November 14, 2006

The DS has experienced a recent surge in RPGs of late, the last handheld genre to really make an impact on the two-screened system. There have been a ton of RPGs playable on the DS via the system’s GBA compatibility but not too many that it could call its own until the last couple of months — and fewer still that were considered “must-own” titles. That is with the possible exception of [i]Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time[/i]. [i]Contact[/i], developed by Grasshopper ([i]Killer 7[/i]) and published by Atlus ([i]Trauma Center: Under the Knife[/i] and tons of other hard-to-find cult favorites) could have been the first third-party “must-own” DS RPG, even after a lengthy delay.

Unfortunately, it looks like Square-Enix’s [i]Final Fantasy III[/i] will ultimately earn that honor, as [i]Contact[/i]’s unique features make it a hard game to love.

For starters, you (the player) don’t even have a well-defined role in [i]Contact[/i]. Unlike more traditional RPGs, you do not assume the persona of a character in the game, but rather that of someone who has a DS and can interact with the world you see through those two screens — a stretch, I know. This is a step further outside the box than even the Namco(/Bandai)’s [i]Baten Kaitos[/i] titles for GCN, and one that unfortunately takes you [i]too far[/i] out of the game’s narrative. Further complicating the matter is that the Professor with whom you “made [i]Contact[/i]” doesn’t want you to reveal yourself to the young boy (default name Terry) that he has inadvertently conscripted into service for reasons that he will not explain until after the closing credits roll.

Terry, then, is theoretically the main character of the game… except he’s not. The main plot centers around the Professor, who never leaves his lab/ship, and a group of musicians(-slash-interstellar terrorists?) referred to as the CosmoNOTs. The storyline is theoretically bizarre and off-the-wall but in practice just seems slapdash and poorly-explained. The fact that I was effectively a third-party observer to it instead of an active participant didn’t help matters either.

So where does that leave Terry? As a tool, more or less, of both the Professor and you; he never talks, he never makes decisions, and he never exhibits any sort of personality until the latter portion of the game, when he starts to behave strangely. While you technically control Terry via the various DS interfaces, in reality you are very much a spectator watching the game nearly play itself, with only the Professor occasionally directing any comments towards you personally from the upper screen.

It all combines to create the unfortunate paradox of an RPG [i]without the role-playing aspect[/i]. Without personal involvement in the story, all that is left to the gamers is the nuts and bolts of the game itself and a vague disinterest in what is actually going on. Sadly, [i]Contact[/i]’s “nuts and bolts” aren’t much to write home about, just like many RPGs (would anyone play a [i]Final Fantasy[/i] title without the narrative?). You don’t even directly control Terry in combat; you switch him to Battle Mode, and then he swings when he damn well feels like it, all the while moving slow enough for you to be unable to avoid the enemies’ counterattacks and to take some pretty hard hits. You will eventually learn to handle the imprecise combat, but there are still more problems waiting for you.

The [url=]back of [i]Contact[/i]’s box[/url] makes some hilarious claims, including “Things you will NOT find in [i]Contact[/i]: A dull moment.” On paper, this sounds like a teaser for a seat-of-your pants thrill ride. In reality, someone needs a dictionary. [i]Contact[/i] is potentially [b]full[/b] of dull moments, thanks to employing a stat-leveling system rather than a more global-leveling system. It moves along quickly at first, but once you reach level 10 in a stat/skill, things begin to [b]crawl[/b], as the experience needed to advance to the next level seemingly becomes exponential; combine that with approximately two dozen trainable stats/skills (ten of which have rewards of new techniques), and you begin to see where the dullness seeps in. If you want to improve your abilities, your only choice is to grind like crazy. By the time I finished, I had given up on ever finding out what powerful abilities were lying in wait for those with the patience to grind past level 42 (which I only achieved with weapon skills — gaining me a mere three techniques of I think eight available), because it was just taking too damned long. This is especially true for the three “vocational” skills of fishing, cooking, and thievery, which cannot be effectively trained via combat like everything else.

Even more frustrating, however, is the “costume” system. Like other RPGs, [i]Contact[/i] features a sort of job-swapping system that features seven costumes that you must find (all but two are essential to complete the game, and those two are a huge help), using the unique skills of each to get past obstacles and enemies. Here’s the first catch: you can’t use a costume’s skills if you aren’t wearing it; if you need to pick a lock, for example, you had best be wearing the Shadow Thief costume because Terry doesn’t actually learn those skills like he would in other games. The second catch is probably even more backbreaking: you can only change costumes in your room on the Professor’s ship, forcing you to re-fight your way through screen upon screen of respawning enemies every time you think (or worse, discover) that you need a different skill. There are no shortcuts in the dungeons (ok, one has a shortcut… out of the approximately ten islands you ultimately visit), although you will at least eventually gain the ability to warp back to the ship (a one-way trip) at a moment’s notice via [i]Contact[/i]’s final distinguishing feature, decals.

Decals come in two varieties: “? Decals” and “Trick Decals”. “? Decals” are random pick-ups that Terry finds along the way that can lightly goose some of his stats; there are several types of these decals, and Terry can wear four of them at any given time, although the effects bestowed by them are generally minor. “Trick Decals”, on the other hand, are something the Professor invented for you (meaning the player holding the DS) to use to help Terry out. There are eight of these total, with the last one being hidden (I stopped caring and didn’t even look for it); each has a specific effect, although one of them is just a glorified plot device that’s only useable once you defeat a boss and find one of the Professor’s power cells. You can only use these once before they need to be recharged by revisiting the Professor (and thus effectively restarting the entire stage).

Everything else about [i]Contact[/i] is basically true for most other action-ish RPGs, so I won’t go into boring details there other than pointing out one final annoyance: someone thought it would be a good idea to force you to buy/sell items [i]one at a time[/i]. Having played the original [i]Final Fantasy[/i] and other RPGs of that era, I can assure you that it wasn’t a good idea 20 years ago, and Grasshopper didn’t even have the excuse of limited technology.

With all that bile out of the way, [i]Contact[/i] does have its merits that save it from “Don’t Bother” status. The graphics are an odd blend, with the Professor and his upper-screen environment being reminiscent of titles like [i]Earthbound[/i] and Terry’s touch-screen world more closely resembling something like [i]Golden Sun[/i]. It’s an interesting mix, and somewhat strange when an inhabitant from one world momentarily steps into the other (Terry chats with the Professor, while the Professor’s pet can be “summoned” to help you out using a Trick Decal); there’s also a couple of levels in a later dungeon that see Terry actually enter 8-bit video games, even if only briefly. The BGM and sound effects are above-average for a handheld and generally never become obnoxious. There’s also a limited WiFi function that lets you exchange data with other players; I have not yet utilized this function, but apparently it’s a good way to find rare items.

[i]Contact[/i]’s greatest strength, ultimately, is also its greatest weakness: it’s just too different for its own good. There’s a lot of outside-the-box thinking and clearly Grasshopper enjoys taking unconventional paths (as with [i]Killer 7[/i]), but I just felt no personal interest in the game, its characters, or its story, which made me wonder why I was even bothering to play the game in the first place, especially once the combat and training mechanics started to wear out their welcome. Give it a rent, and if you want, you can probably blow through it in about 15 hours just to give it as much of a chance as it deserves, but this is definitely not a “must-own” title for the DS.

Score: 2/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.