Seems .... so .... familiar ....
The first major point of note here is that this review is based on the English patch recently released by a bunch of good and hardy folks associated with Junker HQ and the Something Awful forums. You'll find the links below. Aside from props for their fine work, I mention this so that anyone totally not familiar with the game understands I don't speak Japanese, the review doesn't take into account the original dialogue, etc.
Policenauts is kinda a follow-up to Hideo Kojima's Snatcher, at least in terms of style and gameplay. The game takes place in the same universe as Snatcher (as well as apparently the Metal Gear Solid games, though there is at least one major inconsistency here that can't be resolved with things established there), but is set prior to that game and doesn't have any real bearing on its events. The presentation and gameplay are very similar in that the game is fundamentally a "visual novel" broken up only by occasional "shooting scenes", and virtually the whole art and sound team that worked on Snatcher returns for this one.
The game is also consistent to Kojima's general storytelling pattern, which is to shamelessly "borrow" Hollywood movie elements for his character designs (in this case from Lethal Weapon), and to use some sort of fringe-but-popular scientific concept or high-profile matter of controversial scientific debate as a major thematic concept throughout the story. In this case, we get Murtaugh and Riggs roaming about on Gerard O'Neill's proposed cylindrical self-contained space station.
It works out better than it sounds as a concept, though it comes saddled with the standard Kojima indulgences (excessive verbosity and an over-use of predictable tropes for late-stage "plot twists"), and I felt both the game and the writing on the whole was a step below that of Snatcher. As far as the gameplay goes, you certainly expect linearity from the "visual novel" structure coming in, but it feels even more stifling here than it did in Snatcher (which was pretty far from being an "emergent" game itself.) For only a portion of the first disc are you allowed to move between multiple locations freely, and even when you do the game basically leads you by the nose from one to the other and keeps giving you nudging reminders if you get off of the plot progression. From the final act of the first disc all the way through to the end of the second disc, the game is virtually nothing but non-interactive dialogue and cut scenes punctuated by a few "shooting scenes." You get a touch more gameplay time overall, at about ten hours to Snatcher's six or seven, but you get the feeling you spent a lot less time actually *playing* the game in the end.
If a game is going to be this linear and lacking in player interaction, it needs to deliver one hell of a story to make up for it, in addition to some visual and aural punch. The latter is pretty well covered here. The graphics are a mix of detailed sprite art and anime with some CGI scenes and background objects. Some of the CGI is plasticy and clunky, some of the anime loops and uses low-budget anime tricks, but on the whole the game looks very nice, particularly the backdrop shots of the Beyond Coast space station and its various locales. The story, as mentioned, can be predictable and even a little silly, but the Konami/Kojima knack for moody atmosphere and immersion works about as well here as it does in Snatcher/MGS. Konami Kukeiha Club vets Tappy and Motoaki Furukawa handle the soundtrack, and while it's not on the whole as masterful as some of their other work, it works pretty well for the most part and there's some memorable themes.
The new "shooting scenes" are a mixed bag. Initially, they're very impressive if you're accustomed to Snatcher's simple "break the screen up into a 3x3 grid" style - if you aren't using a light gun, you control a red laser sight with either the controller or the Playstation mouse, and well-animated enemies flit about the scenes using various background items as cover. I can't speak to the light gun responsiveness (or whether you can even feasibly get one to work), but I'd guess the mouse option is really the way to go here. I muscled through using the controller, which is certainly doable, but the aiming is extremely finicky and you'll suffer a number of needless deaths as well as having to listen to the game berate you for incompetence. There's also a "bonus challenge" I don't think you can even possibly complete without the mouse, though it just involves bouncing some tits as a reward, which is a pretty easy thing to see on the internets these days.
Becky, look at that butt. It is so ... nonexistent.
Again, however, we have to keep coming back to the story, because that's what the visual novel structure is all about. One of the things I loved most about Snatcher was the world it took place in, which seemed so developed and deep even though you really only got limited glances at it as you went about the business the narrative demanded. Knowing ahead of time that the games took place in the same continuous timeline, I was hoping the world would be more thoroughly fleshed-out and open to exploration, and I was excited to see it open in Old LA ... which you spend approximately fifteen minutes on before you get shuttled off to the space colony for the rest of the game. Still, that feeling of "depth" and development is present, even if it's not in the particular venue I was hoping for. Fans of sci-fi, and particularly those interested in the colonization of space, will most likely enjoy Kojima's customary level of technical detail (while still glossing over anything that crosses more than a bit over the "layman" boundary.) The game also does pre-emptively raise a few issues - in an almost Do Androids Dream Of Electronic Sheep? way - that humanity may well end up actually confronting in future years. Can humans adapt to space as a living environment or is it only useful for resource mining? If either or both of these projects end up being so rigorous that Western or Japanese-style amoral profit-focused megaconglomerates must be put in charge or given unprecedented power to make the operations work, what are we setting ourselves up for socially? And what are the ramifications of genetic experimentation to create humans more ideally adapted to space, and having whole generations born and raised on a colony without ever seeing Earth? If there's one major failing to the writing, it's that these issues often stay peripheral - secondary to the usual Orgy Of Redemptive Violence that Hollywood cop movies lazily play out over and over again as an attention hook. To me, that was the most disappointing element, though I appreciate seeing this level of depth introduced *at all* in a video game, even if I felt it could have been explored and developed much better.
Policenauts is an ambitious game and there's a lot to be appreciated here. Aside from being consistently entertaining and impressive, I think it's worth playing as a reminder of what video games as a medium are capable of, even if it's only hinted at around the edges here. Plus, you know, Konami Kukeiha Club soundtrack.
They're going to San Francisco?
* Download (but you ain't herd DAT from ME!)
* Translation Site and Manual
* Patch Technical Issues Thread
* Thread detailing the ROM hacking process
* Gameplay Video