Retro Review: Policenauts

This is stretching the bounds a little bit. Hideo Kojima’s spiritual sequel to Snatcher was actually released on the Sega Saturn, but only in Japan. In fact, it was only ever released in Japan, but a group of fantastic individuals over the years translated and released a patch for the Playstation 1 version of the game, so in order to actually review it I will be playing the PS1 version instead. As I understand it the Saturn version actually has some advantages, so feel free to add a mark to the final score if that’s the version you’re playing (For one, it has light gun support!).Policenauts, like Snatcher, is a linear visual novel, this time focussing on the life of Jonathan Ingram, a policeman from Los Angeles who found himself working on the world’s first residential space colony. Hence, he became a Policenaut, part of an elite group of police from all across the globe who would become the world’s first police force on the colony, ‘Beyond Coast’. You’ll spend the majority of your time with Policenauts stationed on Beyond, but before that the game begins with the tragic accident that saw Jonathan sent adrift into space, frozen inside his spacesuit until he is safely rescued by a rescue crew, 25 years later.

It’s a pretty interesting set up, as it neatly sidesteps the usual amnesia trope and we get to see the world sort of for the first time through Ingram’s eyes. He has pre-established relationships with much of the game’s cast, but having a 25 year gap between their lives everyone he did know now leads an almost entirely different life. His wife for instance has since remarried, and now even has a child, and its her reappearance in Ingram’s life that really kicks the plot of the game into high gear as she returns to her old flame in the hopes that he would help her find the whereabouts of her current husband, a wealthy pharmaceutical engineer back on Beyond.

I really love the premise, and the way the game slowly unfolds is deeply tied within the atmosphere of each scene. The very first for instance takes place in Jonathan’s office, where he has hoarded all the memorabilia from his old life framed or otherwise. Using the game’s point and click interface (rather than Snatcher’s menu based interaction) you actually build together an idea of Jonathan and his past life simply by looking around and investigating everything he has stored or on display. Jonathan is a lot more talkative than Gillian, often having multiple interactions with each object to draw out as much meaning from each item as possible.

When it’s just Jonathan it’s nothing but great introspection, but when he reunites with old partner Ed Brown the entire game becomes this wonderful ode to classic buddy cop movies, especialy Lethal Weapon. The interaction between them is always hilarious, but the difference in age that creates this humour has that extra twist thanks to Ed Brown now being much older than Jonathan, even though they both should be the same age. At the same time because there’s a lot that Jonathan has missed out on there’s plenty of time to jab at his unfamiliarity, like for instance the trouble he has even boarding public transport to get to Beyond. I adored the pair of them throughout, and the great voice acting really adds to the enjoyable script.

SPOILERS: This doesn't work.

This is of course the part where I gush about the great job the translation team did with it, although I clearly can’t comment on how authentic it is to the original, it’s undeniably a great read and lacks a lot of the awkward dialogue the game maybe would’ve had if it had received an official translation back in the day (Grandia for example). Jonathan is fantastically crass throughout, and although I doubt ‘sugar tits’ is an entirely accurate translation, it doesn’t at all undermine the rest of the game. Given that it features a scene where you have to click on a woman’s chest in order to flick a fly away causing a Gainax worthy bounce, you can probably see why.

The improvements moving from the Sega CD to the Playstation are easily apparent well appreciated. Instead of the tiny character portraits the characters actually fit into the scene, animated to match the voice acting during important conversations. The art alone is just much more appealing to look at, and the FMV keeps the same animation style avoiding any of the obvious dichotomy of quality you’d find in early PS1 RPGs. The shooting sections are back as well during the tense action scenes, and they’re a little more involving than the grid-based sections of Snatcher. They’re still mostly throwaway, but if you did happen to be playing on the Saturn with a gun peripheral they’re used sparingly enough that that might be enough to make those sections a lot more enjoyable.

There aren’t a whole lot of puzzles, but there’s more than there were in Snatcher. The biggest involves a bomb, and stands out as probably the best part of the game. It’s not incredibly taxing, but the relative simplicity of it against the high consequence of screwing it up is pretty entertaining. It’s absolutely worth losing on just for more of Kojima’s fourth-wall breaking antics as Ed and Jonathan bicker about having been blown to bits, with Ed reminding Jonathan the next time you’re defusing not to get killed this time. There’s plenty more Kojima goodness in there, further encouraging you to play around in each scenario, even if it’s nothing more than trying to chat up Meryl Silverburgh from Metal Gear Solid.

If you weren’t a fan of Snatcher, it’s probably a little too similar to make it worth giving it a try, especially with the extra hoops you have to go through to be able to play it, but undoubtedly it’s simply a better game. The point and click interface encourages you to pick apart the environment, but important plot points are never hidden away. All the characters are enjoyably written, even supporting characters that weren’t deemed worthy of illustration before. Hitting on attractive receptionists is a rare treat in gaming, and honestly, this review is entirely redundant now that I think about it. I could summarise the whole thing in a single sentence, and you’ll know just why this is one of the best adventure sequels of all time.

It’s an adventure game where you play a buddy cop duo, half-frozen for 25 years, investigating missing persons cases on a space colony while progressing through an homage of 90’s action movies and indulging in banter and unsolicited horn dogging with even the most temporary of NPCs. A-

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