As mentioned in the box over to the right, today I’m reviewing Amy, a downloadable game that was released yesterday on Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network and PC. I’ll be reviewing the Xbox Live version of the game but I wouldn’t expect many differences between the different versions.
The premise of the game sounds fascinating. You play as Lana, a scientist who has rescued one of the subjects from the lab she works at. The rescued subject is Amy, a four or five year old mute girl who seems to develop psychic powers as the game goes on. A virus has infected the city you’re moving through, turning everyone into psychotic monsters bent on killing anyone uninfected. While Amy is immune to the virus, Lana isn’t, but she can be healed of any contamination by sticking close to Amy who just may carry the key to the whole mystery behind the virus and its cure. Sometimes Lana will have to risk death by becoming purposely contaminated with the virus in order to enter areas teeming with monsters and clear a path that she can later bring Amy through without being seen.
While the story sounded quite interesting, it was this last aspect that interested me most about the gameplay as the idea of the risk/reward ratio of becoming purposely infected with a zombie virus in order to slip through their ranks was something that hasn’t been done all that often. Having the little girl act as a mobile decontamination point seemed like it could open up some truly interesting gameplay opportunities. Unfortunately we wont know about that until another game tries to do the same things as Lexis Numérique, the developers of Amy, only ever force this gameplay on the player rather than allowing the player to make it their own choice. One entire level is built around that concept and you’re forced to play that way as the game ends if you’re seen and recognised as human. While the opening sequence to maybe one other level is best played that way due to lack of weapons to defend yourself with, there aren’t any real points in the game where you feel that you may be able to play it as you want to, making judgement calls about what may be best. Each level expects you to play a certain way and there are a lot of game overs coming your way should you decide to play it any differently.
True, the game does occasionally split Lana and Amy up, forcing the player to race against time to get back to Amy as they become more and more infected. The ways this is done are seemingly out of the Penguin Big Book Of Videogame Clichés though. Facilities around the world are built with elevators that have buttons to operate them on the other side of a room, usually up on their own platform. Combined with the fact that Amy can’t climb ladders (Lana can but only very very very slowly) and you can almost see the increasing desperation of the developers to create something playable. “We’ve got some interesting features to this otherwise generic zombie game”, they must have thought, “How can we show them off so the player doesn’t miss them and hack and slash his way through the game?” Almost every situation in which Lana has to leave Amy behind is painfully contrived and one level even starts with Amy running away for absolutely no explained reason. Had the game had more open arenas (with plenty of enemies but also plenty of hiding spots) that allowed for more judgement calls to be made on whether to fight or hide, these contrivances wouldn’t have been needed, and the game would have been much better off. Players would have found a natural rhythm between hiding, fighting, splitting up and allowing the infection to take them for a while, sticking together for protection from the virus and making progress through the story, and I truly believe that the basic relationship mechanics in this game could have allowed for the game to be a masterpiece with only the barest of effort put into truly non-linear level design. Alas, this was not to be.
Some genuinely creepy enemy design combines with Amy’s obvious vulnerability to promise so much.
Sadly, more than this game is able to deliver.
This lack of freedom applies to almost every aspect of the game. Amy can pick up powers by drawing glyphs that can be found in the environment. These powers are usually located just before they are needed and usually in places that you can’t get past without them. I missed one power which blasts wooden beams away when they’re nailed over doors and, as this was the first time I should have found the power and I had no idea that it existed, it kept me stuck on one part of a level for fifteen minutes simply trying to find how to get where I was going. The lack of signposting in the game and the insistence that the game be played only one possible way affects so many other places that some will no doubt decide the game is unplayable to the point of being broken and leave long before the credits have run. Others will stick out the six relatively short chapters of the game and come away even more annoyed at the lack of information about what they’ve just been playing. So much of the game background isn’t explained in the game itself, to the point that even the fact that the year is supposed to be 2034 was only found out from the website. At the end of the game no explanations were forthcoming and a new character/the mad professor we were running away from (explained in the opening cutscene so not technically a spoiler)/the priest we saw on a monitor early in the game shows up and there is nothing to tell the player which of the three this character is meant to be. Characters also blatantly exist only to keep the story going and are never heard of outside of their cutscenes.
Now I could complain a little about the level design being a bit samey, and how easily the player can get lost due to that, but the fact is that the majority of the game is set inside a metro station and those are designed to be that way anyway. Some fault does fall on the graphics obviously, but this is a downloadable title and this sort of quality was to be expected for the price. Likewise, the slightly shoddy voice acting was expected for the price, despite Supergiant Games showing recently with Bastion how attention to voice acting in a budget title could easily tell an incredibly moving story that is truly beautiful in some places. I forgive the game these shortcomings as it is a budget title, yet there are so many other things wrong with the game that I can’t score it anywhere near as highly as I’d hoped to when I first heard of it. There are the bones of a masterpiece hidden in the rotting corpse of Amy, but they never quite show themselves nor are they given the flesh needed to make them thrive. Like Lana must have during the space of the game, by the time you’re finished you may have come to realise that Amy is more of a burden to be dragged around than you’d first hoped she’d be.