This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Amy.
I've developed quite a few guidelines for my work over the years, like "never use a yo-yo simile when you can use a miscarriage fetus dangling forlornly from its umbilical cord," and as a rule I don't usually review Xbox Live Arcade games on their own. They tend to be shorter, so I usually review them in pairs and try to find some connecting theme between them, like putting Bastion with From Dust because they both centralize the theme of rebuilding the world or DeathSpank with Limbo because in DeathSpank you have a sword and Limbo makes you want to start cutting yourself.
But I'm afraid I couldn't find any XBLA games that could be meaningfully linked to Amy, because there aren't any games about making your way down a corridor dragging a large steel safe chained to a metal ring around your throat, or any games about smashing your head into a septic tank until blood and shit runs down your face into your screaming mouth and down your throat until you choke and puke and it all comes out your nostrils.
Basically, what I'm saying is that it isn't very good. Did that come across? It isn't very good!!!
Crushingly, it's also one of the few recent survival horror games besides Amnesia that actually is survival horror and not just a shooter that ate some marinara sauce too quickly. The main character, Lana, is slow, unarmed, and well advised to run away or stealth around monsters, because she's about as useful in a combat situation as a cat with a miniature fishing rod attached to its head. A lot of this may be something to do with her refusal to take off her fucking high heels in the middle of a zombie-infested city, but what do I know about fashion?
Lana is some kind of hybrid of social worker and militant animal rights activist who has rescued a small, mute, autistic girl called Amy from an evil laboratory. Then some kind of disaster hits the city that turns everyone into zombies and it's up to you to escort Amy across the danger zone. Using the word "escort" to describe core gameplay is like using the words "bloody and viscous" to describe a urine sample, but Amy pulls her weight by having the power to heal you, create cones of silence, and telekinetically blast things aside. Obviously. I'd have been rather put out if she didn't. In horror circles, small, mute, autistic girls are second in power only to Jason Voorhees listening to people fucking.
The thing about survival horror is that it's okay to hamper the player with shitty controls as long as it goes towards creating the sense of vulnerability you're supposed to have. I mean, Alex from Silent Hill: Homecoming combat-rolling around the misty streets like Sonic the fuckin' Hedgehog was just dumb. But this special survival horror leeway only extends so far. I get that the camera should draw in close for the claustrophobia factor, but not this close! Not like its debating whether or not to pounce on the main character and tunnel up her butthole, so it's like you're looking at the game through the neckhole of a T-shirt you haven't finished putting on yet. And while combat is appropriately clunky and annoying, there's no way to run away from it, either. They just chase you down and punch your face out through your arsehole. It's like they took a correspondence course on survival horror but half the envelopes got switched for a how-to guide on ballsing up.
Every now and again the game gets bored and makes a piece of electronics explode on a nearby wall to startle you, and it produces the worst particle effect in the history of graphics. You'd get more convincing sparks by leaning on the asterisk key in Microsoft Word.
So how about that escort, then? You know, I think the biggest mistake game designers make is trying to make an NPC escort useful to gameplay rather than just a big crate on legs. Say what you like about Ashley from Resident Evil 4, at least she knew her fucking place. It was in a bin! NPC escorts only get annoying when you have to rely on them. You have to use Amy to push buttons and stuff to solve puzzles, this being a world where it is considered good design to put the controls for an elevator on the other side of the room to the elevator itself.
But before you start getting the idea to make Amy hide in a locker and then don't stop till you reach Tijuana, if you go too far from her you start getting the lurgy. I suppose that's one way to get us attached to a character: physically attach us to them. But this adds a ticking clock mechanic to the many puzzles in which you must be separated from Amy, and Lana never seems to grasp the importance of getting a fucking rush on. She climbs ladders like she needs to check every single rung for a missing contact lens. And the indicator of how close you are to lurgy death is vague at best and about as much use as a blind car park attendant.
But it's not just terrible design decisions, boys and girls! It's technically completely fucking inept, too! I think Amy 's developer only has a QA department so they'll have more people to invite to their birthday parties. At one point, in my hubris, I ventured too close to a toilet cubicle and got stuck in the door. Now that would have been a cruel twist of fate if I'd been bustin' for a piss, wouldn't it? The subtitles are all fucked up and there's a door in chapter four that appears to have the text for an entirely different object attached to it. At one point I was attacked while interacting with a corpse and the camera remained fixed on the corpse even after gameplay returned, so I just had to watch myself running back and forth past my field of view with zombies in hot pursuit like we were in The Benny Hill Show.
At least the game's fairly well optimized... for Bizarro World! The framerate starts chugging like a cottage cheese margarita the moment it has to render anything stressful, like fighting one zombie in an empty corridor. If these guys had made Crysis, you'd only be able to run it on the fucking Starship Enterprise.
I didn't finish Amy, because in the penultimate chapter they bring in that ever cancerous mechanic, mandatory stealth. Up until then I was free to wail at my pursuers with bits of wood, or at least run off and hide under a large dog. But now it's back to the checkpoint if a zombie so much as catches a single waft of my terrified farts. But wait! The zombies don't attack you if you're lurgied up to the eyeballs, so you can leave Amy behind and go luring zombies away and pushing boxes in front of their faces like they're fucking security cameras, occasionally running back to Amy to get healed of the lurgy before you die. And then having to stick your head in a toilet for a few minutes waiting to get sufficiently lurgied back up that you can hang out with the zombies again. As far as flow goes, it was like riding a supermarket trolley through a rocky gorge with nothing to push yourself along but a few sheets of toilet paper with all your failings listed on them.
The final straw was when I spent far too long exhaustively creating a path for Amy to follow, only to come back to find that she'd gotten bored and wandered off directly into a zombie's mouth. Aww, I'm sorry the monster-infested post-apocalyptic death city wasn't providing quite enough stimulation for you, sweetheart. I know where there's never a dull moment: my fucking S-bend!
Fortunately, he will never breed: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
I find that 'I will die of an indistinct infection if I don't remain physically close to preteen girls' rarely goes down well in court.
This has been Shooting Fish in a Barrel Week