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SummaryAn honor to its genre
The GoodJapanese adventure is a genre that is virtually unknown in the West. The reason for this is clear: of all video game genres, Japanese adventure relies most on the narrative, and least on the gameplay. This design philosophy is largely unfitting to the tastes of Western players. In my opinion, Japanese adventure just doesn't work well as a video game genre. If narrative is the only source of entertainment, why bother with the video game format in the first place? Even if they all had great stories, the overwhelming majority of those games would have worked better as manga novels or anime movies. I've played many Japanese adventures, but could halfway enjoy only those that contained some other gameplay besides reading text and staring at pictures. And even that was an exception to the rule.
Therefore, only a few games belonging to this genre were ever translated and released in the West, if we disregard some translated hentai games, which unfortunately occupy a large percentage of Japanese adventures in general. There was, however, one Japanese adventure that was released in the West, and it was the best one in its time: Snatcher. Not only did it have a strong narrative, but - more importantly, at least for many Western players - it had shooting sequences, which added greatly to the overall suspense and acted like a "saving grace" for a genre devoid of challenge.
Policenauts is very similar to Snatcher. It is also written by Hideo Kojima, has a great story, and features shooting sequences. To put it shortly, if you liked Snatcher, you'll like Policenauts as well. Actually, Policenauts is in many ways a better game.
First of all, it has a much better point-and-click interface, making it more similar to Western first-person adventures than the entirely menu-based Snatcher. Instead of simply going through pre-set commands at every given screen, you first locate objects of interest on a screen, and only then interact with them. This creates a sense of exploration, no matter how rudimentary, but definitely stronger than in Snatcher and most other Japanese adventures. It also allows for some slight challenges which would have been impossible within the frames of menu-based interface. For example, there are several instances when the game requires you to look closely at the screen in order to identify an object. This never degrades into "pixel hunting" and is overall very satisfying.
Policenauts also has some excellent puzzle-like tasks, similar to portrait-making in Snatcher, but in my opinion even cooler. There aren't many of those, but the bomb-disarming sequence comes to mind, which was very suspenseful and even somewhat challenging. I only wish there were more such sequences in the game, but perhaps it was even more impressive because it came after a long stretch of traditional Japanese adventure gameplay.
Generally, Policenauts does a great job in eliminating the most annoying sides of Japanese adventures, namely the possibility to get stuck. Japanese adventures are notorious for having "triggers" - the player typically has to go through all the commands over and over again, until something happens. This system is absolutely terrible, and most will agree than getting stuck in a game that poses no challenge is a downright repelling experience. Policenauts also has some moments that require continuous clicking, but with a few exceptions (the tedious wandering through the museum) it is much less painful than usually. Dialogues give clues as to what to do next; characters stop you from aimlessly moving from location to location by saying something like: "Wait, you want to leave already? Have you checked the back room?", etc. In short, unpleasant experiences are reduced to a minimum.
Then there are the shooting sequences, which are more numerous and varied than they were in Snatcher. I remember how I complained about the lack of those sequences in Snatcher; I was very pleased to discover that Policenauts had many more, and they were generally much more interesting. There are simple one-on-one shoot-outs, battles against guys in robotic flying suits, fighting multiple human enemies at a time, and some excellent set pieces such as the exciting bike chase.
What I personally loved most in Policenauts is not even its story, but the way it was integrated into the gameplay. Frankly, I don't think any other Japanese adventure has ever done it so successfully. The point-and-click interface allows some non-obligatory exploration, and much detail is "hidden", meaning that you'll have first to pay attention to an object in order to get information about it. You can explore rooms, clicking on all the objects, and chances are you'll be rewarded with an interesting snippet of information. The gameplay flow is still very linear, but I was thankful for those moments when I could actually enjoy reading text that was a result of my exploration, rather than being stuffed down my throat. The game is very generous with interesting and varied text descriptions. You can try stuff here, and for me, that's an essential gameplay cornerstone. This, in my opinion, is what makes Policenauts stand above its brethren. It even reminded me of some of my favorite Western adventures of the past.
The very weakness of Japanese adventures - over-abundance of text - turns into a strength thanks to the remarkable quality of descriptions and attention to detail. Furthermore, in an almost paradoxical fashion, the well-known weaknesses of the writer turn into a strength too thanks to the adventure game format. In Metal Gear Solid games, the huge amounts of text were often an annoying distraction, making a weird impression because they didn't fit well the action genre. In Policenauts, the text becomes a source of entertainment. It's like reading descriptions in a novel, only you have to uncover some of the descriptions by yourself, and can also skip some of them.
But I must also say that the writing in Policenauts is much better than in Metal Gear Solid games. The story is by far less convoluted, still having some great plot twists, but not going overboard with them, like the aforementioned series did. Science fiction element is also much more convincing in Policenauts; in fact, the whole "hard sci-fi" setting is very believable, and definitely more coherent and seriously researched than the messy settings of Metal Gear Solid. Basically, everything you loved in the story of Metal Gear Solid is in Policenauts, while nearly everything you hated is not here. The story is masterfully paced, with the first two acts building suspense, while the remaining five evolving at ever-increasing speed, adding more to the tension and resolving it at the same time. The plot twists are well-placed and make sense. The story has similarities to Metal Gear Solid, but its political and social aspects are deeper and much better executed, without the ridiculous escapades that turned the more famous game series into a complete soap opera.
The character cast is very well-done, both good guys and villains playing their roles convincingly. I think Policenauts has the best characters of all Kojima games, more interesting than in Snatcher, and more human than the over-the-top comic book figures of Metal Gear Solid. The story has drama, suspense, warmth, touching and memorable moments, and even humor here and there. Attention to detail in the descriptions, many sub-plots that contribute to the story arc, wealth of information concerning the setting, technology, social and political aspects, character biographies - all that makes the story of Policenauts a gem. This is Hideo Kojima at his very best.
Policenauts was never officially translated into English and released in Western countries. Therefore, I want to conclude this "Good" part of the review with a big "thank you" to the guys who made the unofficial English translation to this game (see the Links section for more details). I played through the game two times, first time in Japanese and second time in English, and there is no need to say there was no comparison. The language in the game is very complex, full of scientific terms, and even when playing in English, I needed time to understand some parts. Not only the translation is complete and faithful to the original: it is very good, much better than many "official" translations, especially of that time. The dialogue conveys perfectly the spirit of the original, yet remains natural and fluent.
The BadJapanese adventure is a problematic genre, at least to Western players, who grew up with the notion that a game must contain gameplay. That last word also usually implies challenge, something that requires skill, be it mental or reflex-based. Japanese audience sees this a bit differently and is generally willing to overlook gameplay deficiencies, allowing the narrative to step in as the main source of entertainment. But to most Western players, the long stretches of clicking and text-reading might appear irritating and pointless. Most of Policenauts consists of dialogues and descriptions. As per rules of Japanese adventure, there is no physical movement, and - with a few exceptions - no challenge at all. It's amazing the game is still so entertaining; though I don't attribute it only to its story, but also to the fact it eliminates the most terrible annoyances typical for the genre and throws in exciting action sequences to break the monotony. But I still can't see why the same effort that went into writing the story couldn't be applied to such elementary gameplay-shaping feature as actual physical control of the character, and perhaps more challenging situations that would fit a detective story better and make the game more exciting.
I loved the story of Policenauts, but even here, Kojima's writing is a coin with two sides. The great attention to detail in the story comes with a price: since the linearity of the gameplay doesn't allow any deviation from the narrative, you'll have to sit through long descriptions that sometimes seem to be there only to share the writer's knowledge. In plain words, Kojima is showing off; less so than he did in Metal Gear Solid series, but it's still noticeable. When you explore locations and click on items, it becomes an asset; but when Jonathan and Ed are chasing a suspect and you have to listen to Ed's explanations about the technology with which the maglev train station was built, it becomes awkward and sometimes unintentionally funny. Still, have no fear: Policenauts is much better in this aspect than Metal Gear Solid. At least you won't have Mei Ling quoting Confucius to you while you are getting killed by guards.