The Missing – J.J. MacField and the Island of Memories Review
Reviewed on PCAlso available on Nintendo Switch, Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One
Game creator, drinKING and all round curious fellow, SWERY65 has slowly but surely built quite the cult audience in the West after the unexpected interest Deadly Premonition garnered a few years ago. In the wake of a successful crowd funding campaign for his next game, The Good Life, and the foundation of a new studio, White Owls Inc, he and his team have unleashed an unexpected curiosity for long time fans and those drawn to oddity to enjoy.
The Missing – J.J. MacField and the Island of Memories, at it's most basic level, beyond being a mouthful of a title, is a puzzle platformer with it's core conceit being J.J.'s ability to suffer a violent trauma and keep hopping, crawling or rolling along in an injured but undying state. Severed body parts become tools to progress, using the weight of a severed leg to balance a scale, for example. Tearing J.J. to pieces leaves you rolling her head around like she's a forgotten Addams Family character, allowing J.J. to squeeze into otherwise unreachable spots. Thankfully though, J.J. is more than capable of pulling herself together, so a simple button press restores lost limbs and allows you to reset both yourself and the puzzle you might be playing with. The same goes for the various other ways J.J. can end up in terrible pain, with even her charred body being restored after a fiery, scream laden un-death.
The puzzles themselves are often simple enough that applying a little logic will get you through, which is nothing but a good thing in a game so clearly set on using it's gameplay and styling to highlight and enhance it's thematic undertones. Having to repeat moments and delay progress through the narrative can seriously hamper the urge to keep going for some and thankfully there's only a little of that here. It's not a potentially frustrating puzzle game to be compared to the likes of Catherine, nor is it a straight forward platformer, instead falling somewhere in the middle of the two styles and ending up most akin to the likes of Limbo in terms of it's gameplay.
As an extra challenge beyond the obvious need to make progress, hidden in most areas of the game are collectible doughnuts. These fluffy, sweet treats represent the full potential of the game's design work, most often pushing your ability to spot the doughnut, discern a path to it and pull off an unusual use of J.J.'s death defying ability. These doughnuts unlock extras such as concept art and cheat codes that amount to pleasing little rewards for taking more time with the game, the likes of which seem to have been pulled out of many contemporary games and sold separately as DLC, so it's great to see them here.
All this isn't to say that there aren't minor niggles to be pointed at in terms of the gameplay, with occasional chase scenes being rougher in their execution and far greater in their potential to irritate. You see, occasionally J.J. will have to run for her life from a long haired apparition, crashing through scenery and wielding a giant crafting knife. These moments force you to move as fast as you can, reacting to obstacles and narrowly avoiding J.J.'s doom, but too often present an out of place reflex test, forcing repeated attempts and slowing progress just enough to have irked me a couple of times. Listening to her pained cries with each failure can irritate and distract from the sympathy you're supposed to be feeling for her confusing circumstance and struggle against it, but ultimately the pull of the narrative is powerful enough to keep pushing on.
Regardless of those minor sticking points, the gameplay described above pairs beautifully with the story being told, emphasizing thematic undertones or being used to mirror an internal struggle J.J. is battling, the knife wielding chaser in particular being a key figure in her psyche. J.J. tears herself apart to move forward, learning how to use parts of herself to get through to the next area and progress before pulling herself together. It's a visual metaphor that, when paired with the story, shows off an artistic intent that's reminiscent of one of SWERY's major and most overt influences - David Lynch. Imitation is said to be the most sincere forms of flattery and SWERY's habit of using directional oddities such as troubling subject matter with a veneer of the mundane, reversed dialogue, doppelgangers used as vessels for characterization and inexplicable visuals is definitely not being broken here, though may be very familiar to fans at this point.
The plot progresses through a combination of voice acting, limited in game cut scenes and text messages sent between J.J. and her circle of friends, with overtones of teen angst permeating much of it. These texts inform a view of a fairly typical group of friends and family at first, but slowly reveal the more subtle aspects of J.J.'s relationships and the conflicts she's facing down, with events eventually escalating and coming to a conclusion many are unlikely to see coming, one that touches upon some potentially sensitive subject matter at that. It's very much akin to a visual novel in it's tone and execution, at times feeling overwrought and dripping with a faux teenage perspective, but at others feeling authentic and as though it's trying to talk to it's intended audience on their terms.
Fair warning to those who take interest - the subject matter for The Missing is potentially rough stuff for some, touching upon suicide and conflicting personal identity in a way that may be more morbid than exploratory to some eyes, especially those struggling against such things. The slow build up to a relatively relieving conclusion could well provoke some unwanted feeling as much as it might help others unravel their own thoughts on such things. I felt that the game told a tale that's likely to resonate with people who are in a similar situation, but that at times the teenage cast and tone undermined my chance to truly appreciate the perspectives being put forward, especially being double the age of J.J. as I am and having experienced a far different set of social norms in my youth. Even so and in spite of that, the experience of playing The Missing wasn't at all unpleasant, nor did it provoke the urge to disconnect and write the narrative off as something for other people. For me, it was a ride into a story and setting that was as much a puzzle as it's gameplay, and that's what many who pay attention to SWERY65 are truly looking for.