This week in Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Indivisible.
Prologue: Last Day for Limited Edition "Spooky" Merch
Today is the last day sharkrobot.com are selling their limited run of exclusive ZP shirts, hoodies, and hats, so you'd better snap them up! Unless you're not watching this the day it comes out, in which case: Hey, remember that great ZP merch you could've bought? Maybe missing out on that was when your life started going downhill!
Just because we're in the midst of Shooter Season doesn't mean I can't take a break from all the fucking "Modern Recons" and "Ghost Dutys" to have a look at an indie game that engages my interest now and again; it's like how the TV news usually ends with a heartwarming story about a cat that looks like Daniel Day-Lewis in the vain hope of stopping the viewers from angrily dashing their brains out on the nearest solid object after all the horrible, infuriating things the rest of the news told them about. There are only so many ways I can talk about the grace and efficiency with which bullets go into the dudes I'm pointing at before it starts to feel less like an overused game mechanic and more like a suggestion for an invigorating Saturday afternoon.
So I played Indivisible this week, which isn't a shooter, although it might be every other bloody genre. Get this: it's a Metroidvania platformer with a twist on JRPG-style active-time battling that plays a bit like a fighting game, which might sound like a breakfast scramble made of eggs, Twiglets, and push pins, but I have to say, it works... or rather, it worked for a while. Tease of eventual opinion deployed, execute backtrack, initiate waffle. Indivisible comes to us from Lab Zero, the developers of Skullgirls and, as might be expected, is absolutely gorgeously animated in their characteristic Western anime style, or "Wanime", as I like to call it. I say "absolutely"; the cast of characters is positively elephantine, so there are a few designs and animations here or there where it seems the enthusiasm might've been waning a bit, possibly being hurriedly polished off on a Friday afternoon even as the tops were being popped off the box of wine coolers.
The plot concerns the infuriatingly awkwardly-spelled Ajna, a spunky teenage girl in a Ni no Kuni-esque dog's breakfast fantasy world where forest villages and steampunk cities rub shoulders like slightly-acquainted colleagues in an undersized lift, who has been trained as a fighter from birth by her stern dad, and has only just established her protagonist credentials when she returns to her forest village to find it being forest pillaged by an imperialist army of baddies, and her stern dad has been made stone dead. Yeah, I'm guessing you weren't shooting for the "Creative Writing" prize, were you, Lab Zero? Shall I put us down for "Standard RPG Fantasy Package A12", then? Please direct me to the first of the several teenagers we will be enlisting to aid us in murdering God.
Still, we're thrown a bit of a curveball early on when, while fighting the Imperial soldier who stone-deaded our stern dad, said soldier inexplicably turns into a spirit and is absorbed by Ajna's consciousness, 'cos it turns out Ajna has a secret god power that lets her draw people into herself and then get them to fight for her; sort of like Pokémon, but with human beings, and therefore, somehow even more ethically questionable. What this is, in truth, is the standard RPG metaphorical device where you ostensibly have a party with you but only the protagonist is visible, the other party members only popping miraculously out of your infinite butthole for battles and cutscenes; it's that, but tortuously squeezed into the mechanics of the plot, and aside from the fact it explains how an elderly, bent old witch can keep up with Ajna as she dashes and wall-jumps her way through a round of platforming challenges, they needn't have fucking bothered. The plot would work perfectly well without this element, or perhaps should I say, the plot wouldn't work any worse without it. Second tease of eventual opinion deployed, shift gears, backtrack again.
So about that combat: touch an enemy in the platform world, and you go into a Final Fantasy-esque team battle where characters can only attack when their action bar is full, but with each party member assigned to one of the face buttons and their attacks cracking off quickly enough that it feels more like inputting combos in Marvel vs. Capcom (or Skullgirls, I suppose) or perhaps keepie uppie, because extending your combo as long as you can typically involves juggling the enemy like you're a very old-fashioned patriarch and the ground is your virginal daughter. And this worked for me; I found it a refreshing take on turn-based JRPG battling that throws out the menus and plays up the "smacking shit up like it's feces volleyball", with the pace and animation making it all kinds of juicy.
The problem is, there's a moment in the game - and it's remarkable how finely I can pinpoint it - where an invisible lever gets thrown and the bottom drops out, and it stops being fun. It's about the point when you meet the pirate lesbian, and the world opens up, and you know we're in trouble when a pirate lesbian marks anything but an upturn in events. The problem is in the numbers; I don't know if they were originally making another fighting game and just got bored, but that might explain the ridiculous number of party members you get. This is some Chrono Cross-level shit; the primest real estate in the world is a teenage girl's noggin, apparently, and Ajna's beating the tenants off with a stick.
But the combat isn't very deep, and all that really matters is doing the most damage as fast as you can, so you might as well just find four guys you like and stick with them. And post-pirate lesbian, something goes horribly wrong with the enemy's stats; I'd enter battle with a small, unassuming frog, bum-bounce them between my four lads for twenty minutes, then in that awkward post-coital cigarette break while I wait for everyone's bars to refill, I'd notice the frog still had nine-tenths of their health bar left. I hit that frog 400 times! In a sane world, it would no longer have more than one dimension, let alone health points! And they couldn't do much damage to me, either, so now I'm just disinterestedly doing my super-combo six times to kill one fucking frog! I feel like Rachmaninoff playing for pocket change in a dive bar, and the crowd won't stop requesting "Free Bird".
This really did kill the game for me, since the combat was the only really interesting one out of the several unrelated gameplay mechanics stitched clumsily together here; the platforming's generic, at best, and if you forget to press "Dash" before you press "Jump", then Ajna's standard jump can just about clear half a fucking drainage ditch. But it's the story that really ices my sticky underfolds; there's something unpleasantly Freedom Planet-y about Ajna the Spunky Wonder Teen around whom the whole world revolves. Every party member she meets blurts out their entire backstory and motivation like they're on a fucking speed-date, but is then content to put their entire life and character development on hold so they can hang around Ajna's brain, passing the blunt around, and help out with whatever she wants to do; it's writing on a level slightly below "Bottom-Tier Anime", and slightly above "First-Time Webcomic".
About the only one with any depth is the bloke who killed Ajna's stern dad - something she gets over like a mild footballing injury, incidentally - which could've been an interesting dynamic: Ajna and her mortal enemy forced to be magically bound together. But all it means in practical terms is that he still goes along with whatever she wants to do, but with a grumpy face, and then every other character constantly dunks on him for not being in Ajna's Best Friends Club and treats him like the whiny teenager on a family road trip rather than, say, a proven and potentially dangerous hostile.
So in summary, Indivisible, here's a trophy for the animation and a trophy for the bold spirit of core gameplay innovation, and now, for everything else, here's sixteen punches to the throat.
- Just one out of many: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Is it me or was every character in this game named by randomly smashing a typewriter keyboard
- So is this what they mean by "headcanon"
Extra: Will Destroy the Galaxy for Cash
My latest book in the Jacques McKeown saga, Will Destroy the Galaxy for Cash, is available now from audible.com! As an audiobook. Obviously. That's kind of their whole thing.