Publisher: Lexis Numérique
Available on: Xbox LIVE Arcade, PlayStation Network (PC version to follow) (Reviewed on Xbox LIVE Arcade)
Paul Cuisset remains best known for his work on Flashback, the 1992 platform adventure that is remembered fondly by all who played it, and to this day remains the biggest-selling French videogame ever made. He also less fortuitously worked on the horrendous beat-em-up starring the eponymous NBA baller, Shaq-Fu. So when one hears that Amy, the new game from Lexis Numerique, is from the mind of Cuisset, one ponders: will this be a Flashback or a Shaq-Fu?
We start off in a promising manner. On board a train headed to Silver City, we join our two protagonists: Lana and Amy. At this point we are treated to one of the few moments of plot development and backstory, as we learn that Lana has rescued the eight year old autistic Amy from a science institute, run by a mysterious Professor Raymond. We get the feeling that there has been some shady things going on at the facility, and Lana had to sneak Amy out of that situation, although the details are never fully disclosed. One of their allies is waiting at the Silver City Hospital to see what has really been done to Amy. We begin to see how close the two individuals are, but just then we see a strange explosion outside the window and the train begins to go out of control and suddenly crashes.
Following the crash, the two are sent into a city where all of the regular populace have been turned into dangerous, mindless zombies and the pair try to make their way to the safety of the hospital. It appears that Professor Raymond has more power than we thought, and that he is behind the whole situation, even sending in shock troopers to clean up the mess and track down the escapees.
This all sounds like quite a tense thriller right? Well unfortunately, the plot is never really developed further. We see hints of things here and there, such as a Preacher on a TV screen talking about a sanctuary he is setting up for survivors, or news reports that we find in a dropped newspaper along the way, but the full extent of the plot behind it all is never revealed or made clear. You keep moving along, expecting some big reveal or explanation but unfortunately it never arrives; that leaves an unsatisfying taste in the mouth.
Visually, the game certainly doesn’t feature many bells or whistles. It isn’t bad per se, but there is a lot of visual tearing and the character models don’t move in a particularly fluid manner. It all looks and feels a little stiff, and the action doesn’t look all that convincing at any rate. The design isn’t stylised in any way, so the lo-fi character models and stilted animation don’t help create a realistic atmosphere. As you might expect from a Survival Horror title, most of the game takes part in the shadows, or in dark areas, so none of the locations are very attractive or interesting to look at. This means that the colour palette is limited, which is excusable, but there is no imagination in the design of the areas. They are all cookie-cutter and repetitive, with each level looking more or less the same as the one that came before.
The sound design further hinders the title, what with a combination of wooden voice acting, entirely out-of-time lip-synching and basic sound effects, Amy won’t blow you away in the audio department. The music is good and atmospheric, and there are plenty of cheap scares that can be put down to stressed violin stings or sudden, shocking sounds, but this is all Survival Horror by numbers stuff, which doesn’t make the game stand out above competitors.
There are some good ideas in the title. The relationship between Lana and Amy is brought out well through the idea that the two of them must hold hands throughout large sections of the game. Players control Lana who, when left by herself, will slowly succumb to the infection that has affected all of the other citizens. A meter on your back will tell you how far the infection has gone, and the screen will distort as you get close to full infection. Amy is the cure though, by holding hands she will refresh your energy and clear you of the virus. You can also pick up booster syringes as you go along, but they can become scarce, especially on the higher difficulties, so you tend to rely on Amy more than anything else to keep Lana healthy.
This is strengthened further in the periods that the two are separated, whether it be by puzzles or enemies. Sometimes you will have to send Amy into a small hole, in order for her to open a door for you, or clear a path, which will lead to the two of you being seperated. As the infection takes hold, your heart beats, the controller rumbles, and the game really makes you worry that you don’t have time to reach Amy before you die. Even visually, Lana will start to turn into a zombie, and you really panic that you need to rush back to the safety of your young partner.
Unfortunately, all of these puzzles are so similar to one another, that the game suffers from a deficit of imagination. Almost all of them will involve you telling Amy to open a door for you or activate a lift, and then run to another area to re-unite. They all feel more or less the same and this makes each puzzle seem like a hassle rather than something challenging to overcome. At other times you will need to escape enemies, but this always involves the same old hiding in a closet until they pass by. The enemies themselves are all more or less the same and the game suffers from repetition in almost every department.
An interesting extra factor is the idea that Amy can analyse glyphs you find now and again, which give her special abilities. There is the Silence power and the Shockwave one, and these are needed to pass some puzzles successfully. Broken glass on the floor but need to sneak past a guard? Use Silence. Wooden planks blocking your way? Clear them out with the Shockwave. These are nice touches, but they are only really usable in certain situations, which are all clearly signposted, so the player doesn’t feel any freedom or power in using them. They are just tools, and as such, become something mundane that doesn’t add to the enjoyment of the player.
Another really unsatisfying aspect of the game is the combat system. To begin with, if you don’t have a weapon, you cannot attack. And as weapons decay after several uses, you often find yourself empty-handed. This is really frustrating, especially early in the game, before you have learnt Shockwave (which can at least slow down your enemies). when you do have a weapon, there is just one basic attack when your opponent is standing and one when they are grounded. You can dodge their attacks, but the dodge is clunky and doesn’t always work how you want it to. The collision in attacks is bad, and half of the time when you think you have connected, it doesn’t, or when you think that you have dodged an enemy, you actually take a hit. Every fight is exactly the same, and each is as frustrating as the rest.
The final nail in the coffin is the lack of a player-activated save system and some really unforgiving check-pointing. You cannot save when you wish, you can only rely on automatic checkpoints. These are few and far between, and when you do die, often Lana is taken back a long way and you lose a big section of gameplay, forcing you to re-play even more of the irritating fights. If you decide to stop playing for the day and come back to the game, your checkpoints too are lost! Players have to re-start from the beginning of the chapter every time they switch the machine off and on again. This system is counter-intuitive and punishing to the player, it isn’t even a throwback to the past, it is just bad design. The bad checkpointing makes the game hard, the poor combat system makes the game hard, this isn’t a challenging game, but a difficult one to control that becomes frustrating.
VERDICT: The main mechanic of the game is a great idea, but the overall execution lets it down somewhat, whilst the rest of the package offers nothing that can be recommended to the gamer. It is a different Survival Horror experience, one that tries to develop a strong bond between the two female leads. The lack of story and character development undermines this good idea however, leaving us with something that is a slog to go through. Completing all of the stages is a chore and there is little to motivate you to get through it all. This isn’t quite Shaq-Fu territory, as there are attempts at creativity and clever design, they just don’t come together effectively, meaning Amy remains somewhat of a problem child.