Snatcher (Sega CD) review
"ACT I "
“This was a pretty rough first assignment, Gillian.”
So says JUNKER chief Benson Cunningham to Snatcher protagonist agent Gillian Seed in what will prove to have been an outlandish understatement, considering what that first assignment develops into. Taking into account the problems Gillian is already suffering from, “rough” isn’t even in the ballpark. By the end of this menu-driven digital adventure -- perhaps the most engrossing of its kind -- Seed will have been through hell and back.
June 6, 1996 proves to be a noteworthy date: half of the world’s population is wiped out by the release and atmospheric dispersion of the secretly produced biological weapon Lucifer Alpha after an explosion at the Chernoton Research Facility near Moscow. The day is appropriately dubbed The Catastrophe. Although we jump to 2047 Japan, this event’s significance isn’t to be forgotten.
We join Gillian on his first day as a JUNKER (Japanese Undercover Neuro-Kinetic Elimination Ranger) agent, and immediately learn that he and his wife both suffer from severe amnesia; they can remember nothing prior to being taken into protective custody after being found in the abandoned Siberian Neutral Zone a few years before. Now coping with a marriage made barren by deprivation of memories, Seed, after extensive military training, enters JUNKER in an attempt to piece together a picture of his own personal history. The only recurring memory to Seed is the word “Snatcher,” but its significance specifically to him isn’t understood.
Upon Seed’s arrival, it is this new menace -- the Snatcher plague -- that is tormenting the island city of Neo Kobe, five decades after The Catastrophe, and JUNKER is the task force designated with the responsibility of alleviating the problems. The threat posed by Snatchers is the type inspiring phobias of all kinds -- these bioroids, part organic, part machine, are infesting society inside out by murdering people and assuming their victims’ identities. What is the Snatchers’ purpose, and where do they come from? Are they yet another secret bioweapon under the command of a powerful nation, or a foreign race altogether? The very nature of their modus operandi -- savagely killing humans and replacing them in ways that are practically undetectable -- lends even the possibility of their presence a chilling air. Who can you trust?
Seed is introduced to the JUNKER Headquarters, its small handful of members, and Metal Gear -- a robotic companion capable of everything from DNA analysis to commenting on Seed’s own inappropriate perversions -- but has little time following to relax. The force’s other field agent, Jean-Jack Gibson, videophones HQ under duress in an abandoned factory, and Seed is dispatched to assist. Snatcher wastes no time in establishing its grimness, and Gillian will realize the seriousness of the threat being posed in short order: by the time you arrive, Gibson’s head has already been severed; his remains sit slumping in a pool of blood against a dark wall deep in the factory. A search of the body reveals skin and hair samples, a floppy disk, and a scribbled note. The investigation has begun.
Being a text-based adventure, Snatcher depends fully on the quality of its characters and the intrigue of its plot for success. Reflex-driven action here is occasional, but too infrequent to play the primary role. Confrontations with Snatchers are accompanied with first person shooter-like sequences, and they’re interesting and intense, but the menu-driven format of the investigation dominates. Here is a quest that will be approached methodically -- looking for answers to perplexing questions, meeting with shady streetwise informants, following leads to different corners of the city and exploring them carefully, and paying close attention to the information provided to you will all play key roles in advancing.
The delivery of this story is startlingly forceful -- the characters are so human in nature and their problems, even with the somewhat alienating science fiction themes, are so believable that we come to care about them, whether or not that is our will. Upbeat, mid-fifties JUNKER engineer Harry Benson is light-hearted and approachable when he is first introduced. When he learns of Gibson’s gruesome death, however, Seed returns to headquarters to find him in a deep, temporary depression, drunk and babbling about the loss of his friend. This frighteningly futuristic tale is made much more accessible when the people populating it act in ways we can relate to.
It is of course the protagonist, with whom we are attached with unwavering interest, that suffers the most. While Seed toils in eliminating the Snatcher menace, we’re also submitted to watching him realize where he himself came from -- an additional burden, considering the magnitude of the looming societal terrors and the emotional precariousness of having no idea of one’s own past, and slowly seeing that the two may be somehow intertwined. Our hero is digging himself into a hole of potential devastation -- with every new discovery concerning the danger that Neo Kobe is facing comes the possibility of Seed’s own prior, unrealized involvement in the horrors. Where is he originally from? Did he figure significantly, one way or the other, in the origins of the panic now gripping at the city, without him recollecting it? It is an eerie circumstance when even less is known about the hero than the enemy. But Seed appears to be emotionally superhuman; he proceeds with the investigation of the atrocities taking place while simultaneously coping with his own psychological demons.
Whether or not the story would have been as engrossing had it lacked animated cutscenes and abundant, movie-quality voice acting is of little consequence; Sega CD Snatcher boasts both. Sega’s somewhat rudimentary color palette paints the locales and people of Neo Kobe; it isn’t ugly, but basic, bright hues lend this adventure a high-contrast but cartoon-like majesty. Put in motion and combined with utterly believable voiceovers, emotions otherwise lost are conveyed with surprising power and urgency. The distressed call from Gibson from the outset alone indicates the quality of the acting present, and Gillian’s struggles with his own problems, his distanced wife, and the direct physical dangers encountered during the investigation carry convincing weight as a result of his energetic but anxious dialogue.
It is because of the style of the presentation, the topics implicitly and explicitly approached by the story, and the colorful cast of strangely plausible characters propelling the action that the adventure in its entirety is charged with an atmosphere heavy in dread and claustrophobia. It runs the gamut of emotions from sadness to humor, but especially fear -- the most basic, primal senses of panic are tapped in the midst of petrifying confrontations with creatures hiding in the shadows and falling upon the slaughtered remains of fellow agents, set to threatening, booming musical riffs. Meanwhile, the inescapable, looming threat of possible conspiracies trickling all the way down from the government level is theorized, lending the game’s world a vast, troubled scope. It is this continuously reasserted fear -- that of the unknown, of things dangerous but not understood -- that elicits emotions in schools reminiscent of Kafka’s frightening surrealism and Hitchcock’s use of paranoia, suspiciousness and suspense in interpersonal relationships. As each new discovery is made, as each new clue is added to the whole -- the villainy is found to run deeper and deeper, and not just across territories, but through time; this is a chain of events set in motion years ago.
This is a veritable case study of human emotions, somehow portrayed convincingly against a science fiction backdrop that itself manages to be fully immersive despite its improbability. A wealth of information concerning Neo Kobe and its history is provided throughout -- not as a necessity for the story, but simply for the sake of plunging the player into a complete, living world. Even real-world problems such as social class division, drug abuse, and invasion of privacy are explored. Clearly, Snatcher itself is an improbability: the quality of the writing and voice acting is unparalleled; rarely is a game so emotionally gripping; and somehow, despite its overall linearity and lack of abundant action and challenge, never before have I been so apart of a game’s universe or sympathetic of a characters’ struggles, however unlikely they may be.
There are so many questions to answer for this city on the brink and this man at the end of his rope -- but are you strong enough to cope with the devastating possibilities of those answers?
Featured community review by dogma (March 04, 2005)
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