Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog


Amy (Xbox, 2012, France): I Beg To Differ, World
February 5, 2012, 4:41 am
Filed under: Amy (Xbox, 2012, France)

It’s been a looooong time since I’ve seen a game take such a thorough trouncing like Vector Cell’s download-only title “Amy,” which dropped about a week or so ago. (“Postal 3” notwithstanding, which I’ll never play anyway).  The raging Metacritic score of 23 alone (ouch) obligates me to include “Amy” on the crappy videogames blog. But the fact that it’s a third-person, survival horror game created by a small, six-year-old French development company (with really only one other title under its belt that I can tell) obligates me even further.

And since I am a self-proclaimed champion of some of the worst crap the videogame world has to offer, you can probably guess what I’m about to say next: Contrary to just about everything you’ll read elsewhere on the interwebs about this game, “Amy” is just fine. It’s not great, it’s got problems, and it’s not for everyone. But I see the developers really attempting to do something different here with an otherwise stale genre (while also honoring that genre), and the game ultimately delivers, if you persevere. Just make sure you have several extra controllers on hand because you will probably destroy a few in the process. Actually safeguarding your entire console under lock and key might not be a bad idea either. Just saying.

The narrative behind “Amy” is so up my alley, the street sign actually has my name on it. Many reviewers have complained that the story is too sketchy, too vague and incomplete. While they might be right, I still love the skeleton on display here; it feels just like a vague, but super serious, “Omen” ripoff film from Italy lensed in 1978 by auteur Ovidio Assonitis and finally shown in limited rotation at select drive-ins about 2 years later due to lack of interest. The story begins already-in-progress: We meet Lana, a blonde in her late 20’s, sitting on a mostly empty commuter train next to Amy, a little girl who might be 8. From the get-go, it is obvious Amy isn’t right—probably autistic. When the ticket collector comes by and attempts a conversation with the little girl, we find out she’s nervous, with googly eyes, and doesn’t speak, clinging onto Lana. However, she scribbles fancy little drawings on a handheld, futuristic, electronic sketchpad (which becomes one of the game’s mechanics later on). A cell phone call from Lana’s doctor-friend, Ellen, provides the remainder of the context: Lana, who worked (as a teacher? a nurse? a secretary?) at the ominously titled research facility “The Phoenix Center” just moments ago kidnapped little Amy, who was a test subject there for some (extrasensory? alien?) purpose. Lana has “liberated” her from the clutches of the exploitative “Professor” who runs the center, and she is taking Amy to a safe haven. That safe haven is in the form of Ellen, a doctor friend at Silver City Hospital who is aware of the evil “Professor” and has agreed to run some further tests on Amy and stash her away. So, Lana is Amy’s friend and rescuer, maybe sort of like a surrogate mother, though she seems to speak to Amy more like a teacher than anything. Lana is not a professional brawler or a savvy spy; she’s just a regular gal with good intentions who has kidnapped an odd little girl and is way over her head. I like her, and the context is perfect (for shit to go wrong).

The backstory is simple, but then things get complicated. Suddenly en route, there is a flash in the sky (coming from the direction of the “Phoenix Center”), and the train barrels full-speed into the station and wrecks. As all of this is happening, the ticket-taker who we saw just moments ago reappears with zombified eyeballs and a strange red-glowing symbol emblazoned on his forehead. Not good. Lana wakes up amidst the smoking wreckage some undetermined time later, and Amy is missing. She finds Amy not too far away, but the world has gone to hell. Citizens have become infected with something (humans crawl around on all fours and have real bad dental problems all the sudden, with jutting teeth and slathering jaws—not to mention killer spiked hair and glowing foreheads). To make matters worse, the “Professor” from the center has apparently sent out his well-organized mercenaries to find (or kill?) Lana and Amy. The rest of the game chronicles Lana’s attempt (through the train station, a mall, a subway, city streets, the hospital, etc.) to reach Doc Ellen…always with Amy in tow.

Repeat: ALWAYS with Amy in tow. The mechanic of this game requires you, as the guardian adult, to hold onto Amy’s hand pretty much all the time. I played the entire campaign with my finger mashed down on the right bumper button of my 360 gamepad—which calls Amy to your side and makes her grab your hand. Amy will run with you when needed, and she will crouch with you. She’ll do whatever you do as long as she is holding your hand—the mechanic is well done but requires constant attention. If you let go of Amy, she has a tendency to wander (she’s eight years old, after all), so get your finger back onto that bumper button to call her back over. Amy can also sometimes get scared and wig out, and then you have to find her.

Another benefit of keeping Amy near: Lana, too, is infected with whatever is going around (it’s in the air), but Amy (who is strangely unaffected by all of this) is a special little girl (in more ways than one, as you slowly discover), and she keeps Lana healthy. If you separate from Amy for too long, you get all veiny and clammy and gray and slow-moving…and eventually you die. (Of course, intentionally allowing the infection to increase in level can sometimes work to your advantage too, because it confuses the other infected around you, who mistake you for part of the zombie clan, and it lets you get away with things sometimes.) But grab that little girl’s hand, and you are miraculously decontaminated. It is just one of the continuous tension-makers this game has to offer. (Of course, there are portions of the game that require you to separate from Amy, so this necessitates all kinds of disease-management techniques that I won’t go into here). Suffice to say this mechanic brings a strategic element into play, and it is interesting, and feels fresh for survival horror.

But wait! This is not the only “tactical” or “strategic”  aspect of this game, which to me, makes it something interesting for survival horror (if not unique). In addition to the hand-holding elements, Amy can go places you can’t; she’s little. She can be told to enter crawlspaces or rooms; she can be told to stay put (though keeping her hidden for too long may result in her emerging on her own, which is never good, since she wanders); she can be told to access areas to push buttons that you cannot reach, or to hack computers that you can’t use. (I guess Lana is technophobic—actually I think the idea is that Amy, although autistic, is extremely tech savvy too, as if she has Asperger’s Syndrome or something.) While this kind of mechanic is not unique in videogames, I’ve not encountered it regularly in survival horror games. Sometimes you have to hide Amy, as well as hide yourself, so you can remain undetected by enemies (both humans and monsters). Later, Amy acquires and uses two telepathic powers (a “bubble of silence” and a “psychic blast”) that can help Lana traverse especially complicated maps. (Interesting to note: Amy’s telepathic power menu /wheel contains slots for 5 or so powers, although only 2 are revealed during the course of this game–I presume this points towards sequels, of course.) In a pinch, Lana can swing a breakable melee weapon (pipe, crowbar) to dispatch some monsters, but it’s best to avoid this when possible (it’s not always possible). Using all of these elements, in a monster-filled, tense environment turns this into a “stealth, tactical, survival horror” game, I guess. Sounds accurate.

All of these various tactical elements get stacked together to reach an objective. A typical section goes like this: You grab Amy’s hand, crouch below a window that has a soldier in it with a gun or a zombie with nasty claws (who will kill you instantly if you are detected). You hide Amy in a cabinet. You backtrack to activate a payphone so that it rings, which gets the soldier’s or monster’s attention. You run and hide in the same cabinet as Amy. When the enemy passes to investigate, you extract Amy from her hiding place and grab her hand, backtrack to the office he was in. There you find a door with a “genetic lock” that requires a blood sample to open. Beyond the door is a phone you need to use to call for help. You grab Amy’s hand and begin hunting for the DNA sample (usually a pool of blood or a dead body) with a hacking device you have in your possession. To open another locked door that has a sample behind it, you get Amy to crawl into a duct to enter the room and you direct her to open the door so you can get in. You collect the DNA sample just to find out it is not the right one, so the hunt continues. You come across a ladder that you can climb to a catwalk, but Amy cannot climb it. So, you go up alone and tell her to stay put. All the while, that monster or soldier is hiding right down that hallway somewhere. Keep in mind, anytime you have to let go of Amy’s hand your infection level begins to increase slowly (until ultimate death), so your solo hunt for the DNA sample needs to be precise. You cannot free-roam the place by yourself, since that means ta-ta (which I think many reviewers hated about the game). Since you only find a dead-end, you descend the ladder. Grab Amy’s hand for some magical decontamination, and then you have to lift Amy onto a ledge and tell her to head to the end of the corridor to push an elevator button so you can ride the elevator to another part of the map to continue the hunt…all the while your infection level increases again since you’ve separated. Make sense?

So in general, the game links together these various maneuvers–“tell Amy to do such-and-such,” “hide,” “stealth crouch/walk,” “find DNA samples,” “allow yourself to get a little infected to fool the zombies and shimmy past them,” and intermittently “bash some zombies in the head while telling Amy to stay put”—but your job is to find out in which order these maneuvers must be accomplished to successfully make it across a map. Generally, actions must be accomplished in a precise order so they work.

Employing the most recent free-to-use Sony-sponsored PhyreEngine, the game is not bad to look at—the environments are generally closed (but sometimes spacious) wrecked city interiors inhabited by walking nightmares. Colors are suitably subdued. Subway tunnels, dirty corridors, and shadowy warehouses abound. Dark lighting everywhere, but not so dark you can’t see. Little Amy does hold a light—a battery-powered camping lantern, which does a great job at all-around illumination. Your character is a decent size on screen (I hate third-person games where your character is tiny). The slow transformation of Lana into a zombie when separated from Amy is subtle and strange—and her eventual zombie-shuffle when too infected slows the game to a perfect crawl. There is a light indicator on Lana’s back that keeps you constantly informed of her level of infection (like Issac’s life bar up the spine of his spacesuit in “Dead Space), and this leaves the entire screen for play (with a fading HUD, which is minimal). Cutscenes appear between chapters, which move the action along, though the scenes themselves are static, graphic-novel-like renderings. The sound is workaday, but is fine overall. Like with most games I play, I turned the music loop off. I thought the voice work was fine, though there were a few translation errors with some on-screen prompts which most folks will never notice. On the whole the game maintains that essential tense atmosphere. This is due less to sound design or the visuals and more to the constant fear of death.

So, what’s not to like? Looking at the reviews ‘round the net, there’s plenty not to like, I gather. But I have a theory about that: Many of the negative reviews surrounding “Amy” (and there is a tsunami’s worth) come from two sources—one is legitimate, and one is not. The legit complaints revolve around certain aspects of the game that feel unfinished, and the game’s many glitchy aspects and sometimes inconsistent design choices (like in some areas, you can check garbage cans for health hypos, but then in other areas, the exact same trash cans don’t even provide a search prompt; or in some areas you can smash open windows with a pipe, but in other areas the exact same windows are unbreakable). While these kinds of complaints regarding consistency are not endemic to this game and can be found even in billion-dollar titles, “Amy” has its fair share of problems. For example, I got caught on absolutely invisible geometry in the world as Amy stood beside me watching as I ran in place, which necessitated a restart, ugh; one time, the “You Are Dead” screen came up, but then it just sat there, never giving me the option to reload the last “soft” checkpoint, which forced me to once again return to the beginning of the chapter (see the paragraph below about the save structure)–supremely irritating.

A more consistent issue, however, was the finicky frame rate. In larger areas, the frame rate would noticeably drop; some stuttering would occur when there was a lot of action on screen as well. Case in point: The very first shot in the game—the commuter train moving quickly towards the camera as it passes through a tunnel—freezes for a millisecond before continuing. Uh, choke from the get-go? For PC games that outpace the system running them, I’ve come to expect these kinds of problems. And, of course, there are steps the PC gamer can sometimes take to ameliorate the issue. But frame rate problems from a console game? It’s the pits, since there is literally nothing you can do but suffer through. Maybe my trouble is that I have an older “phat” 360 (but it’s a Falcon mobo, with extra fans installed to keep it cool, and anyway it’s only 3.5 years old). Regardless, I’m not buying a new Xbox to replace a unit that is still working perfectly fine (knock on wood) just to eliminate frame rate problems in “Amy.” Still, wildly fluctuating frame rates suck and are evidence of poor optimization on the developer’s part.

Suffice to say, while there are legitimate gripes to make, many of the published complaints against the game are actually illegitimate in my opinion. My theory goes thusly: The illegitimate bitching comes from players and reviewers who want the game to be something it’s not. Namely, this game is not primarily a fighting game, like “Resident Evil” or even “Silent Hill,” where combat takes at least one of the center stages. While there is an unrefined, awkward kind of combat in “Amy” (which is also oddly satisfying), this is not the focus of the game, and no matter how hard a reviewer might want it to be a combat-centric game, this is simply not what “Amy” primarily trades in. On one games blog I visited, a video reviewer rightly argued that many of the negative reactions to “Amy” probably come from those players’ “inability to handle the return of classic survival horror” where you have to “think about what you are going to do before you actually do it.” This same reviewer notes that “Amy’s appeal is in its user-unfriendly style, similar to Forbidden Siren.”

Totally nailed it. This game isn’t the kind of easily accessible, nutrition-less fast food that many current-gen players have come to expect. As an homage to truly difficult, debilitating (and even depressing) games like the “Siren” series (which can be utterly unforgiving), “Amy” is cumbersome; it is a slog at times, and it wants you to feel completely overwhelmed, afraid, powerless, and vulnerable. It wants to confuse you. It doesn’t care if you have to repeat a section ad infinitum. This game does not offer hope, it asks you to do things that just don’t seem possible given your constraints, and it does not promise you will succeed at playing it. (Hey, try playing a clinically blind character in first-person perspective in “Forbidden Siren 2” while being chased by goddamn zombies. Genius.) Frankly, the game wants you to experience at least some failure—that’s the horror. To me, that’s gutsy. To me, that generates a kind of fear that a game like “Dead Space” (props) never can. “Amy” sucks, but it sucks in the right way; it sucks because it’s difficult, and it sucks because Lana’s and Amy’s situation sucks. And they might not make it. And if you give up on playing the game to its end, then they don’t make it. And even if you do play to the end, it might be for naught anyway. A real horror game gives you no fucking guarantees. Wow, I guess I am passionate about this.

The only relevant question a player needs to ask is this: Can I take it? In response, many reviewers who wanted to just have a “fast, fun, scary time” flat out said “No.” (They bitch that Lana climbs ladders too slowly. Folks, she’s wearing goddamn high heels—she’s some city-dwelling research-lab-chick, not a limber UFC fighter. Then they bitch that they couldn’t just leave little Amy somewhere in a locker and explore independently.  Folks, that is not the point of the damn game.) Whatever the particular complaints, these reviewers are allowed to not personally like the game, of course. But they go too far in claiming the game is unplayable or poorly constructed. That, friends and readers, is misrepresentation.

Let’s put some of this into concrete terms:

“Amy” rewards the methodical, cautious player. You need to search every environment to find a (breakable) weapon, a health hypodermic, or to locate DNA samples to unlock these high-tech doors. One health hypo could be the link between you being able to finish and not finish a chapter. You need to stop and hide, too, and sometimes you must travel extremely slowly on purpose, all the while gradually becoming more infected. It’s counterintuitive, but the game requires it. While there is a run function you can use in a pinch, the point is not to run through this game; “Amy” punishes the reckless player, and it punishes the “fast” player, and it does so quickly. You also must plan your moves; wildly trying different approaches only gets you killed. Unfortunately, “Amy” will also punish the player who moves too slowly or is too cautious sometimes. When are you being too cautious or methodical? Well, you usually find that out when you start doing the zombie-shuffle. Load checkpoint?

The save structure in “Amy” hurts. You cannot play “Amy” in small, cellphone-sized-bites-of-angry-birds. Sorry folks. Though it is a measly $9.99 download-only title ($7.99 on the PS3, I hear, and also slated for PC, yay) and reportedly lasts only 6 hours or so, it took me easily 12 hours to get through the game. Here’s why: While there are “soft” checkpoints as you progress through a chapter, the only “hard saves” that occur are after a chapter is over. There are 6 chapters in “Amy,” so that means there are literally only 6 automatic saves throughout the game (unless the developers capitulate to the internet bitching and change that with an update, which I hope they don’t). This is not the only game to use a “scarce savepoints” technique to ramp up tension—and that’s because it works. If you die eight times while making your way through a chapter, you can begin again from the last “soft” checkpoint. But, if after dying eight more times, you get tired before reaching the end of the chapter and want to stop playing, you have two choices: 1) Shut your system down, and begin the chapter from the very beginning the next time, shit. 2) Leave your system running all night long until your next session, shit. Lots of reviewers complained about this design decision, since they couldn’t up and leave the game in midstream with an autosave every thirty minutes. I formally tell them now to all shut up. The save structure is not a mistake. This is on purpose. This is survival horror, the hard-edged kind. You don’t like it? Fine. But that does not make it a bad game. It might make the game “crushingly difficult” at times (beware of “Chapter 5: Sacrifice”…oh, dear Lord), as one reviewer said, but that’s a far cry from “bad.”

Though the game is generally linear, you never really know exactly where to go or what has to be done next, or if (or how) it involves Amy, or tactics, or stealth, or combat, or not. You just sort of methodically figure that out (dying included) while the game progresses. Kinda like…life—and especially like the survival horror games of yore. The puzzles of the game, and the maneuvers required, unfold as the game itself unfolds. No hints. No tips. No flashing objectives on screen. No prompts. No map markers. Nada. Every new area you enter, you do so naively. In fact, the only time you have any indication that you are doing the right thing is when you get a soft checkpoint flashing on screen. Whew! We made it, Amy! But if you don’t like that lack of direction, then fine—move along and play something else. But this element doesn’t make it a bad game.

The end to “Amy” promises more chapters to come—in fact, the finale of this installment quickly introduces a new character, someone who looks to be an ally, which the trio (Amy, Lana, and Ellen) desperately need. Considering the severe critical beatdown the game is getting, who knows what will happen? The title has a lot of growing to do, for sure, but this will be an interesting experiment to see if the financial benefits of producing a download-only title (no packaging, no retailing, no shipping) can survive a complete thrashing to produce a sequel regardless. I sure hope so.