June 15, 2011

Review: Pervert Action Crisis by BBBen

I should preface this review by stating that although I've played a number of bishoujo games in the past, I'm hardly an expert. On top of that, my knowledge of anime and Japanese culture in general is pretty minimal (basically what I've picked up from the aforementioned bishoujo games). Consequently I'm unlikely to pick up every reference in Pervert Action Crisis (henceforth PAC), and I may well misinterpret the ones I do notice.

The plot of PAC puts the player in the role of Kenji, a recent graduate of Normville University (last seen in Crossworlds 4) who gets an unexpected job offer from a prestigious all girl school located on mysterious Grey Island off the coast of Japan. It turns out that one of Kenji's old teachers has become the headmistress there and she needs his help to investigate the death of another teacher. As Kenji gets to work, the weird, sexually-charged atmosphere of Grey Island becomes more and more apparent until he finally faces the terrible evil that lies beneath the school.

As you might expect from that description, PAC contains a number of horror elements. BBBen proved in Crossworlds 4 that he knows how to establish a spooky atmosphere and Grey Island gives him a lot to work with. The game also touches on some serious themes, such as isolation (both physical and emotional), bullying and suicide. However, that ends up being overwhelmed by the more comedic elements such as Hiroshi's panty raids and general dirty old man-ness, Megumi's drunkenness, Akemi's deadpan pessimism, and so on. For example, in the climactic scene, where Kenji finally comes face to face with the unspeakable evil that has been manipulating both him and all the female characters, any tension is killed dead by the appearance of Hiroshi as he incompetently tries to save the day before being distracted by having a nubile schoolgirl thrown in his path.

The disconnect between the horror and the comedy wasn't enough to stop me from enjoying PAC, but it is something that bugs me. Overall, based on the characters and their dialogue, I would classify PAC as primarily a comedy. Hiroshi is the most obviously comedic character, but all of the NPCs have their moments and the game is one of the funniest pieces of AIF in recent memory. Despite that, you couldn't remove the horror elements without completely altering the story, so it's not a problem I have a solution for.

Structurally, like the visual novels that it emulates, PAC is a very linear game. No matter how hard he investigates, Kenji will never uncover what's going on before the twenty-first day. As far as I can tell it's also not possible to 'fail' the game (although I haven't tried very hard), except by picking the wrong girl at the end. That obviates any real tension, so it was probably a good idea not to make it primarily a horror game. There are also some coincidental similarities with Meteor, in that the PC's conquests turn out to have been eased along by the influence of a supernatural being. As in Meteor, that adds some believability to the events of the game as well as taking some of the sting out of the fact that Kenji is taking advantage of girls for whom he is supposed to be in loco parentis. However, the fact that something is influencing the inhabitants of Grey Island to be more sexual *is* the story in PAC, rather than merely an explanation for it, which I think makes for a stronger plot.

All of the characters in PAC are straight from bishoujo central casting. There's the tsundere with a propensity for sudden violence, the lolicon who talks about herself in the third person, the submissive maid, the shy girl with a tragic past, and so on. The game even lampshades its adherence to stereotypes, such as in Megumi's description which notes that since she's American, she's obviously also blonde with large breasts. The only character types that are missing are the childhood friend with a crush on the PC and the comedy relief sidekick, but you could argue that Kyoko and Hiroshi partially fill those roles.

The strength of using 'stock' characters is that it takes characters who would otherwise be superficially similar (such as the three schoolgirls) and gives them a 'hook' by which the player can immediately identify them. The weakness is that it becomes harder to make those characters memorable in and of themselves. However, the writing and the large amount of dialogue that the format of the game allows manages to give each of the characters their own voice.

As does the voice acting of course. Voice acting is something of a double-edged sword, in that good voice acting can really bring a character to life but bad voice acting can be a killer. Fortunately, although it's not perfect, the voice acting in PAC is much much better than I feared it might be. I can certainly think of one or two commercial games that come off worse by comparison. Rather weirdly the character whose voicing I thought was the best (Mikae) was voiced by the same person as the character I liked least (Kyoko).

However, what good voice acting cannot do is give the NPCs much in the way of development. Akemi is the only character who seems at all changed by her experiences during the game, as she revisits the orphanage that is the cause of her low self-image and overcomes its influence. By contrast, in the epilogue characters like Hidemi or Megumi behave exactly as they do in the game. For the most part, that lack of growth isn't a problem. The exception for me was Misato. It's hard to say how much the influence of the oni is to blame, but during the game she's portrayed as a particularly self-centred and nasty young woman. Yes, that's the 'type' of character she is but with no development towards becoming a 'better' person I found it hard to forgive her bullying of Akemi and Hidemi.

Kenji, the PC, is the only character who could easily step into another AIF game. With the exception of a few details, such as his relationship with his mother and his past as a student in Kyoko's class, he's pretty much the standard anonymous AIF Everyman, a type I'm rather ambivalent about. Overall he works well as a PC, since he's in a foreign environment. The only part of the game where I felt his anonymity was actually problematic was Kyoko's revelation that she had a crush on Kenji when he was in her class. That can't be attributed to the influence of the oni and since we're told so little about Kenji it made me wonder exactly why she was attracted to him. It's certainly not his mind, since Kyoko admits to inflating his grades, and his description implies he isn't especially good looking either. Judging by Kyoko's appearance, it's unlikely Kenji was the only student to ever be smitten by her, so what makes Kenji so special remains a mystery. That's hardly a gamebreaker, but it was one of a handful of things that bugged me. On the other hand, Kenji isn't the spineless victim of fate that I've been forced to play in a couple of other bishoujo games, so that's a plus.

Despite the fact that interacting with the game environment is not something that's very important in PAC, there's a pleasing level of detail and implementation in the room descriptions. However, the area where the writing really shines is the dialogue, which rises to the level of being truly funny far more often than is typical of AIF and is a big part of why I'd classify PAC as a humorous game rather than a horror. I never noticed a clash of styles from the multiple authors, although it is noticeable that some characters have more written for them than others (Mikae is the most obvious beneficiary).

The use of graphics has to count as something of a mixed blessing. Because of the limitations of the program used to create them, the female NPCs share a single bodytype and what is basically the same pose. That leads to a disconnect with the text, where they are described as having different figures, and means that the pictures are really indicative only. There was some use of the pictures to convey different expressions, although because their pose doesn't change I frequently missed the change until well after the event that caused it. Given those limitations, I wonder if it might not have been better to have cropped the pictures to a simple head and shoulders shot.

PAC mimics the gameplay of the visual novel quite accurately. I was reminded of Divi-Dead (the first visual novel I ever played), partly because of the setting and plot, and partly because of all the times in both games that I visited every location in the school to see if I'd triggered anything new. Outside of the sex scenes, the only significant decisions that the player is called upon to make are what stats to train and what items to buy. Once you've worked out what each item does and how the PC's stats affect the development of the story, those decisions become straight-forward. The player soon gets into a rhythm of trekking from his room to class and back each day, visiting each of the NPCs on the way in case they have anything new to say. The PC doesn't cause things to happen, instead things happen to him. The result is that playing PAC is a more passive experience than most AIF games, and more passive than I would have preferred (although I feel a bit guilty for criticising PAC for not being something it was never trying to be in the first place).

That enforced passivity is lightened by the challenge of finding all of the events that can be triggered. Each girl gets at least a couple of their own, but the most interesting ones are those that involve multiple NPCs. That gave me the impetus to replay the game four times until I got the harem ending, which spelled out everything that there was to find in the game, and pretty much killed any desire to replay it a fifth time. No doubt the same information would eventually have been available in a walkthrough, but I would have preferred to find it on my own rather than be told about it by the game in a way that I couldn't avoid. All the more so since PAC includes a number of features designed to assist multiple playthroughs (i.e. the 'replay' and 'harem' modes).

The sex scenes are by far the most involving part of the game. In most cases there are a number of teasers as the PC builds the appropriate stat, which whet the appetite for the feast to come. And what a feast it is. The most obvious innovation is that a different result is produced if the participants orgasm simultaneously rather than at different times. With a single stroke that gives the arousal system a reason for existing, and it forces the player to exert some thought rather than mindlessly spamming the same dozen commands one after another (which is what I sometimes find myself doing, I'm afraid). It's at once both brilliant and so simple that you wonder why no one ever thought of it before. Additionally, there are three separate toys available for use in every scene, although I have to admit that I found the banana to be somewhat unerotic. Perhaps it was the tortoise genes. Having the same toys in each scene also has the effect of making the scenes seem more similar to each other as well.

However, the piece de resistance of the sex scenes is the voice acting. It could easily have ended up sounding awkward or corny (although Kyoko's heart/star line comes pretty close in my opinion), but overall the voice actors pass the test. It's a bit of a cliché to say that sound adds an extra dimension to the sex scenes (and normally I avoid clichés like the plague), but that's just what it does.

PAC runs extremely smoothly. I didn't notice any spelling mistakes (my pet peeve as you may have noticed). In fact I didn't encounter any bugs of any kind on my various playthroughs. On top of that there are a number of nice touches, such as the various error messages that pop up when the parser doesn't understand something.

The only cause for complaint I had was something that's completely outside of BBBen's control, specifically the way that ADRIFT handles sound. Because it's only possible to play the sound file at the beginning of a cut scene, you often hear a line way before you reach it in the text and often before the character saying it has even made an appearance. It's a real pain in the ass, and unfortunately it undercuts the effectiveness of the voice acting.

Final Thoughts
It's a real pleasure to see BBBen make his return as an active AIF author, and I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping that we don't have to wait another eight years for his next game.

PAC is an excellent game in many ways, but I don't think that the addition of voice acting is a gamechanger in the same way that graphics were for School Dreams 3. That's mostly due to the less than satisfactory way that ADRIFT handles sound, and the fact that adding voice acting is even more out of reach for the average author than adding pictures. There's also a part of me that wishes that PAC played more like interactive fiction and less like a visual novel with the nonstop clicking that implies.

Those are all minor quibbles however, and PAC is certainly one of the most enjoyable games to have been released in the past few years.

Overall score = 78%

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