"Since Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is a faithful Ghost in the Shell product, there's plenty of Kojima-level philosophizing. That's always been a franchise strength, even if the ancient Chinese philosopher name-dropping got a bit overbearing during the Innocence movie. This PSP episode keeps its insight subtle and focused, which is a welcome relief from plot-driven games that confuse "deep" with "convoluted"."
"You can replace a data chip to save memories and knowledge, but you can't replace lost individuality."
Since Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is a faithful Ghost in the Shell product, there's plenty of Kojima-level philosophizing. That's always been a franchise strength, even if the ancient Chinese philosopher name-dropping got a bit overbearing during the Innocence movie. This PSP episode keeps its insight subtle and focused, which is a welcome relief from plot-driven games that confuse "deep" with "convoluted".
On the surface, Stand Alone Complex is a story-driven First-Person Shooter. As you've probably already noticed, the PSP button layout isn't exactly designed for an FPS. Don't worry; with a little practice, it basically works. Just don't plan on scoring any head shots.
Each of the six multi-mission chapters is prefaced and concluded by a well-voiced cinematic sequence (same actors as the series) that advances the initially confusing plot. Although the "Far North conspiracy" at first comes across as a muddy jumble of Japanese names and factional military conflicts, the writers keep adding fringe details until the only thing missing is the answer at the center... and the final chapter spells that out in a clear and believable manner.
The narrative's greatest strength is how it handles the concept of individuality during an age of communal information. In the world of Ghost in the Shell, even a dead man's cybernetic brain can be gutted -- every memory, hope, and secret can be shared with the world. For people who define individuality as the sum of their own experiences and dreams, losing ownership of their self would be worse than death. With the useful bits extracted, society would no longer have a reason or need to acknowledge that they -- as singular identities -- had ever existed. Stand Alone Complex defies its own world and places you in the interesting position of protecting a single man's life.
Not surprisingly, most missions are focused on "protection". You'll engage in such FPS staples as escorting others to safety and locating/disarming bombs. Fortunately, each chapter's complexity builds on what's come before. Most chapters include three or four missions, and one of the later missions forces you to stun a criminal and bring him back to base. Although it sounds straightforward, accomplishing this goal requires stealth, ammo conservation, quick reflexes, and an amazing memory (the level is a confusing mass of rooms and corridors... and your target runs through them with ease). Furthermore, if you actually intend to survive, you'll need to locate and neutralize nine or ten auto-cannons before you even start looking for the criminal. This cannon-clearing objective isn't imposed by the game; it's the kind of foresight you'll need if you expect to survive. Otherwise, plan to be gunned down while chasing the target through dangerous corridors.
Some of the missions are actually too mentally demanding for a portable product. It's easy to lose track of time, and that's not good when you're on a 45-minute lunch break. Fortunately, like with other PSP games, you can turn the power off at any time (even in the middle of ten-second "now loading" screens) and pick up exactly where you left off.
To assist in meeting your objectives, every mission except one provides a single "Tachikoma". The Tachikoma is a spider-like mech equipped with its own uber-cute A.I. and whatever weapons you choose. (The ridiculous cuteness is awesome because the game constantly makes fun of it.) Similar to the classic Front Mission, dozens of gatling guns, ion cannons, rocket launchers, repair packs, and even anti-missile missiles are available to fill each of the Tachikoma's five weapon slots. You can also choose the body color, which is both cool and useful. Since you're allowed to design and save four different Tachikoma outfits, alternate colors let you discern them at a glance. Your chosen Tachikoma is then given orders through a sub-menu, but you can climb inside and enjoy the additional firepower first-hand if you prefer.
In an attempt to encourage replay, every mission keeps track of which characters you've used to complete that particular stage. Unfortunately, the four main characters (Major Kusanagi, Batou, Saito, and Togusa) play so similarly that this feature isn't much of an encouragement. Instead, earning new weapons -- both for yourself and your Tachikoma -- provides the bulk of the game's replay value. Even this is a small blessing; aside from rockets and rapid-fire rifles, most weapons are underpowered. Furthermore, the multi-player aspect is tarnished by the total lack of bots and the PSP's less-than-perfect control scheme. Replay is not Stand Alone Complex's strong point.
Fortunately, the story and single-player missions are worth experiencing. Even though it takes a few chapters to develop into something meaningful, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex features intelligent level design and a refreshingly coherent philosophy. These qualities give the game a sense of individuality that sets it apart from the anime-licensed crowd.
Staff review by Zigfried (November 12, 2005)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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