07 Apr, 2007

Contact Review

DS Review | Touched by an alien.
Imagine a world of people controlled by people who poke and prod. One of these people is Terry, a child pulled from his mother by an alien caught in an intergalactic war. Don't worry though - she doesn't seem to mind. When things get too tough, the "professor" will help out with words of support, sent directly into your brain from his multi-dimensional lab inside the belly of a pirate ship. Together, you sail from island to island, searching for costumes and energy cells. Sound like something out The Yellow Submarine by the Beatles? Well, that's Contact.

You may have already heard of Contact - it's considered by some as one of the best games on the Nintendo DS that you've never played. That's a brave call, especially considering how large the Nintendo DS game library has become. Thankfully for Australian gamers, it was finally released locally by Red Ant on the January 25. With that kind of reputation, one would think this is a game worth putting on the must-have list. Is it? Well, that's an interesting question.

It starts ...

It starts ...
The basic premise of the game is at once fairly simple and quite complex. Simplistically, you control the actions of Terry, a child who has been dropped into a strange world. While happily minding his own business, Terry gets whisked away by "The Professor" and his cat Mochi, alien beings who are being pursued by various nefarious creatures with their own agendas. In the heat of the battle, the Professor loses his energy cells, devices he desperately needs to return home. To help get Terry and the Professor home, you must take control and recover those lost cells.

Delve a little deeper, and things get a little surreal. The Professor talks to you, not Terry - Terry has no personality whatsoever, and is simply an empty vessel for you to control. Sure, that sounds like most games, but in this case it's actually deliberate. Even the art design changes depending on your environment - the professor lives in a strange isometric world, while Terry exists in one with normal perspective. The cues towards retro 8-bit gaming are thick, including not only the art design, but the music, the characters, and even the dialog. Step behind the curtain, so the speak, and the game is strangely self-aware. But, one would expect such an approach from the creators of Killer7, another highly surreal adventure. It's these characteristics which have made Contact somewhat of an underground curiousity.

Post-modernist sophistry? Or just pseudo-intellectualism? Do we even care?!

Post-modernist sophistry? Or just pseudo-intellectualism? Do we even care?!
But, enough of the highbrow navel gazing. How good a game is it?

Sadly, not great. On paper, the game has everything you'd want. The world is quite large and varied, and even has a number of tongue-in-cheek areas that poke fun at various memes. For example, the island Habara is populated with gamers and electronic freaks (Akihabara, anyone?). There's even a deliberate poke at Sony's expense, telling you to hit a boss's weak spot for "massive damage".

There are a wide variety of "costumes" you can collect that give you additional unique powerups, including fishing, cooking, thievery, and even water / fire attacks. Your skills improve with use, allowing you to deal not only greater damage but also create more useful and powerful items. With over thirty different statistics to build on, there's more than enough room for customisation through use. And, karma counts - if you attack the villagers, they'll eventually revolt and either run away or attack you back. Swap to attacking monsters, and they'll grow to like you again.

If that's not enough, there's also unique "decals", each of which is peeled off the screen like a sticker and applied to characters or environments. When applied, they have effects as varied as turning all enemies into sheep (still aggressive sheep, natch) to creating a balloon you blow up for damage using the DS microphone. Add into that interesting characters, loads of side quests, and an interesting, multi-layered story, and it sounds like you've got the makings of a classic game.

Unfortunately, it's not all roses. The gameplay mechanics are quite simple. Too simple, in fact. This reviewer spent the first twenty minutes trying to figure out why he wasn't attacking effectively before he figured out that the controls really were that simple. The game is a "one click" affair - you push a button to attack, then you push another to stop. You can attack using your custom powers, but in practice this normally breaks down to occasionally using your most powerful current powerup. Combat strategy is non-existent - despite having access to many different forms of attacks, they all seem to do largely the same thing. While it's possible that some degree of strategy may actually exist in there, one doesn't need to actually use it to progress.

Exploration is largely a case of moving forward. It's hard to get lost, and it's normally pretty obvious when you've found a side quest that isn't available yet. Travelling from island to island takes time, however, and requires visiting the ship, selecting a new island from your globe, having a nap, and otherwise filling a bit of time.

The difficulty levels are largely broken. While bosses appear to be extremely difficult and initially appear to require grinding to defeat, effective use of items almost completely eliminates these challenges. If appropriately managed, one need never face a real combat-based challenge through the entire game. The puzzles, on the other hand, range from the overly simplistic to the totally obscure. For the most part, they involve fetch and return missions. However, a significant number also require using items in specific locations, swapping various items, and combining items to create new items. Some are easy, some not so. A few are downright confusing, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially not if you enjoy a conceptual challenge. However, it's all over far too quickly - it's almost impossible to effectively skill up up in more than one area before the game's finished.

The audio is solid, retro 8-bit fare. Nothing spectacularly exciting, but nothing offensive either. Elite Beat Agents it's not, but on the other hand, that's not a major oversight in a game that tries to be somewhat alternative. The graphics are effective, but again, nothing overly special. In the end, it's all about the art design, not the realism.

So is worth playing? Contact has a very strange feel to it, and not just that of a game with over-simplified controls. The world carries a sense of melancholy and "otherness" to it, not a bad effort in what is really a crowded genre. While the characters are never really given a chance to develop beyond one-dimensional caricatures, they still have more depth than most DS RPGs. And, the story is interesting enough to keep things moving. If you're looking for something a little different (albeit very short), Contact definitely fits the bill. On the other hand, if you're looking for something that's epic, that's polished, or that carries a significant challenge, it's probably worth passing on. This is one of the few cases where the whole is really greater than the sum of the parts, but it's just too short to recommend without reservation.
The Score
Overall, a good game worth playing if you've got the spare cash, time, or interest. Otherwise, there's better stuff out there. 7
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

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7 years ago
I imported this along with Dragon Quest Rocket Slime a few months ago based on metacritic reviews. Rocket Slime was great fun. This one I agree with the review, it's very hard to get into and a bit too simple.
7 years ago
It's virtually impossible to get your skills to Skill Level 2 as you got to level it up to 70... very...very...very...slowly. And side missions like fishing for the swallowed fisherman needs skill level 2. It's a shame.
7 years ago
Well written review Evan. I have not played the game, but I think I'll give it a miss. I love supporting inovative ideas in games, but I have the feeling that this wouldn't appeal to me after reading this.
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