While everyone checks daily prices for turnips, I’ve been hooked to my 3DS for very different reasons. Level 5, a company best known for JRPGs and the Professor Layton series, doesn’t usually show up on my radar. My ignorance shifted when chatter about Guild 02 kept coming up among some whose taste I deeply trust.
Guild 02 is Level 5’s second set of eShop-exclusive experimental games made in collaboration with outside designers, and this lineup includes Kaz Ayabe’s Attack of the Friday Monsters!, Kazuya Asano and Takemaru Abiko’s The Starship Damrey, and Keiji Inafune’s Bugs vs. Tanks. You might remember The Starship Damrey because Vinny and I took a look at it a few months back.
When that Quick Look finished, The Starship Damrey joined a pile of games I had every intention of returning to, even if I knew, in my heart of hearts, it would never happen. But I kept reading and hearing about Attack of the Friday Monsters!, and finally decided to see what Level 5 was up to.
Guys and gals, make your way to the eShop immediately. Level 5 is getting weird and wild.
Attack of the Friday Monsters! joins a growing trend of games looking to draw emotional resonance from the seemingly mundane. So many games dwell on saving the world and/or universe, unfathomable situations we can barely begin to imagine, let alone empathize within. Gone Home, the first game from The Fullbright Company, looks for this in a creepy but otherwise seemingly ordinary house from 1995. The Novelist explores the small decisions, such as choosing to spend time with your son at the beach or working on your book, and unintended consequences. Attack of the Friday Monsters! concerns itself with the naivety of childhood, albeit set against the rather fantastic backdrop of a world having come to grips with kaiju-like creatures stomping around every Friday evening. (There’s more to it than that, but I don’t want to spoil.)
Isn’t that at the crux of the problem, though? It’s not that we’re tired of ambitious scope and extravagance, but so many games have done a poor job at establishing a relatable world with empathetic characters. The focus on characterization is why people are so passionate about BioWare’s games. Although Attack of the Friday Monsters! begins with a familiar premise, that premise isn’t immediately exploited to push the character into preposterous situations.
Sohta is the 10-year-old at the heart of the game, and his family has just recently moved to a suburb of Tokyo to start a clothes cleaning business. Sohta’s father is clumsy and not particularly good at his job, and it’s clear he feels as though he’s disappointed his son with his choice of career. Washing clothes is not something Sohta can brag about at school, and the townsfolk whose clothes don’t come out perfect pick on poor Sohta. Much of the game is spent exploring a very tiny area over and over again, talking with characters, making new friends, collecting card pieces that are used in an entertaining variation of rock-paper-scissors, and trying to find the secret of Sohta’s new town. What he learns is heartwarming and not the least bit epic, underscored by the game's fascination about how children perceive reality compared to adults.
And, gosh, it’s just charming and beautiful and you want to hug it from start to finish. There’s nothing else quite like it, and the description of “life simulation” I’ve seen attached to it is alarmingly appropriate. Some of us use games to escape from our own lives, but the lives we decide to escape to are, sadly, limited. Reveling in the normalness of others can be riveting, too.
The Starship Damrey is, tonally, way over here, completely the other side of the spectrum. It’s a horror game, albeit one with a limited amount of actual horror to speak of. It’s more about a creepy tone, sense of dread, and culling atmosphere from the terror of isolation. It’s more than that, though. When The Starship Damrey boots up, it comes with an appropriate warning:
“This game contains no tutorials or explanations. Part of the experience is to discover things yourself.”
Weird, right? Right off the bat, before anything actually happens, prior to the appearance of a single polygon, The Starship Darmey has communicated its most essential quality, a message that immediately put me on high alert. The Starship Damrey, both the ship and the game, wants to invite you aboard and poke around. It puts trust in the player, rather than holding their hand.
You awake inside an isolation chamber, try to reboot an operating system, and take control of a robot on a deserted spaceship, which probably means something went very wrong. Flicking off the light inside your chamber produces a distressing message about “Lucy,” but the chamber won’t open, and it’s time to guide this robot around and see what’s what.
The game remains true to its word, and explains very little about itself. You can complete the whole thing in about 90 minutes, and it’d probably take less time if you don’t concern yourself with the game’s sole, optional collectible. It delivers some simple puzzles and a few effective jump scares along the way, and its minimalism keeps you on edge during the whole session. It becomes clear pretty early on that The Starship Damrey is gearing up for a singular revelation, and the payoff is extraordinary. I worry to say much more for fear of giving you too many ideas, but implore you to stick around through the whole credits sequence.
I haven’t yet tried the third game in Guild 02, Inafune’s Bugs vs. Tanks, but given the pleasant strangeness of Attack of the Friday Monsters! and The Starship Damrey, I’m inclined to check it out. Let me know if you’ve played it, but in the meantime, these two come highly recommended for a lazy afternoon of gaming.