Thursday, August 27, 2009

Some Thoughts on Policenauts

I finished up playing through the newly Englished Policenauts last night, and like I expected, I'm a bit disappointed in it. After a decade of buildup, this was probably natural, although it's certainly still pretty good overall. But it can't quite live up to Snatcher. The below has some slight spoilers, but doesn't go into too many specifics. It's not like there's much to spoil, anyway.

I think my main problem with Policenauts is that I wanted it to be something else. Snatcher is a cyberpunk detective story, with tons of mysteries, twists, and plenty of suspense. Policenauts is, more or less, a buddy cop movie with some sci-fi elements. Its story is much more straightforward, more action-packed, and I would say, less nuanced. While it has an amazing setup, it never really pays off, plus the overall plot can easily be guessed by playing through the first Act. If a character looks evil or is hanging out with evil characters, hey, they're probably bad guys! The overall plot is little more than a typical 80s/90s crime story, right down to the drug smuggling. And the parallels to Lethal Weapon go farther than the visual similarities in the main characters. There's the liberal use of the saxophone in the soundtrack, there's Ed's hot daughter that flirts with Jonathan, there's a jovial family dinner with terrible food. And Ed, wouldn't you know, can't bring himself to fire his gun due to a traumatic incident in his past. (Not quite Lethal Weapon, but still a well known trope.) An homage is one thing, but the borrowing here is a bit too liberal. And, yeah, Snatcher did some of the same stuff...but at the end of the day, at least they didn't pull a Blade Runner and reveal Gillian as a Snatcher at the end of the game, and it still stands pretty well on its own. For as much as Policenauts rips off, it DOES do the buddy cop thing rather well, and there are plenty of humorous moments throughout, even though they mostly highlight how hilariously incompetent (and irresponsible) the heroes are.

I think one of the reasons Snatcher worked so well was due to its incredible sound work. Policenauts is more advanced on an instrumentation level, and there's some amazing music in it (check out the song "Old LA 2040", which was used in the intro for the PC98 version and cryptically chucked out of the console versions, except in the "sound test" CD rack in Hojo's living room) but it's also completely lacking intensity. Snatcher, despite using chiptunes most of the time, had some damned moody music, even while doing the most mundane things. (This is particularly true of the Sega CD soundtrack, whose FM synth sounds crisper than the PC Engine version and fuller than the PC88 version, in additional in including several pieces of music that aren't in any other version.) It also can't be understated how awesome Metal Gear's sensor alarm sounds - a bit of a running thing with other Kojima games (including the Metal Gears, 8-bit and beyond), because whenever an enemy spots you, that shrill little noise can scare the HELL out of you.) There are still creepy moments in Policenauts, like everything in the museum at dark, but they really aren't that prevalent.

It also doesn't help that, being a fan translation, the voicework is still in Japanese. I'm definitely not knocking games in their original language or anything, but a lot of the appeal of Snatcher is that it sounded a lot like a radio drama. With the dialogue in Japanese, it puts an extra barrier between the game and the listener - you can't understand the nuance in their deliveries on anything but the vaguest of levels (hey, they sound angry!) and I think it loses a bit if you're not listening to it in a native language. Plus, although this is pretty personal, there are certain seiyuu voice types I never bought, which also applies to Kojima games. Gillian's and Snake's English voices are excellent, but hearing them in Japanese is just...weird. They're too deep, I think is the problem. Think of Mel Gibson - he doesn't have a deep voice, does he? Neither does Kurt Russell in Escape from New York. It's just really gruff, which Hayter pulled off fantastically. Of course, this is no one's fault except for Konami's for failing to localize this in the first place.

Plus, I've been playing a lot of point n' click adventures lately, and one of my biggest peeves is the inability to skip through voiced dialogue. I'm a fast reader - I'd rather just click through it. Policenauts doesn't let you do this, which is really grating. It makes me impatient which in turn makes me irritated which in turn I take out of the game. Snatcher didn't let you do this either, but it also had a lot less voiced dialogue. And, like most of Kojima games (and a lot of Japanese games in general), the script is detailed but definitely overwritten.

Still, if there's one major thing that Policenauts does really well, its in the world detail. The best thing about it is the way it examines how humanity can survive in space - not only on a medical level, but a cultural level too. The most fascinating part is how people born and bred on the colony are taught to act differently than their terrestrial brethren, and how it plays out in the game. For example, each group has speaks with a "Home" or "Beyond" accent, something which doesn't quite translate, again, due to the language barrier, but Beyonds are told to speak in a calmer, more thorough manner, while Homes speak louder and more emotionally. There's more than a few dialogues about aspects as how the isolation of the colony has affected things like crime, drug use, and even the insurance industry. It's also pretty interesting that the colony was developed by a Japanese corporation, and there's lot of commentary towards their pros and cons of their work ethics - pretty interesting given that the characters are technically gaijin. (All of this is detailed in the Glossary, which was found on the Policenauts Private Collection disc for the PSOne, and included in-game in the Saturn version. It's translated on Of course, just as Metal Gear Solid was screaming "NUKES ARE BAD" at the top of its lungs, the prevailing theme in Policenauts is "SPACE IS BAD", which is pounded into your head on several occasions.

There are also tons upon tons of Easter Eggs, a lot of which I missed. I screwed up on the bomb defusal on the first try, but the emulator locked up instead of sending me to the Continue screen. Since I didn't want to do that stupid purse bomb search segment again (sure, it's intense, but seriously, one of the game's only major puzzles is one the same level as a Highlights magazine), I just downloaded a save that plopped me at the beginning of the next Act. Apparently there's a lot of funny fourth wall breaking banter after successive failures - I think I have muck with my emulator settings to try it out. The translator also reported that, apparently, if you have a completed save game from Tokimeki Memorial on your memory card, at some point, the game makes a comment about the girl that you won at the end of the game. I don't know when or where or how, but that sounds crazy/weird/brilliant, even moreso than the Psycho Mantis bit from MGS.

Anyway, those are my knee-jerk morning-after reactions to the whole thing. I'll let it stew a bit before making a more definite judgment. MGS3 was also fairly straightforward compared to the rest of the series, and while I was initially a bit put off by that, in the long run I think it worked in its favor. Of course, that game also had the benefit of several absolutely amazing climatic sequences, in a story already filled with amazing setpieces whereas Policenauts is pretty much just a shooting gallery with a pleasant, although quite typical, finale. It never quite provoked the same high as Kojima's other games, so I'm not sure that'll help the game, even in retrospect.

I'll finish this off with some comparison pics between the PSOne version and the original PC98 release, provided by Charlie Johnson from the JunkerHQ forums. The PC98 version doesn't have any FMV cutscenes, but the still graphics are twice the resolution of the console version (click them to see them full size.) Even if it only uses 16 colors, it uses those 16 colors pretty damn well. I prefer the character designs from the console versions, but some of the backgrounds look so much cooler in the PC98 one, especially the biomort storage facility. Slight spoilers beyond, obviously.


  1. Hmm, my computer is too slow to play this reliably so I guess it's good to know I'm not missing "BETTER THAN SNATCHER AND MGS COMBINED".

  2. If you want to see where the inspiration for that PC98 Biomort lab picture came from, check out this screen from the film Coma:

    I hope that links works...

    I've not seen it, but apparently its plot revolves around organ farming.

    Anyway, I finished the game in English only just now, having first heard about it in a double-page spread in GameFan magazine all those years ago. The one where they showed you about 50 images in a border around the spread. I think part of the game's mystique came from coverage like that in various mags, which took those isolated segments of awesomeness, and gave them to you at once, minus all the reading. I wasn't disappointed at all, since I knew what the ending held having completed the Saturn version years ago, so I knew it wasn't quite as WOW as Snatcher (which even in Japanese would be provocative based on the extreme imagery alone).

    Anyway, I love what the translation team have done here, and fan-translators will always have my gratitude for the generous work they do.

    My highlight? Meeting a certain character from Snatcher and the short conversation that ensues.

  3. Sorry to hear that, Kurt. Policenauts has always had a special aura about it in the West, hasn't it? Ever since Konami of America cruelly led us on. Like you, I'd assumed that since more creative oversight was administered to Kojima prior to the runaway success of MGS, Policenauts would be on par with that title and Snatcher.

    You're quite right about the effectiveness of Snatcher's music. It was unusual for Konami at the time to fill a title with music generally lacking in recognizable melodies (I mean, am I alone in finding the Snatcher Battle cd the weakest of Konami's "Battle" soundtracks ... the tunes didn't bear any relation to music I recognized from the game ... even "Theme of Snatcher", which was a great track but sounded NOTHING like any of the versions of the song in the game). But the in-game music was so effective in creating the mood ... Pleasure of Tension indeed.

    It sounds like one of your big gripes was Policenauts' failure to take advantage of its great scenario ... that it stuck to the "buddy cop" formula far too closely. In the abstract, Jonathan's being suspended in space for 25 years sounds like ripe material for an emotional climax as genuinely moving as Snatcher's. Honestly, I can't imagine how Sntacher existed for so many years without its final act ... the overwhelming tragedy of the third act of Gillian and Jamie's story was what really made the game for me. Modnar in particular was somehow sadly empathetic. Sure, the comic situations up until then were great, but the game would have been so much less had it just been funny banter between Gillian and Metal Gear. It's disappointing to hear Policenauts didn't seem to find the right balance in that regard.

    Anyway, I should probably play this at some point...

  4. Thanks for posting this review - I too thought Policenauts was rather naff going through it, for pretty much the same reasons. Being harsh you could call the whole thing a hollow cop romp where nothing really happens outside of the excruciatingly predictable. But in retrospect, I can definitely applaud the game's cinematic presentation. Indeed, it seems much more befitting of a filmic idiom than a game one - lots of films, while lacking a stupendous plot, are beautifully directed and hold some charm in their use of the medium rather than plot development. It would be stupid to say that every movie lacking a twists-and-turns suspense/tension plot dynamic is a bad one... it's just that, again, we are comparing it to Snatcher, a game that had both former and latter.

    Also, as Sketcz alluded to, my disappointment could be sort of rooted in the fact I saw Coma before playing Policenauts. Of course such tropes are a Kojima speciality, but he definitely alludes to it... strongly (and I'm not just talking about the Biomort facility, but the story in general). And despite this, I think I would've rather him keep the PC98 Biomort facility in the PSX port rather than change it to an original one, just because the Coma lab is so amazing :P

  5. I too thought Policenauts was rather naff going through it, for pretty much the same reasons. Being harsh you could call the whole thing a hollow cop romp where nothing really happens outside of the excruciatingly predictable. But in retrospect, I can definitely applaud the game's cinematic presentation.


  6. In a way, I think this is Kojima's best game. The first 2 hours or so are amazing....

    In another way, I think it's down there with MGS2 (which I hate aside from the craziness near the end) and MSG4 (which I hate, period), in that it never really is all that compelling or interesting aside from those first 2 hours.

    I'm just kinda meh on the whole thing. Amazing atmosphere and music and animation and the whole thing is just amazingly well-done and -made but eh.