Product Number 03 - Gamecube
by Josh Hsieh

Vanessa Schneider is sort of like Cameron Diaz, a sexy special agent who doesn’t look anything like her last name and takes orders from a man she never sees. She is fleshed out in the typical proportions assigned to voluptuous videogame vixens, and stands in a posture that makes scoliosis look sexy. Speaking of which, she wears power suits that plugs into her brain through her spine, utilizing the most neuro of circuits for the best in broadband: the speed of thought. These power suits are thick but form-fitting, and with a thought she ends enemies with energy. Sexy, sci-fi, Schneider. And there you have it, a simple character equation for a simple game with an even simpler story. But don’t go skipping off to Viewtiful Joe just yet soldier, remember that simplicity means less, but less does not mean easy. This game is not easy, and it is not what it appears to be. Like simplicity, it’s misunderstood. That’s why you’re reading this review, right? Read on…

The misunderstanding comes from the appearance of the game, which is to say its graphics. Vanessa, her enemies, and her environment emerge from the master mold of 3rd person sci-fi action platformers, and are glazed in an almost grainy mip-mapping of texture. Not bad, but not bold, not Capcom, and you may think, not worth my money! I felt the same way when I first played the game. I can still remember it like it was yesterday…

Yesterday I opened the package, opened the Gamecube, put in the game, and pressed power. I looked at logos: Nintendo, Dolby, Capcom, PN03, Vanessa. Then I pressed start, and then…it started. No story, just dusty clouds and sandy grounds. You see, Vanessa and I got dropped off at the surface of a colony planet, outside a government base gone bad. I only know that the government is human and that I am in trouble. My ignorance is to be expected, however, as the only interface I have with the story is a two-way receiver made up of faces, frequencies, and fiction. In other words, Metal Gear Solid’s story screen without the audio. Before I meet my first enemy, a mystery man I like to call “Charlie” radios in to tell me I’m wearing an Aegis power suit, connected to my spine. Well howdy doody, here I am in the middle of a dust bowl full of martial machines and all I got is a palm pistol. A bit like Beserk (the VCS/arcade game, not the anime). Resignedly, Vanessa decides to get. But that’s when appearance collides with reality.

Despite a graphic layout that is like any other 3rd person action platformer, the execution feels like Galaga and looks like Beserk would in 3D. The graphics tell me the world is my 3D playground, go forth and frolic, but the controller tells me to step into line and march to the tune of a…dance instructor. No fooling, Vanessa’s movement is strictly segmented forcing you to move in cardinal directions as in a 2D shooter. There is more to the movement, but the control makes it difficult to do. And though curvy as a spaceship, Vanessa looks more like a ballistic ballerina. The bottom line of the gameplay, however, is that of a shooter, where you win with simple small strokes within a small contained canvas. I say small because after the first level the rest of the game is spent underground in a labyrinth of claustrophobic corridors. It is in this environment that the interplay of music and rhythmic patterns reveal the hidden aesthetic and indeed the hidden gameplay of PN03.

The ballistic ballerina is more than a metaphor of Vanessa, it is the reality of the subject at hand. To see Vanessa on the attack is to see the unmistakable choreography of ballet. This is especially true of her special moves, which differ according to the suit she wears. The haute quality of these moves show that they were designed as a centerpiece of the gameplay. The grace of movement is accentuated by pyrotechnics that make the attack the spectacle. This spectacle has a greater significance because of the enemies and the environment. The enemies appear and arrange themselves in fixed, rhythmic patterns that seem synchronous with the soundtrack. They attack in set patterns as well, reflecting an A.I. that is clearly not sentient but robotic. Like Vanessa, their range and attack are clearly established and stylistic, with a comparable amount of pyrotechnics. Thus both Vanessa and her enemies move in a choreographed manner that is the bread and butter of many 2-D shooters. The enemy energy meters bring to mind British developer Rage Software’s wonderful 3-D shooter Incoming, and further enforce the impression of PN03 as a shooter in every sense of the word. Still, it is the closed environments that is most influential in rooting PN03’s gameplay in 2-D shooters.

Capcom married the closed environment model to the gameplay, as Vanessa’s movements do not feel appropriate in the open air environment of the first level. Strafe, crouch and jump are so predictable and punctuated that you can visually measure your movement in increments. This is a necessity where space is a premium, and reaching cover means the difference between game and game over. The levels are confined in themselves, and between themselves, such that the worlds are subdivided into rooms which appear one at a time. These rooms are truly their own levels, with a fixed amount of enemies and performance tally at the end of each stage. Thus PN03 presents the game in a way that is similar to the rounds of enemies faced in 2-D shooters. The environments require you to strafe and shoot, hiding behind carefully placed crevices and corners in the game. Thus very little about the game is haphazard, and nearly everything has a function. The ongoing narrative with “Charlie” even comments on the levels topography, which bespeaks of a carefully organized level design.

The inter-level simplicity is subtly seen in the exit doors of the room/level, for which there is no animation to indicate their opening or closing. This may seem the result of laziness, but in fact it is the result of an important decision to streamline the flow of the gameplay. This is wise for a game where rhythm is very important, as it is with all shooters. Furthermore it maintains the sovereignty of the levels from each other, while not making the required travel between them a chore. Vanessa need only touches the door, presses A and brings up the level tally screen. After this, the next level can be accessed almost immediately (2-3 seconds after the tally screen appears) with the press of a button, which illuminates yet another way in which PN03 streamlines its flow of gameplay. There is no loading time in this game, which really maintains the circulation of the gameplay. It is amazing to consider the psychological effects of loading times, which interrupt the cognitive connection to the imaginary world, which is so very visual, with a static screen. It makes the world seem wobbly and less coherent. Thus the elimination of loading time as an appreciable part of the gameplay is a demonstration of how Capcom afforded the gamer a less cluttered mind that can focus on the gameplay.

The highly specialized gameplay in turn, can only be fully appreciated when the player has unmitigated access to it. Loading times and slowdown would disrupt the rhythmic pattern based gameplay. For PN03 to work, there has to be a constant rhythm, for the game relies on a certain compulsory addiction that is intrinsic to shooters. One example is the point system, which benefits from the smooth flow of gameplay by involving the gamer in a constant grading system based on kills, damage, and time. The points received are just like credits, and you must spend them to buy continues, suits, and suit upgrades. Capcom made this a central part of the game, as the constant cycling of rooms brings with it a constant grading system that inspires you into a compulsion to do better. This in turn inspires you to memorize the moves and movement that will allow you to pass with a grade of perfect, namely the special moves. Vanessa pulls off some awesome stunts, whose input is very much like the special moves of Meteor Butterfly and a Blade. In fact, there is much in common with the two games, as both allow for head to head style fighting in a multiplayer context by limiting the size and increasing the difficulty of these enemies. They also incorporate a similar lock on system as well. Lastly, they glorify form over flurry, and this is more true of PN03 than MBB. Much of this form is sexual, as Vanessa’s breasts and buttocks strike a pose at every opportunity. Yet this fluid and sometimes twitchy sexuality does not really appear when you are moving, and like the animation for the control stick movement, the game is rather stiff and choppy.

As earlier said, Vanessa’s range of motion is limited on the ground, and her one jump is extremely abrupt. Strafing is short and segmented twirl, but it is just enough to do the trick in the closed corridors of the game. The truth is, you can’t avoid the enemies as you would intuitively do with a character like Vanessa. Normally you would outmaneuver them with wide broad strokes, but this is not the point of the game. You are supposed to be amid the crossfire and walk a tight rope between shooting and moving out of harms way. It’s addicting, because you can sit there and tap away till tendonitis but eventually the enemies will begin their assault cycle and then you have to move. You will want to squeeze as much damage as you can, but will be bound by the blasts coming at you. So it’s a psychological addiction. If Vanessa were to move as athletically as she looks, the game would not work. Perhaps, you would prefer that, but not Vanessa. The Germans are devils for discipline, and that is exactly what the gameplay requires…route memorization of movement.

Speaking of German, the soundtrack is bright but subdued, hi-fi techno that gives the game a Run Lola Run tempo. Very fitting for the radiant but reserved Schneider, who like Lola is always on the run. And like her confused countrywoman, the music doesn’t merely match her movement, it is her movement. You see, when Vanessa isn’t on the attack, she’s gyrating to the music. An attack of a different sort I suppose, subtle but substantial and decidedly sexual. Somewhat like the soundtrack. Speaking of which, the music and movement evoke this aerobic atmosphere, which is in sharp contrast to the reality of me sitting on my butt, staring at a screen. Not as glamorous perhaps, but what are videogames for if not to escape? But I digress, now as for the music it is digital, Dolby, and dangerously Deutschlike. And there you have it, the triad of techno. But before you go hipping and hopping to the bad boy beats of True Crime: Streets of LA, remember that subtle is sophistication. And you are sophisticated. That’s why you’re reading this review, right? So read on.

Short and Sweet or Short and Shoddy?

The game has gotten a lot of bad press, and there are some shortcomings. But it is not so much the gameplay as it is the length, because the game is too short. Many great games have been too short. Jumping Flash comes to mind, but is PN03 short but sweet, or short and shoddy? Now we must turn to the gameplay. Vanessa, the environments, the enemies are illusory, and belie the elaborately concealed shooter within it, predicated upon pattern-memorization. If one can accept this, then the game becomes much easier to accept for what it is. As for what it is, well, it does what it should do pretty well. The game has a fixed number of enemies, fixed numbers of patterns, and fixed numbers of room designs. There is monotony to this game, but was this not the case of Pac-Man, Galaga, Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, and pretty much every shooter out there? Surely, but what makes monotony acceptable is the enjoyment of the gameplay. That is for you to decide. I enjoyed the gameplay, the building up of the power-move meter, the execution of special moves that were really just as spectacle of style and sexiness. It’s as if Capcom made a game for all those kids who would play the Street Fighter Vs series only to use the super moves. This game is always placing you in a situation where clutch performance is required, which is why special moves factor in so heavily. Its like a diet full of candy, and it can be just as addictive. Everything but the graphics screams shooter, which is why you need to play the game yourself and find out.

Josh Hsieh is a bit like Berzerk himself

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