An Unsurvivable Horror
In Japan, there’s a word often used in the gamer community—”kusoge”, which literally translates to “s**t game”.
How a game becomes a kusoge can vary greatly. Maybe the game, for whatever reason, has absolutely horrendous controls. Maybe it controls fine, but it has visuals that would be impressive if it was on a console from two generations ago. Maybe its voice acting and dialog sound like the work of a junior high drama club. Or, sometimes, it can be a combination of all of those things—and more!
The catch to the kusoge is that–even though we know they’re terrible, and that something has gone drastically wrong during their development—we still love them anyway. Yes, they display multiple failures in terms of proper and logical game design; and yet, through all of that, they still retain qualities and a level of charm that help us to dig through all of the reasons we shouldn’t be playing them to find those moments of genuine enjoyment.
Though I personally might not consider them to be bad enough to label as kusoge, Disaster Report, Raw Danger, and Rule of Rose are three games that are very, very broken in more ways than they should be. Yet beyond their failings and faults, I love all three of them to death. To me, they are shining examples of games where the creators had fantastically interesting ideas, yet lacked the ability to see those ideas to a competent conclusion.
I mention all of this because my mind instantly went back to those three specific games as I was making my way through Amy’s first chapter. It’s part apocalypse-survival—just like Irem’s two natural disaster survival titles Disaster Report and Raw Danger—and part female-focused horror—like Sony’s lovely yet thorn-covered Rule of Rose.
Unfortunately, unlike those three examples of games that became near and dear to my heart despite their tragic flaws, Amy not only completely fails to redeem itself in the face of its missteps, but it so enrages me as a gamer that it compels me to go to the zoo, find the cutest animal there, and punch it in the face out of anger.
I first encounter Amy at E3 2011. Buried in that sea of video and audio overload that filled the halls of the LA Convention Center was a small section of simple, humble counters. There, random developers and publishers that most of you will never have heard of displayed their work-in-project titles in hopes of catching the eye of a passerby or two. It was in my walkthrough of this area that I saw something I had never seen before—an intriguing looking survival horror game where a 20-something woman was leading a young girl around as they tried to survive a dark, infected world.
I had high hopes for Amy, because I really felt the concepts it was going to be built upon were refreshing for the genre. The central character, Lana, is a 20-something woman who isn’t experienced in combat, who isn’t an active (or ex) member of any kind of government team, and who isn’t imbued with some sort of mystical power making her superhuman. She’s just a normal person; somebody trying to survive the chaos that has broken out around her. Even beyond her own survival, however, her every action is done to take care of Amy, an 8-year-old autistic girl (who, sadly, then fills the role of the character required to have those mystical superhuman powers).
Here was one of Amy’s grandest promises: The relationship between these two girls, and their unbreakable bond as the suffer through an emotional struggle for survival. With everything that Amy does wrong, this one element still exist—and it is the reason I can’t completely hate Amy as a game. Even if these two characters are never given the depth they so desperately deserve, and even if their bond is never expressed to the degree that it could have, you can still feel the desire by Amy’s creators to give us a look at two people that would hopefully be more than what we’re typically used to.
However, the true horror that Lana and Amy have to survive isn’t a plague-filled world of ferocious zombies and death-dealing soldiers—it is the game itself. And we, the player, are forced to share in their pain.
It’s easy to get negative about a videogame—or any entertainment project—and it’s something I honestly don’t enjoy doing. Games like Amy are the creation of human beings, working together as a team somewhere, putting in their physical, emotional, and mental effort to try to produce something that not only they can be proud of, but that will also make a connection with its intended audience. For this reason, it baffles me why Amy turned out as bad as it did. I honestly do not believe it was a case of developer apathy—so then what was the reason? Was Amy originally intended to be a much larger project that then had to be seriously cut down and rushed out due to lack of time or funds? Did something happen along its development cycle to cause things to go awry? Was there conflict between multiple parties in terms of what type of game exactly Amy should be?
I have an idea of what part of that explanation may be. Amy’s director is Paul Cuisset, a French game creator known for classic titles such as Flashback: The Quest for Identity and Fade to Black. Though I am not hugely familiar with Cuisset’s entire library of games, I do know those two—and they are part of what I see as an era of European game design that focused on projects with high level of difficulty, challenge, and requirements placed on the player.
In fact, this is the defense that both fans of Amy and its developer, VectorCell, alike have used—that people having a negative response to the game are unable to appreciate it simply due to its difficulty. Yes, Amy is indeed difficult—but that isn’t the truth behind its problems. One of my most favorite recent games was Dark Souls, a game legendary for its difficulty level. However, for as difficult as From Software’s action adventure was, it was equally fair. Difficulty never came from ridiculous expectations or unreliable gameplay aspects, it came from presenting the player with a challenge that was absolutely winnable with a proper level of determination and skill.
I have no doubt that Amy was created with that Flashback-era style of difficulty in mind, and if that was the beginning and the end of the game’s challenge, I’m sure it would have been better received. Where Amy fails is that so many of its pieces feel so unfinished, unpolished, or simply unreliable that that level of difficulty is infected with insufferable amounts of mind-numbing frustration.
Control is terrible. Melee combat is awkward, yet required far too often. Exploration is heavily forced on the player, yet being away from Amy for even 10 seconds can at times be death due to infection. Parts of the game require your character to have a specific level of infection, yet absolutely no accurate means of tracking that level is presented. Expectations and puzzle solutions are often arbitrary or obscure, compounded by the game rarely showing any proper means of communicating gameplay concepts to the player. An abundance of bland puzzles that rely more on performing unfulfilling tasks than actually solving a problem. Behaviors that work one way most of the game will completely change seemingly at will, with no real indication that player expectations have suddenly shifted. Weapons, items, and powers obtained will be wiped the moment you die, no matter what point that comes at. Checkpoints are few and far between, and you can easily do something wrong (without knowing it) and encounter an instant game over. If a chapter must be stopped midway through, it must then be played from the very beginning the next time the game is loaded. Characters can get stuck not only on tiny aspects of the scenery, but even areas which look completely unobscured.
Writing this review, I simply cannot find a better way to explain the full scope of Amy’s technical and conceptual problems, and that isn’t even the full list of failures I found in it—just the ones I wrote down offhand.
I wanted so much to like Amy, both before I played it, and even when it was filling me with rage due to how utterly frustrating its gameplay is throughout so much of its length. Unfortunately, when all is said and done, Amy is a bad game. Not because it is hard, or because I cannot appreciate it, or because I don’t understand it—but because it just does so many things that betray the people trying to play and enjoy it. Every now and then, it will have its moments—and in these, you’ll see just how wonderful of a game Amy could have maybe been under different circumstance. Sadly, these are so few and far between that they cannot keep the game from being a compete and total failure of an experience.
They also make it nearly impossible for me to recommend Amy as a purchase to any of you—even those of you who, like me, have been able to legitimately love games who many others have seen as garbage. Because unlike the famed kusoge of the world that more tolerant gamers have flocked to over time, Amy is not flawed but charming, or so bad that it’s good—it is simply flawed and bad.
SUMMARY: Amy is a game that I absolutely believe was originally conceived and designed with the best of intentions—but one which horrifically fell apart into a broken mess by the time it landed on our consoles.
- THE GOOD: Appealing lead characters who have great character models, some genuinely interesting graphical effects, and little aspects here and there that hint at some real potential for what could have been.
- THE BAD: The fact that there isn’t one single element of this game that I could mention without being able to present a major complaint about it.
- THE UGLY: The rage building inside my body as I desperately tried to stop myself from throwing my PS3 out of my apartment window due to Amy‘s fifth chapter.
Amy is available on Xbox 360 (XBLA) and PS3 (PSN) at the time of this review. Primary version reviewed was on PS3.