An Experimental Review: Contact for the DS
Contact has one of the most unique openings to a complex, twisted plot laced with extremely subtle humor and foreshadowing. It is in fact so unforgettable that I wouldn't want to spoil it (thought most reviews and all comments threads invariably already have). If someone ever said to me, "rent this game, and you'll not regret the money spent even if you only played it for half an hour because the game is just so full of ideas and and creative storytelling mechanisms", I'd have never believed it. Now that I've played Contact, I find that a possible statement.
Contact is one of those games for people who want to see something different, and that's true of almost everything about it. The game's manual and the back of the box champion its willingness to be different, to be a different kind of JRPG. It is clever without being too blatant, for all its oddities, if you give it a chance you will find the premise (un)believably absorbing.
To be short, the main protagonist is Terry, a random silent protagonist kid of indistinguishable age. He gets into some trouble and ends up being abducted on a spaceship by a kind, absent-minded professor who likes like he could sub in for the Monopoly guy. The professor fails to fill Terry in on the details but tells him he needs Terry's help in collecting some organic cells that got scattered across the world; as they are potentially dangerous, it's imperative that Terry collect them.
He spends the entire game at the top screen except during some boss fights and when you are in the inventory system; these are perhaps the only two moments you're guaranteed to be completely absorbed in the game, anyway, so it's unavoidably disturbing that he sits at the stop screen muttering to himself through the entire game while Terry is in mortal danger ("don't let the insects bug you, Terry! hee hee"). They are also illustrated using radically different textures; the professor and his spaceship look 8-bit, while Terry and his environs try to look a little more simple and realistic in perspective, not unlike an improved version of Donkey Kong Country.
Terry gets called by his parents, who are extremely worried, looking for him. The professor shrugs this off in the name of the mission. The armor and weaponry and abilities are also contemporary; if you've played Earthbound, Contact feels similar, especially in its use of quirky soundtracks to enhance locale, but is so different it could convince you that JRPGs have a sub-genre that isn't about swords and magic but about baseball bats and aliens.
I haven't finished the game yet; I suspect the events and ending will highly impact how interesting or satisfying Contact is to the player in a subjective way. Contact is made or broken by its story even more than other JRPGs; playing it is almost like reading a book; it flows quickly, easily, and yet its unique combat system makes the game feel more like work than fun; the story is what will compel the player to keep playing.
Contact is approximately 15-20 hours long.
So the gameplay feels like work, because it usually plays like grinding in an MMO. Terry never gets a party; he is always alone. You can see his outfit and weapon in action, and fighting is a simple matter of entering combat while he and enemies hit each other every 2 seconds until they die. Combat is even avoided or engaged in the same way; if you get too close, they chase you and you can outrun them. If you don't, you can walk through an entire dungeon without being hit. Monsters occasionally throw projectiles; unlike in an MMO, these move in real time, and you have to dodge them the way you would in a 2D Zelda game. Money or items is not guaranteed upon victory; if you do get any, they appear on the ground and you walk over them.
Sure, there are special moves you can use at will, there are stickers you peal with the stylus, an interesting muscle-based, use-it-or-lose-it, Obvlionesque stat system with no levels whatsoever and a stomach-based food system where food doesn't just give health but takes an amount of time to digest while also taking up a certain amount of space in the stomach. Seriously, your inventory contains the outline of a stomach with tubes on each end and it gets filled up to a certain horizontal line; if it's full, you can't eat anymore.
It's easy to pick up after a while, but it takes a while to get used to. While an interesting diversion, it still comes down to grinding, avoiding enemies, and working your way through the story. The quirky inventory and systems (you change clothes and armor only on ship in the changing room, and before you can eat it, the meat that monsters drop on the ground must be cooked on the ship too.) It does manage to mix in with the world and the story rather well, though, so it manages to stay out of the way of the world and the dissonance between Terry and the Professor's world.
The saving is location based, which is unfortunate; were it not for that, Contact would take hold of you like a good TV show; the combat would simply be something you'd do just to see what happens next, like characters, commercials, side plots you put up with. Location-based saving makes it more work rather than going through the motions. Death is frustrating; you lose no money or saved game, but are sent back to the ship. These two flaws work against it; at least the combat is mostly easy and the save points are not brutally spaced-out.
Also, the save point is always a bed and it always has a bathtub with hotwater in it next to it; bathing in it gives you full HP. Contact refuses to do anything by the book.
Also, the bosses are more like bosses in Zelda; lots of dodging; it's awkward though; instead of dodging, then pressing a button and immediately seeing your sword swing, you must dodge, run up to the enemy, and wait for the auto-attack. This is challenging, but they are beatable enough to not crush the player into believing the next attempt will mean imminent defeat.
Contact is a single player game.
The plot in Contact is tightly controlled and highly deliberate; if you don't like anything, you can't ignore or destroy it. (You can actually kill any villager, but there are no repercussions, and they reappear once you revisit the area, even if it's by double-backing through a door five seconds later). There is no world map but simply locations you choose to fly or sail to. The ship then lands and when you walk out there is a town or small area or both. This makes the game technically composed of levels that you can revisit; the content and gameplay fortunately make it still feel like an RPG. And it actually has room for exploration; very early in the game you have the choice to visit an island that isn't the place the professor tells Terry to go to. So you go there, and there is a guy with no clothes on who explains he's washing them, sorry he's naked (see screen below, which shows the contrasting graphic styles). A monkey takes off with his clothes. You can then pursue it, and it gets attacked by a large carnivore; upon defeating it, the monkey gives you the clothes and follows you out of the cave.
Jean Pierre then lets you keep his chef's outfit, which gives you the ability to cook.
Again, exploration isn't necessary; the sites are interesting, but not more so than the main plot, which is a problem some RPGs possess. It may give the ability to beat the game more quickly, though, since money is not easy to get and food is important and expensive and the chef's outfit is necessary for cooking uncooked food you find.
Contact is literally the defining game on handheld innovation. Interesting, unnecessary, revolutionary, pointless, boring, barely noticable, head-scratching, incomprehensible--if there are styles and kinds of innovation, it feels like every single one is here. It manages to work because its most unique processes are the storytelling devices, narration, characters, story. What's fascinating is that the silly and stupid creative liberties taken with every single game feature still work in harmony with Contact's plot, world, and sense of humor.
Do you like weird Japanese stuff? Earthbound? Issues of narration in gaming? Studying "ludonarrative dissonance"? Atlus games? JRPGs for the story more than the combat? Quirky villains and characters? Games that are actually funny? Japanese humor? The more of these you love, the more you'll love Contact and put it on your secret list of games you'd put in your personal top ten but wouldn't dare to name in public.
If unique scenery, stories, music, and characters aren't enough to make the journey easier and you require RPGs that reward you with difficult, interesting or intense combat you will detest it for its simplicity, ease, and MMO-like auto-attack system.