Contact (DS) review
"Contact has drawn strong comparisons to a few other games, but it reminded me most of Secret of Evermore - of that 16-bit Mana substitute's Frankenstein-like attempt to construct an RPG story without the slightest charm or spark of life. Evermore, though, had Jeremy Soule's evocative music and an inspired idea here and there, like the giant chess board with malevolent pieces or a uniquely sad cameo by Cecil of FF4. Contact, by contrast, boasts a development..."
Contact has drawn strong comparisons to a few other games, but it reminded me most of Secret of Evermore - of that 16-bit Mana substitute's Frankenstein-like attempt to construct an RPG story without the slightest charm or spark of life. Evermore, though, had Jeremy Soule's evocative music and an inspired idea here and there, like the giant chess board with malevolent pieces or a uniquely sad cameo by Cecil of FF4. Contact, by contrast, boasts a development team with the work ethic and attention span of Harold and Kumar and a score that, save for a few realistic sound effects, sounds like a broke-down Bach toccata by way of an Apple II. It's a carnival of botched ideas and programmer neglect.
Contact starts out promisingly; the manual resembles a LiveJournal, complete with survey memes and colorbars, and you start the game in an Earthbound-like graphical environment where a bespectacled spacefaring professor with a cat-dog pet addresses you, the player, directly and quizzes you about your favorite foods. All of this is promptly tossed out the window as soon as it's introduced, however, as the entire rest of the game is spent embracing the same cliches the box and intro promise to eschew.
Right after the introduction, the Professor zips by an Earth-like planet and picks up a teenage boy named Terry. Terry's presence in the story is completely unnecessary and inexplicable save for the traditional JRPG contractual obligations regarding spiky-haired teenage white male leads. Despite the opening malarky about you being a character in the game, Terry is, for all intents and purposes, your player character; you control and interact with the environment through him as you would Link, Crono, or any other silent adventure/RPG lead.
Terry is the game's first giant flaw. Silent leads are meant to be blank slates onto which the player is supposed to project himself; it's a flawed theory, but at least the characters it creates are generally inoffensive. It's particularly hard, however, to identify with the silent lead in Contact, as Terry is so darn weird. His speaking voice sounds like that of Alvin of the Chipmunks; he makes chittering noises like an *actual* chipmunk. The faceless, globby manner in which he's drawn makes him look like a fourth-rate Muppet rather than an actual boy in whatever non-art style the game is using (more on that later). I couldn't think of Terry as even human; he comes off as an unpleasant freak.
Contact is most often compared to Earthbound or to localizer Atlus's stable of other titles. This puts me at a disadvantage, as I have played nothing from either column. If by "Earthbound", however, you mean "amiable RPG with zany humor, charmingly retro graphics, and an atypical modern-day setting", then no, and if by "Atlus game", you mean "a lively, fluid translation with witty topical jokes", then hell, no. The writing in Contact is horrible, reminiscent of 8-bit efforts with dialogue worded like telegrams due to a premium on ROM space; instead of ending promptly, though, these terse messages natter on and on, wasting your time and interest. If you enjoy sporadic references to outdated internet memes ("hit the weakpoint for massive damage"), you will be entertained, but in that case, I then submit that you are easily entertained and better served by any third-rate humor website than a game for which you have to pay $35. As it stands, Contact's script consists only of two different settings of "inept"; even Working Designs, with its love affair with potty jokes aimed at eight-year-olds, hit the mark once in a while.
Gameplay resembles Zelda crossed with a less-interactive turn-based RPG. You steer Terry around the overworld till he runs across an enemy, whereupon both sides will engage (the enemy automatically, Terry only at your prompting) and hack at each other until one is dead. You can intervene to apply heals or command a special attack, or direct Terry away from the battle all together, but you cannot control his regular attacks. This irks many players, but your average turn-baser is only slightly less hands-off, really; I could see Contact's system working in a livelier game with a more diverse range of enemies and weapons, where your equipment choices really did make a difference and forethought was necessary. Battle strategy in Contact seldom gets beyond "choose the strongest weapon and smash until dead", though. I imagine the auto-combat system was designed to make battles quick and easy and dungeon exploration smoother - but the sheer amount of combat, combined with the steep difficulty curve and resultant grinding in some areas, makes for a wearying experience. (I was also unenamored of Terry's refusal to defend himself unless prompted to enter "battle mode" by the player, which led to many sessions where he just stood there getting his HP knocked out of him.)
The developers try to dress up combat with a few irrelevant doodads - combat "decals", for instance, that invoke an array of odd and mostly useless effects when you "unstick" them from a submenu and are ultimately just a excuse for a quirky stylus movement. You can also collect several outfits for Terry that each grant him a different skill set - elemental magics, ninjutsu, etc. They're well-hidden but useless; each has to be leveled and starts from scratch, and you won't have the time to level your entire wardrobe to effectiveness. (Or the inclination; the suits' powers and stats, at least at the lower levels, are samey.) You also have to trudge out of the dungeons and all the way back to your starting point on each world to change outfits, which discourages experimentation and takes any fun out of the system; better, and less of a hassle, to keep the clothes you have. The chef outfit, counterintuitively the strongest in battle thanks to a special that deals 3x damage, is all you really need anyhow.
Contact does boast a cooking system that's unique and halfway promising. Enemies drop and stores sell a wide array of foodstuffs which can be combined and cooked up to craft healing items. Different foods also offer different temporary stat boosts - the higher the boost, though, the more space the food takes up in Terry's stomach and the longer it takes to digest. Therefore, Terry can eat only a few foods within a given time frame, in theory limiting his ability to heal and forcing the player to approach big fights more strategically.
The game shoots itself in the foot, however, by a) chickening out and also offering the traditional healing potions that digest almost instantaneously and replenish way more HP than food and b) requiring an FF1 Marsh Cave-level stockpile of potions to survive most boss fights; therefore, depending on any food that will spend a long time digesting is an easy way to get your ticket punched. At least there's the fun of experimenting with ingredients to cook up your own however-ineffective heals, though, right? So I thought, until my every proposed recipe was greeted with "he can't cook that yet". It turns out Terry has to cut his teeth on a very limited, totally secret, and illogically-chosen selection of unintuitive "basic" recipes (since when does fruit juice required added water? Are we making Hawaiian Punch? Why would I think to make Hawaiian Punch when Terry fries everything?). This will result in a ridiculous amount of charcoal-blackened failures (and wasted time and nails-on-chalkboard chipmunky "WUTAAAA!"s from Terry) until your cooking skill finally reaches level 10, whereupon you will be able to prepare some meats and maybe a couple bread products. *Actual* full-range cooking will wait until your culinary skill reaches level 45. I was at about level 19 by the end of the game.
Contact is at least an instructive failure, though, in the art direction (or lack thereof) and the story (ditto). Neither has any cohesion throughout the game; it's like there was no communication between development teams whatsoever. (Why, for example, does a game about spacefaring terrorists culminate in a medieval Japanese castle with a fire-breathing dragon as the end boss?) The "art" has a fatal lack of style, with every object rendered in the blandest Brand-X representation possible. Oh, there are a couple nice digitized vistas (the forested lake, for instance) - but they're hampered by the game's hideous palette, which is dominated by a flat, off-putting orange and a pea-soup green. I can count just one success: a stage set in an approximation of Akihabara, where you fight high-tech refrigerators and unwashed otaku instead of orcs or robots in aisles of manga and electronics rather than dungeons or caves. Otherwise, imagination and logic are nowhere to be found.
Meanwhile, the characters are one step up from stickmen (two unchanging eyes stuck in a flesh-colored blob) and totally expressionless. Remember, in the days before FMVs when chibi-headed RPG sprites ruled the earth, how FF6 had King Edgar flash a grin while flirting or Locke wink after picking a lock in Narshe? Primitive, wasn't it? Yet those few pixels imbued the characters with personality and charm. Play Contact and study what happens in the complete absence of those little tricks programmers use to endear characters to the player. The game is a gigantic personality vacuum.
And why, in the ending, am I partying down with the terrorists I've been fighting all game? What led the writers to think I found them cool? Was there something between the dreams of galactic domination, the looting and oppression of backwater nations, and the involuntary memory wipes and human cloning experiments on kids that I missed? (Not even Al-Qaeda professes to be a terrorist organization in its *very name*.) What led Terry to believe that the terrorist leader was his love interest all of a sudden, right after she gives another of the genki Dr. Evil speeches that have formed the entire extent of their interaction thus far? Why does she play the damsel in distress in return when her "captors" act as her clear subordinates in every scene preceding and hence?
Am I not supposed to remember what happened *two dialogue boxes* ago?
Oh, right. None of the programmers did. I haven't mentioned how Terry, upon their reunion, jumps on top of the girl whose rescue has provided his entire motivation for the final part of the game and makes as if to punch her out. Or the part where the girl's "captors" attempt to torture Terry to death while he is chained to the wall naked, save for a pair of underwear that was most probably added for the U.S. release, raising implications I do not care to entertain when the avatar representing the character for 99% of the game looks to be, at most, eight years old.
Contact has been lauded for its ending, if one can "end" a story that never existed in the first place. Me, it made me throw the title down and not look back. After enduring Contact's lousy gameplay and incoherent storyline, you're told that you don't deserve an ending, because you're a terrible person and didn't "respect" Terry. This occurs whether you played a GTA and killed the townspeople (you can kill townspeople - I didn't mention it, since it doesn't affect anything at all in the game) or, like me, kept to the straight and narrow and even reset at every defeat because you couldn't bear to see the player character, globby freak though he is, go down in flames. Oh, we can continue on in open-world exploration, the game promises, but it'll be a hollow experience, devoid of meaning. But don't worry, it says - it'll always have our "special memories". So, if you're in the market for a simulator for what it's like to break up with a total asshole, then here you go.
You know, Contact, it's not me - it's you. There're plenty of better games out there that'll appreciate me. But you're completely right about one thing - I *do* deeply regret playing your game. In fact, I'm going to spread the gospel right now.
I think we'll have a hard time remaining friends.
Community review by Synonymous (April 25, 2008)
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