Short Peace: Ranko Tsukigime's Longest Day Review
Sony PlayStation 3
Everything about Short Peace: Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day pulls in opposite directions. Comprised of four award-winning short anime films and a game made by ‘auteur of the bizarre’ Suda51, it all sounds so wonderfully eccentric – the kind of product that immediately appeals to Japanophiles and curators of the strange alike. It’s hard enough pigeonholing a Suda51 game by itself, let alone one paired with work from anime legends like Katsuhiro Otomo, rightfully revered artist behind Akira. But there’s one huge problem with the package; a problem that unfortunately affects gamers more than purveyors of brilliant anime.
It’s worth starting where most will begin: rather than branching from the same menu, Short Peace is recognised by the PlayStation 3 as both a movie and a game disc separately, meaning you’ll have to exit one to access the other. Given the feature is just over an hour long this shouldn’t cause much concern. The omnibus of anime shorts is the best place to start – knowing nothing about them before going in it was initially disorientating, like trying to decipher a coded message. Were they meant to have a unifying theme? Is the eponymous Ranko Tsukigime involved in all of the stories? Soon enough you discover that they are all standalone episodes, albeit with plenty of room for interpretation.
Possessions opens the quartet with a story about a lone traveller who happens upon a deserted shrine, filled with disused items and broken clutter. What follows is a surreal but absolutely beautiful sequence of events that it would be a shame to spoil – half of the fun here is in not knowing what is to come. The animation initially looked strange but once you realise it’s actually 3D, akin to cel-shading, it becomes wonderfully detailed, as if the Yakuza games were remade in that style. The short was Academy Award nominated and it isn’t any surprise, given the eye-popping visuals that really shine in a glorious transfer. It’s this kind of thing that really highlights the benefits of going blu.
With each short having a distinct visual style it can be a fascinating ride for an hour or so, revelling in the inventive methods of storytelling on show. Combustible has the most distinctive appearance, telling the story of two ill-fated lovers in ancient Japan in the form of a Japanese scroll. For the most part each scene is presented from the same isometric angle, staying true to the artistic heritage it reverently repurposes. Astounding, spectacular and visually unique, it’s no surprise this short was directed by Otomo.
Keeping with the historical theme, Gambo is the closest of the four to traditional Japanese folklore – at least it seems so, portraying the tale of a mystical white bear and his battle against an evil oni. It looks the part – despite its anime style there are elements easily traceable to ancient art, especially in the grotesque design of the demon. This short also contains the most shocking imagery, intensified due to the fact the previous two have been so intricately beautiful and contemplative, even in moments of action. Given the oni abducts all but one girl from a village there will be thoughts at the back of your mind as to why, as well as how far the piece will go in depicting those dark worries. Safe to say that those fears are confirmed soon enough but it still comes as a surprise. Nevertheless, despite the violence the story remains abstract, even spiritual at times, never displaced by the shocking imagery scattered throughout.
The final short is different in many ways; it’s set in the near-future, has a crisp feel to the animation and generally feels longer. Not that that’s a bad thing – adapted from a manga by Otomo (him again!) A Farewell to Weapons follows a squad seeking out automated defence measures in a deserted wasteland. It’s got more action than the previous three entries but also the sharpest satirical bite. In brief, it’s amazing and would beg a longer adaptation were that not to dilute its message. Rounding out the set it solidifies Short Peace’s theatrical content as roundly brilliant.
The fly in the ointment (or grasshopper) comes with Suda51’s input to this art project – Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day. Probably the most otaku-orientated part of the endeavour, the game involves the titular Ranko, schoolgirl by day and kick-ass assassin by night. Bridging the levels are cutscenes of the same quality as the shorts, albeit with wildly differing animation styles. For the most part they look amazing – one of them is a little too Katamari Damacy and thusly feels out of place – but they are a highlight of the package.
Unfortunately the game itself falls drastically short. As a side-scrolling platformer it lends itself closer to internet Flash games than pinnacles of the genre. It’s enjoyable enough – Ranko must continually run, jumping with one button and attacking enemies with another. Holding jump allows her to float while also revealing multiple paths, unlocking concept art from hidden packages. Following her from left of screen will be an unstoppable enemy – from zombies to Pomeranians – that can be temporarily despatched with the occasional shot behind, only available if a meter has been charged by defeating enemies.
That’s pretty much the essence of the game, played across ten abstract levels. Hit an enemy perfectly and they’ll initiate destructive chains, wiping out the next few opponents. Slide down a gradient and Ranko will take out anything in her path, every so often delivering a special move that clears the way. The final few levels revolve around boss fights that change the gameplay, albeit never to anything revolutionary.
The main problem however? The game is HALF AN HOUR LONG. Give or take. It’s far too easy and you’ll soon suspect something is wrong after breezing through the first five chapters in a matter of minutes. Sure, it looks strange and coldly attractive but when the gameplay feels like filler between the cutscenes you know the game is up. Replay value is pitiable; unlockable concept art is limited and rather dull and different costumes do nothing except reskin Ranko. Asking players to complete levels ten times feels less like a challenge and more like a desperate grab to pad out a game shorter than an episode of Game of Thrones.
It’s such a shame – Suda51’s fingerprints are all over it from the leftfield humour to the grindhouse exploitative storyline, but it’s so brief as to warrant a warning to steer clear. That warning genuinely hurts to type, as this game is nearly everything a fan of Japan would love – it hits all the aspects of the country that make it alluring. Yes that means the occasional schoolgirl upskirt shot and other tropes of anime (something that it seems we’ll have to live with), but it also means the co-mingling of the spiritual and pop-culture that make Japan so fascinating. Mount Fuji runs through every short and even appears on the loading screens of the game, reminding players of the serene beauty inherent in Japan and of the reverential way that the Japanese treat the ancient symbol of their country.
The talent behind such a project really should have amounted to more. Akira Yamaoka’s soundtrack is a thumping, pounding rhythm that recalls Jet Set Radio’s Shibuya-scoring beats. The end song is a bizarre yet immensely catchy slice of pop that feels straight out of a Tarantino love-letter to Akihabara’s neon-bedecked storefronts – hell, it even has a rudimentary yet charming video of schoolgirls para-para dancing and generally messing about in a karaoke joint. And yet, AND YET it can be completed in half the time of the four short films. Had the game been as substantial as Shadows of the Damned this review would be a whole different story; instead, it feels like a wasted opportunity or, worse, a half-hearted swipe at true fans of Japanese culture. Calling it an art project makes it feel even more damning, as if that excuses the brevity of the experience.
Nearly everything about Short Peace feels right. The animation side of the project is intriguing, stimulating and pure eye-candy; anime worthy of its esteemed creators reputation. Were the game an added bonus and not the title of the whole presentation things might be different. Were it not to come at so steep a price for so little involvement then things would definitely be different. Localisation of the obscure, of the niche has to be championed; for every title consigned to the bargain bin it’s another nail in the coffin for Japanese games venturing West. Another Eastern promise forgotten. Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day does not help cross that divide at all, positively dissuading the curious, burning the hands of those it relies upon. It targets the hardcore Japanese game fans and asks them how much. How much do they love Japan? How much are they willing to pay? The answer, inevitably, is not enough.