Murder your inner-demons with a metal stick and embrace your true self!
Following the release of the 2010 cult classic Deadly Premonition, a title I reviewed last month and am exceptionally fond of, a decent-sized following developed around its director/writer, Hidetaka Suehiro, or as he is more commonly known, Swery. He’s an exceptionally eccentric man who has spent the past decade or so finding his own niche in the industry after the commercial failure of the under-promoted Microsoft-funded D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die, an episodic title that stopped after its initial release. Since then, he founded his own company, ran a successful Kickstarter for The Good Life, an adventure simulation game about people turning into animals, and in 2018, his company unceremoniously released the title I’m covering today, The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories.
The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Developer: White Owls Inc.
Publisher: Arc System Works
The Missing centers around titular protagonist J.J. Macfield as she and her girlfriend Emily camp out and enjoy the natural beautify of an island off the coast of Maine, creatively named Memoria Island. But rather than just follow these two as they enjoy each other’s company, a ruckus stirs amid a rainy night, Emily goes missing, and J.J. sets off to rescue/find her from a shadowy being. Thus setting herself off on a fairly standard puzzle-platforming adventure… at least until the 10 minute mark, when J.J. gets struck by lightning and burns to death.
This proves to only be a minor setback though, as J.J.’s charred remains are then approached by a deer man doctor who speaks in cryptic sentence fragments and bestows upon her the gift of immortality. Thereby allowing J.J. to persevere through any obstacles that would normally bring her life to an end, even as her neck is snapped, limbs are torn, and the body is burnt again and again. Thus bestowing upon her the core mechanic that distinguishes The Missing from other puzzle platformers of a similar ilk, and one that furthers the story on both a narrative and symbolic level.
Narratively, it speaks volumes to J.J.’s resolve and dedication to both Emily and herself as she finds the inner strength and resolve to push through every awful situation before her, even as she is routinely subjected to the paint and trauma of having her skin torn, muscles severed, and bones shattered. Sure, she can grow them back by exerting her own will but being dismembered still hurts like hell.
Thematically, it houses the underlying message of never giving up or surrendering no matter how harsh or painful life becomes, because things can always get better, and everybody has something or someone to live for, even if it is just themselves. This is not only very appropriate considering what we learn about J.J. and her backstory by the end of the game, but it is something that I, a person who has had a problem with ‘suicidal anxiety attacks’ for about half of her life, can relate to on a very intimate level.
Now, despite having such a strong narrative backing, the prim and proper story of The Missing is mostly vacant between the beginning 15 minutes and ending 40 minutes of the game. J.J. travels through rural location after location, solves puzzles, collects collectible doughnuts, and her backstory is told to the player vicariously through text messages that are periodically recovered on her phone. Aside from a few conversations between her mother and Emily, most of these texts are just flavor that does not add much to the underlying narrative, but they do a lot to help ground and establish J.J. as a person by having her interact with other people in a world that is otherwise vacant and bereft of life.
Her reactions, the people she considers friends, notes regarding her personal life, banter about classes, it’s innocuous details like these that really make a character feel like a person with a life as their own, and it makes J.J. more likable by extension. By establishing this both early and gradually, the player winds up feeling a connection to a protagonist who could have simply been a blank slate, which only makes the ending and preceding revelations all the more impactful. It’s a rare example of a fragmented and gradually revealed story that never becomes lost or confusing within its own minutia, and while there are certain symbolic oddities peppered throughout the story that I don’t quite get, everything important is clear as day.
As a story, I would wholeheartedly recommend The Missing, but in order to get the most of it, one needs to play it for themselves, enjoying the story as it gradually comes in throughout the title’s 4-5 hour long campaign, where it serves as a respite from the puzzle platforming that makes up the majority of the game. I would compare the underlying gameplay to the work of Playdead (developers of LImbo and Inside), in that it is a more methodical platformer with situational and environmental puzzle-solving wherein the character must find a way to continue heading right… while also being subjected to regular instances of toned-down ultraviolence.
It’s an effective formula, or even subgenre, that I’m surprised that fewer developers have not tried to replicate, as it offers for light but engaging gameplay where the player needs to stop and analyze the environment around them both visually and structurally, and pairs well with a stronger narrative focus, whether it be explicit or implicit. All of which can be said for the gameplay of The Missing. It can be fun, clever, and is routinely inventive with how it uses J.J.’s immortality and dismemberment to facilitate new puzzles. From simply having J.J. dismember herself to redistribute her weight to get past certain sections, or throwing herself through spinning buzzsaws in order to bounce her body across a pit. However, while it shines for the technical majority of the game, the gameplay can be a ripe bastard at the worst of times
Certain puzzles can be finicky to solve or involve cues that left me running around in circles for minutes at a time. Collectibles can be hidden in frustratingly obscure places that make a guide highly recommended for any playthrough, as collectibles unlock conversations. And for many of the more elaborate puzzles, failing to do something right the first time basically means the player needs to start the whole process from the very beginning, even if they fully know what they are supposed to do.
However, my biggest criticism is easily the scarce or otherwise poorly placed checkpoints. From checkpoints placed right before unskippable minute-long conversations to checkpoints that don’t immediately trigger after a puzzle is completed, and can force players to repeat them in their entirety several times. This was startlingly common throughout my playthrough, but easily the worst instance of The Missing’s poor checkpointing can be seen in what could generously be described as the final boss battle. It’s a section that, on paper, I utterly adore as it represents J.J.’s character growth both narratively and mechanically. However, whatever intended effect or mood the section was meant to be evoked became lost to me after my eighth attempt.
These all strike me as problems that should have been honed out in playtesting, seeing where players got hung-up, and either adding additional checkpoints or clues when necessary. Without these things, it becomes alarmingly easy for a less cautious player, such as myself, to become stuck in loops of repeated content, which only robs the story of its intended pacing. It really makes me wish the developers released a patch that offered more checkpoints, or maybe even a manual save system, but instead the pace-breaking sections peppered throughout the title serve as persistent low points in a title that is otherwise very so tightly designed around its story and themes on just about every level, and that includes its audiovisual presentation.
As a title that deals with a lot of self-harm and suicidal themes, The Missing had to make a very important choice with how it would present the trauma it’s protagonist undergoes. But rather than showing each wound J.J. undergoes in brutal and morose detail, the developers aimed for a more comfortable middle ground. When sustaining any injury, J.J. audibly lets out a guttural scream or intense cry that goes to briefly reinforce to the player that she is a person being maimed. When her body becomes mutilated, her model is replaced with that of a shadowy figure that bleeds white, curbing away the gory details, while still reinforcing her pain through her animations as she shambles about with one leg and continues rolling and moving throughout the world even as she is reduced to a mere head.
All of which is presented to the player at a distance, casting J.J. as a small character in a large world whose facial features are not ordinarily visible to players, and whose details are created diluted due to the not-so-subtle glow given to her in an effort to have her stand out from the dark environments she frequents. Environments that are largely the result of outsourcing from developers QLOC and Gevo Entertainment, and don’t look particularly enticing up close. However, when framed using the distant panning 2.5D camera, they have an almost diorama-like look to them that I took a liking to as the game went on. To the point where I had to review screenshots to remind myself that, no the developers probably did not intend on the game looking like it’s made of finely crafted plastic figures.
It all strikes a delicate balance with something that treats J.J. and her injuries with weight and severity, and something that the player could reasonably stomach looking at for several hours. …While maybe finding some twisted sense of amusement in the visual spectacle of J.J. being slammed by a rotating wrecking ball and manhandled by a giant monkey toy.
To dust off a phrase I have not used in quite some time, The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories is an “almost brilliant” video game. It is a title built around the theme of overcoming adversity and undergoing excruciating amounts of pain all in the pursuit of one’s happiness, and on just about every conceivable level, I’d say that it fulfills and follows through with this idea wonderfully.
From the story and its ultimate reveals, the puzzle platforming that serves as the building blocks of the journey, the periodic reminders of happier days, and that J.J. has a life beyond her what we experience in the game, and the presentation, which adds an appreciated portion of levity to what could otherwise be a grotesque experience. However, it is also a journey with its fair share of bumps and hiccups that detract from what is otherwise a rather breezy and lenient affair, amounting to a title that I am exceptionally glad to have played through, and would strongly recommend, but don’t intend on ever playing again.