and detailed. The sound in the game consists mostly of the grunts and slashes of you or enemies attacking. Each type of person has their own sound they make when talking. Sound is used nicely in cut scenes, but otherwise in forgettable. The music is appropriate for each area you are in and helps set the mood. It isn't incredibly memorable as it took me awhile to remember anything besides the music in the professor's room.

I'm sure some people enjoy RPGs where you need to grind through enemies to raise your stats. I don't mind that as part or as a side quest in a game, but to me RPGs are about exploring new areas, interacting with people, and strategizing over how to beat new enemies. They are not about killing the same enemy a hundred times so you are powerful enough to move on (or at least they haven't been since Dragon Warrior). This game is very clever in parts and the costume system and stat raising system are fairly unique touches. The story kept me going so I could find out more about the characters (and I was disappointed I never did) and the localization kept me smiling. I didn't really have to force myself to play through this, but I was never looking forward to playing it either. If you want to try a quirky RPG, you might give it a try, but be prepared for some monotony.

Rating: 6 / 10

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