Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Policenauts - The Greatest Story Ever Told?



See more synonyms on Thesaurus.com

noun Rhetoric.
  1. obvious and intentional exaggeration.
  2. an extravagant statement or figure of speech not intended to be taken literally, such as “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.

Those of you now familiar with the Krishna style of reportage, will realise that the information that follows the title of each of my posts, rarely corresponds with the title itself. Today's subject is no different. Policenauts is of course, NOT the best story ever told... That honour goes of course to Ryo Hazuki's vengeful odyssey in Shenmue, but I digress...
And now to contradict myself outrageously within the first paragraph: Policenauts is indeed the greatest story ever told... The greatest story ever told... on the Saturn.

Now this is not a review... In order to review it, I would  have to comment on the story, assessing it's characters, setting, plot twists and outcomes. I simply cannot do all of that. If I did, it could possibly create a huge rift between myself and one of the other Junkyard correspondents, The Virtua Schlub - Mr. Brian Vines. The other day I posted a snippet of plot on the Saturn Junkyard Facebook page and Mr. Schlub chastised me for being a "huge spoiler dropping butt-munch", so don't be worried dear reader, I won't be dropping any "S-Bombs" during this epistle. 

So what can I tell you? Well first of all, don't play this game unless you like reading... a lot. Whilst there is voice acted Japanese dialogue, you'll have to read the (excellent) fan translated sub-titles at the bottom. Large amounts of the dialogue on the original game were in written Japanese, no voice acting. So there is never a moment when you can look away from the screen , get up to take a leak, grab a beer from the fridge, start chiefing, or in my case, go and put the kettle on.
Which brings me to a second point. The only way you can play this game, as a non-Japanese speaker, is with a' bootlegged' or 'reproduction' disk incorporating a fan translation... So if you're on a moral high ground about piracy, this game is not for you.

Policenauts is a game by the legendary producer responsible for the Metal Gear franchise - Hideo Kojima. Kojima is one of the most cinematic of game creators. His stories are intricate, character rich and plot driven. He drives his stories forward with lengthy cut scenes and demands the undivided attention of the player... his titles are most definitely NOT for the casual gamer.

If I had to compare this game to another, it would be to the DS classic; 'Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney'. The game is essentially a point and click "investigation", with different explorations of the plot, strung together with animated cut-scenes. Another way to describe the game would be an interactive novel. Whilst there are some shooting elements, which can be played on a CRT TV with a light gun - or on modern TVs using the regular Saturn controller - the game is essentially a slow and pedestrian plod, through a vast amount of information.  

Visually, the game looks like a typical Japanese cartoon - the characters look essentially like Caucasian or African Americans (some are of course meant to be...) but even those with Japanese names are represented as westerners... something I've never really understood. The cartoon-like visual presentation means that the game has really stood the test of time... There are plenty of elements that show the game's age, but not the graphics. I have no idea why this style of visuals was not employed more, particularly for cut-scenes... (Radiant Silvergun is one that comes to mind - a game that successfully fuses both 'regular' in-game graphics for the combat and traditional animation to expand the game's back-story. For all it's simplicity the animation does have some beautiful moments... shafts of light streaming through windows, tears brimming up in the eyes of  protagonists and deep breaths clouding the plastic of a patient's oxygen mask for example. The game has a score which is movie-like in it's execution, providing the necessary dramatic soundscape to enhance the story and underline moments of tension, sadness and triumph.

The plot is a detective story; a cop 'buddy movie' if you will. It has, of course, a futuristic science fiction setting. What I will divulge now is only the setting for the story, a fraction of the information you learn before the story begins, but if you're determined to go in blind, skip this paragraph! The year is 2037... 19 years from now. Of course, by that time we will have colonised space, but still be wearing clothe-styles created in the late 1980s. The story centres around two ex-Police Astronauts or 'Policenauts', assigned to protect man's first fully functioning Space Colony "Beyond Coast".
Ed Brown and Jonathan Ingram are the Policenauts in question, first stationed on the colony in the year of it's completion, 2013 (!) Unfortunately Jonathan is blasted into space at the start of his tour of duty, his body frozen in stasis, floating through space trapped in his survival pod... only to be found and rescued 24 years later. Whilst his colleagues in the Policenauts have aged, for Jonathan time  has stood still...

The characters of Ed and Jonathan may look very familiar. That is because Kojima is unashamed in drawing references from popular cultural sources. You will recognise the two main protagonists as Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon franchise. Unfortunately the Gibson mullet - business at the front, party at the back - sported by Jonathan, has aged the look of the game dramatically. I think I cringe at the hairstyle more than most, as I too sported a massive mullet, through the vast majority of the 1980s.

Father Krishna rocking the double mullet... curly at the back, straight at the front, at Stonehenge in 1987.
As well as getting the futuristic fashions drastically wrong, the fact that Jonathan is a smoker (and that this is considered emblematic of his cool/rebellious nature) seems anachronistic, particularly in the sterile atmosphere of space. Dismissing the advice and opinions of doctors, colleagues and friends, Jonathan has a fag dangling from his mouth permanently... which kind of lose him cool points in 2018. Or am I just being an old square?

The thing that most dramatically dates the game however, is the sexist nonsense that pervades the narrative. As Jonathan, you must probe and examine the minutiae of every scene. That includes the characters, what they are wearing, their physical features and attributes. By running a cursor over the scene (as you would with a mouse) and clicking on various parts of the picture, you get the opportunity to mine nuggets of information or prompt dialogue from the person you are interrogating. When you get to the breast area of each female character, Jonathan gets the option to touch them, at which point they will move around with a comedy "boing!" sound. He will then make an assessment of her 'fuckability' in one way or another. Now I've no doubt that this was intended as a bit of light relief in a videogame from twenty three years ago. I doubt it was intentionally misogynist. But it sits uncomfortably in this millennium and somehow cheapens the game's reputation in my opinion. But do you want to know the worst thing? As the player, I did it more than once - you get so used to rinsing every piece of information out of every scenario, that somehow you're drawn to do everything you are able to, before you leave the scene! Okay... I'm off to confession and therapy,  just as soon as I've finished this article. 😉

Other than his pervy handiness, the character of Jonathan, along with many other  characters, is believable and likeable - demanding you invest empathy and  emotion into them. Played quickly and exclusively, the immersion will be intense. By the time you finish the game, you should have experienced their feelings... horror, hope, remorse, jubilation, astonishment and regret. Kojima does a great job of portraying the friendship between Jonathan and "Eddo" - there are even a few tear jerking moments of tenderness between the two macho, tough-guy Policenauts.

The main positive of this game is also it's main drawback - and that is the amount of detail and information packed into each scenario. It allows for the establishment of a very convincing futuristic world... factoids about every aspect of life on the colony of "Beyond Coast" are there to be discovered. It fleshes out the backstory of each character, making them believable and real to the player.
It also makes the game LONG! REALLY, REALLY LONG! It took me nine months (off and on) to actually complete the game. Sometimes, the thought of playing it would prevent me from loading it up... so much point and click, so little action. This would have blown my mind in 1996 - which is when it was being played by cosmopolitan and forward thinking Japanese gamers - but in 2017/18 its pace is a tad monotonous at times. But a very forgiving 'save/load' system and the offer of a progress summary whenever you fire up the game, you can actually leave it for weeks without playing and then easily come back to it.

Am I glad I kept going? Yes! Getting to the end of the game felt like an achievement. The game goes through so many plot twists, revelations, character switches and false leads that your head will be swimming by the end of it. I would argue, that like Seaman on the Dreamcast, this is a quintessential console experience. If you have a Saturn, you must play Policenauts. Our supreme leader Segata Sanshiro told me to tell you that, so don't let him down... If you want to know more facts and information of the game, look here:


jon lee said...

a most excellent article and helps to highlight the benefit of fan translation packs that help to bring previously unplayable games (due to the language barrier) to a new audience.

Gary Cormack said...

This is my favourite write up so far, Excellent job, it’s inspirational and full of character, more people need to see this, makes me want to try a similar write up myself.


Simon Early said...

Why thanks Gaz! That's very kind. Thanks Jon as Well! 😎

Mungbean said...

Great write up. I have been wanting to play this. Our platinum member has been very helpful with everything I need so when I get some proper holiday time, I know what I will be doing. Games like this that require fan translation are fine as they help bring a game to the west that would never had made it.

The Virtua Schlub said...

Fantastic write up, Simon...despite the liberties taken in the paraphrased misquote, haha.

Anyway, I just started playing Policenauts yesterday. Can’t wait to delve further into its ostensibly hyper-intricate setting and narrative. I’m a sucker for games where I can poke and prod at the environment in an endless search for context. So far, I love that it leverages players’ inquisitive instincts to drive its storytelling. Really enjoying it, mullets and all.

NebachadnezzaR said...

One of your best write ups in the history of the blog, I believe!

I have to admit I've only played the Playstation version. I had been eyeing it for so long, being a fan of Kojima's work, that when the PSX translation came out I immediately jumped on it. I did it shortly after playing his previous game, Snatcher, which is also an adventure style game in a futuristic setting, so they go really well together.

This one really is a very polished game, with a fully realized world. I think the main character's smoking habit actually makes him edgier nowadays when quitting smoking is all the rage (and for the best, I'm an ex-smoker myself). Agree that it's not practical in space, though. On that subject, there's an amazing anime series about space called Planetes where one of the characters has to go in a sealed chamber to have a fag, lest they contaminate the whole space station.

I also don't view the sexist jokes in such a negative light, but then again, by modern standards I'm a shitlord so maybe I'm just insensitive to it. I think it's hilarious, if a bit childish.

Overall a top-notch game that should be experienced by any Saturn fan, provided that they enjoy reading.

Josh Dollins said...

I need to bite the bullet and get this and play it!