Title (NA): The MISSING: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories
Title (JP): The MISSING – J.J. Macfield to Tsuioku-jima -(The MISSING – J.J.マクフィールドと追憶島 -)
Platform: PS4, XB1, Switch, PC
Developer: White Owls
Publisher: Arc System Works
Release date: 11 October 2018 (PS4, XB1, Switch), 12 October 2018 (PC)
The Missing is the latest brainchild of eccentric game creator Hidetaka Suehiro- Also known as Swery or Swery65- Who is known for his highly unique and extremely odd games, which typically involve horror, mystery, and a great deal of unabashed Americana. The Missing follows in that trend, but also introduces a few heavier core themes, namely sexual identity and suicide, and the result is a more serious and conventional narrative. One of the first things the player sees upon booting the game is the text “This game was made with the belief that nobody is wrong for being what they are”, and the game manages to treat this theme with respect while not being heavy-handed.
The game begins with titular protagonist JJ Macfield arriving on Memoria Island, a remote island off the cost of Maine, for a camping trip with her companion Emily. She wakes up in the middle of the night, however, to find Emily missing, and when she goes looking for her finds her being chased by some sort of monster. She is then struck by lightning, and is given the power to regenerate any damage to her body by a doctor with a moose head. While players unfamiliar with Swery’s works may find the setup to be weird, the peculiarities in The Missing are in fact far more subdued than in his previous games, perhaps due to its handling of more serious themes.
The majority of the story is told through messages JJ receives on her phone, some from her plush animal FK which are in the present, and mostly from Emily, JJ’s mother, and other people she knows from back home, which are from the past and lead up to the events of the game, slowly revealing what is really going on. The story is mainly portrayed through messages from Emily and JJ’s mother, which are unlocked through progress in the game, while the other characters’ messages are unlocked through collecting donuts hidden throughout the stages, but as the other characters manage to be well-defined and actually considerably interesting despite never appearing in person, their messages are a good incentive for the player to collect the donuts.
The gameplay revolves around JJ’s newfound ability to regenerate her body, and take any amount of punishment she receives. Throughout the game she has limbs cut off, is electrocuted, set on fire, and suffers from concussions, and all of these are presented as tools with which to solve puzzles: JJ might have to throw a detached limb at something to dislodge it, or set herself on fire to illuminate a dark area. Suffering from a concussion turns JJ’s world upside-down, literally flipping the game world so that she walks on the cealing, and there are even sequences which require her to be reduced to a decapitated head rolling along. None of this is outright gory- Taking any damage at all turns JJ to a silhouette, and all of the blood in the game is white- But the sound effects and animations are just realistic enough to unsettle the player to some degree.
Damage done to JJ is healed by holding a button, so none of the damage is permanent, and aside from certain scripted sequences, even the antagonist “hair shrieker” monster hitting JJ only results in her taking some easily-regenerated damage and being flung forwards. Action sequences- Most of which involve escaping the monster- Are few and far between, with the majority of the game being puzzle-centric or platforming sequences, which are mostly just tricky enough to be satisfying when solved while not too difficult as to be frustrating.
While the game’s graphics may not be impressive from a technical standpoint, the visual design succeeds in making the overall presentation far more impressive than the sum of its parts; The character designs are close to flawless, while the locales- Ranging from more traditionally horror-esque areas like a dark forest and abandoned church to more Swery-like Americana-influenced domains like a diner and a bowling complex- Are distinct and well-defined. The sequence leading up to the game’s title card, taking place in a field of flowers in the midst of a thunderstorm, is particularly impressive, as is the sequence in the ending that also takes place in that same field.
The game is not without its flaws, however. One of the biggest problems comes with when the player actually dies; Though JJ is mostly immortal, she can still “die” upon taking damage as a decapitated head, or on touching certain objects, which sends the player back to a previous checkpoint. These checkpoints tend to be a bit too far back, and sometimes even result in the player having to go through an unskippable story sequence or annoying button-mashing sequence, which can start to get very frustrating.
There is also the problem of how there is no indication of where missing donuts are located: The game gives the player a counter with the current number collected, and the total number in the game, but there is no way to tell where in the game the missing donuts are; This means that even if a player is missing only one donut, they would have to search through the entire game for it. As there is in fact a chapter select function, having individual donuts counts for each chapter would have been a far better way of implementing this.
The game also suffers from numerous bugs- Model distortion, falling through the world, text bubbles not disappearing, and outright crashes. The most serious issue, however, is arguably the atrocious voice acting: While previous Swery games might have gotten away with questionable voice acting due to how weird they are, and The Missing does in fact pull this off with some of its weirder scenes, it does also have a few serious scenes, especially at the very end, where the voice acting is absolutely detrimental to the presentation, which is very unfortunate.
Ultimately, The Missing does not fail to deliver on aspects that long-time Swery fans should love, but also manages to be a more conventional narrative that players unfamiliar with his works can also enjoy. It manages to handle its core themes with a rare amount of tact and sincerity, and is genuinely interesting.
The Good: Strong narrative and characters, satisfying puzzle/platforming-based gameplay, beautiful visual design.
The Bad: Terrible voice acting, a few frustrating sequences. Some might also consider $30 (3000 yen) to be too high a price for a game that lasts 5-6 hours at most.
Conclusion: The Missing has its problems, but manages to make up for them with the unique ingenuity present in both its interesting narrative and fun gameplay.