Hidetaka Suehiro, or Swery65 as he's more commonly known, is one of those developers known for producing games that are rather... outside the box. Deadly Premonition is a prime example of this, as it mixes a Twin Peaks style of story with rather bizarre elements, and now with a few more games under his belt (like D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die), Swery65 is back with the first game from his new studio, White Owls, which is called The Missing - or if we're calling it by its full title, The Missing: JJ Macfield and the Island of Memories.
You play as the titular JJ Macfield and at the opening of the game you sit alone with your bestie Emily on Memoria Island, just off the coast of Maine in the US. Suddenly there's a cut and you awaken to find yourself alone, and your task throughout the whole game is to go and find your BFF. The trouble is that this is no night for exploring, as the rain is hammering down. Wherever could she have gone to in this weather?
We won't spoil that here, but we will say that the story is incredibly interesting, and one of the things that sucked us in the most. The Missing gives its themes away in the opening message as soon as you boot up the game (like Doki Doki Literature Club, which shares a few elements), but it really takes a backseat until the second half of the game.
For the first half, you don't have a narrative as such to follow - it's more about progressing while you bump into strange and unnerving happenings. As has been the case with many of Swery's past titles, this borders on the comic at times due to how over-the-top the strangeness gets, but trust us when we say that this goes into very dark territory later on. We're not easily spooked, but the last parts of the game did really send a shiver down the old spine.
One unnerving event is when you get struck by a falling tree in a thunderstorm, and then a man with a moose head crawls over to you and reveals to the player that they have regenerative powers. From that point on you can then repair your body at will, and in fact, the only way to die in the game is if you have all your body parts destroyed, especially the head. If you're thinking that means you can lose all your limbs and even your torso in order to become a rolling head, you'd be exactly right.
It's hard to tell if this mechanic is really as sick and twisted as the game would have us believe. We're meant to feel as if JJ is constantly putting herself through this hellish agony without being able to die, but it's so outlandish and ridiculous to have a head rolling around your screen and body parts flying off you that you can't help but smirk. That said, there are some moments like getting sucked into a moving fan where the screams really do pierce the comedy and move into the horrific.
Speaking of JJ's voice, this is one of the more bizarre elements of the game as well, since she has that vacant, distant sound to her voice - like she's away with the fairies. We can't tell whether it's a conscious design choice or not since Emily's voice is very well-done throughout, but it's almost like Angela in Silent Hill 2. It's unnerving to say the least, especially considering the events that befall her.
Unlike some of Swery's more famous game like D4 and Deadly Premonition, this is actually a 2D platformer, although you might be tempted to call it 2.5D considering the 3D environments and characters (essentially you move from left to right at all times, so don't read too much into that). This simplicity translates to the controls too, as you move with the left stick, regenerate, interact, and crouch/prone with a button each. There's very little else to remember, but the game gradually layers challenges onto this to make sure you're never bored. You'll often need to lose limbs to proceed, for example, like getting into a narrow gap as a rolling head or weighing down a platform with your body parts, and then comes the extra strange elements like setting yourself on fire and turning the world upside down by being hit with a wrecking ball.
As you might have guessed all of this serves to solve puzzles, which as we've explained facilitate your need to keep moving right. None of them are particularly challenging, and you can get through the game, even with the odd head-scratching pause, in about 6 hours. That said, you will be required to think outside the box at times. After all, in how many games is dismemberment a requirement for completion?
Despite the impression that we may have given it's not all about chopping limbs off and screaming, and there are moments of respite in the bloodbath. These usually revolve around your phone, which you can use to both get crucial story information (calls from Emily, we'll say no more) or to get the backstory on your own character. This includes text conversations with your mother, college professor, and friends that gradually unlock and reveal more information, which is great for fleshing out the world. Also, you have a conversation regularly going on with your cuddly toy, because of course you do.
You unlock more of these text conversations by collecting the donuts waiting to be found out in the world, so they have more use than just being a tickbox to complete. These donuts also help you unlock extras like artwork, which provide pretty detailed and bleak insights into the violence of the game, as well as the outfit choices. You can even unlock cheats that let you change JJ's outfit.
The end of the game drags a little too long with some frustrating sequences, but that doesn't stop The Missing from being one of the most interesting games we've played this year, with its fine balance between bleak horror and off-the-wall comedy. The dismemberment mechanics are fresh and require you to think in new ways, and the mysterious story is incredibly enticing and made us want to push on and find Emily. It might tear you apart, but The Missing is certainly one you won't want to miss.