Here I bring another obscure game to the lightspot, only this is the first game I review here I consider a bad game.
Game: Nanashi no Game (The Nameless Game).
Platform: Nintendo DS.
Horror is a very subjective thing. Some things are able to scare all kinds of people but, for the most part, what is considered horror tend to vary from people from people. However, one of the things that is generally accepted as a good horror trope is unpredictability. The inability to see what’s coming next, that fear of the unknown, is something almost instinctual in all of us. Great scary stories have been told through this, and there are very few horror classics that don’t use this tool. This surprising moments are forever burned into our memories and subconscious, and are able to make us think about what scare us, why does it scare us, and thus learn a bit more about ourselves.
So what can a horror game do when it has an extremely predictable plot and no original thought on it? Welcome to Nanashi no Game, or The Nameless Game.
Before I start this review, a couple of things I want to address. This game is Japanese only, so it has no official translation to other language but Japanese. The version I’ve played is a patched one that changed the original text to English, and as such, I’ve had to play this on an emulator. Some of my complaints may sound harsh knowing this information, but I don’t think they’re unjustified. I’ve also had a couple of visual glitches I know for certain are due to the emulation process, so I will ignore them for the overall review.
Nanashi no Game is a survival-horror game for the Nintendo DS developed by Epics and published by Square Enix. It centres on the protagonist, a Japanese college student who receives a game from his best friend. After discovering his death in mysterious circumstances, he realises the game they were both playing is cursed, and everyone who plays it will die after seven days. Thus, with the help of one of his teachers, he will use that week of life to search of a method of saving himself, along with discovering the dark mystery around the game.
If you think that this description sounds familiar to you, don’t worry, it’s normal. This plot is the exact same plot as Koji Suzuki’s Ring (1991), more commonly known as The Ring in the West. The game is almost the same, with identical beats, themes and twists. It is pretty amazing how similar both are, they just changed the video tape for a video game. If you’ve read the original book or you’ve seen either the Japanese or even the American film, you know what is going to happen at each moment, without exception. Maybe the motivations are different, maybe the backstory is somewhat changed, but the general plot stays the same. The game borrows everything from The Ring, and this is the main source of problems of this title: its lack of originality. This holds the game back constantly, not being able to take advantage of the media to scare us, instead choosing to rethread The Ring. Remember how in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem the game scared you in many different ways, from making things change and appear without reason to making you think the game had deleted all of your progress? Remember how in Batman Arkham Asylum the game screwed with you by giving you a game over screen and then throwing you into a mindfuck level? There is no real difference here between the video tape and the video game, and if you’re not going to do anything clever with it, why bother changing it? The fact the cursed object is a game is used, don’t give me wrong, but it’s so underutilized it’s not really excusable.
The gameplay is also considerably flawed. The game is divided into three major playstyles: the real world, where you have to navigate scary 3D environments using a combination of the D-Pad and the Touch Screen. This is the majority of the game, where you try to find clues to solve the mysteries of the game and solve puzzles that I wouldn’t really call puzzles they are either so simple or cryptic. Sometimes, you will be attacked by ghostly apparitions, and you will have to run away from them, and this is where the control problems come in. Like I’ve said before, I played this on an emulator, but even then I realised I would have problems trying to move around. You have to turn your DS sideways, and with a combination of D-Pad and Touch controls, try to move around in first person. Not only it is a very awkward form of controlling a character, it also is very slow, even in the run option, and the character will be frequently blocked and become stuck if close to walls or objects, due to the hit detection being somewhat spotty. I’ve heard this is one of the purposeful elements of game design, make the controls somewhat unresponsive to make the player feel powerless and scared. This reasoning is absolute flawed in so many levels, just an excuse to forgive the controls of games like Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Rule of Rose. Unlike those, however, Nanashi no Game is unable to even give satisfactory alternatives to fight back, so the only thing you can do when confronted by evil spirits is run away and hope you don’t get stuck somewhere. To be fair, the ghosts in this game are very slow, with the exception of one moment when it suddenly becomes twice as fast and you have to run to the nearest door to hide. The ghosts themselves are pretty generic too, they’re your standard zombie-esque Japanese apparition, all pale white with their eyes and mouth like black holes, and they don’t really seem to be that threatening, they just touch you, go boo and then game over.
The other main gameplay mode is the videogame mode. The player carries around his TS, which is an obvious parody of the DS, which can receive mail and play this mysterious cursed title. The game itself is basically an 8-bit sprite game where you listen to some of the backstory of the game and, from time to time, get some attempts at a scare. It also serves as a ghost detector, with the screen glitching out more and more once a ghost gets near. The challenge in this mode is even less so than in the regular mode, and it’s almost impossible to fail there. Lastly, there is a final mode, but it’s basically exposition and has no gameplay whatsoever, only really interacting with it once in the entire game.
The setting is mediocre at best. There are seven levels in the game, and they more or less go through many cliché locations in horror games: creepy hospital, creepy abandoned building, creepy lighthouse, creepy train… The graphics are weak but passable, considering the DS was never the most powerful machine out there, and the music is utterly forgettable. I don’t even remember the main theme, and it’s constantly repeated throughout the game. The cursed game is basically cloning Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest in creepy 8-bit, with random glitches and other similar things. Nothing really stands out about it.
And then we come to the story, which, again, is just The Ring with video games, but there are things outside of that that should be commented on. Also, I will spoil some of the events of the game here, so you’ve been warned. Basically, it abuses every Japanese horror stereotype and cliché possible, and with no clever twist, from the scary little girl to the white ghosts that are just unrested spirits looking for revenge. First off, some of the characters are pretty pointless. The best friend of the opposite sex (the player can choose its genre, although it does nothing but change this single detail, so why bother in the first place) is in love with you, and it only affects gameplay when his/her ghost appear to attack you. That’s it. One of the seven days the game has to tell its story, and it wastes one and a half in a character that amounts to nothing. The teacher character is also bizarre, and one of the clearer knock-offs from The Ring, but without understanding what makes the character work. He’s basically Takayama from the book, the protagonist’s best friend to whom the protagonists confides his secret, does investigation on the side and ultimately gets a bad ending. Unlike Takayama, however, the teacher really has no reason to help the student. He investigates on his own instead of giving information to the police (who are investigating the previous death), knows way too much for a bystander (which made me think that he was going to be the twist villain or something, but nope), and dies before the protagonist without actually playing the game, hurting the rules of the setting by doing so. The fact he puts the protagonist, a student of his, in constant danger is a very despicable thing to do, considering nothing so far has shown the curse is real. The father of the creepy kid is important to the story, but it barely does something himself, with the exception of the last act, in which he tells his daughter how much he loves her, breaking the curse or something. Why don’t the police investigate the game too? References to it are plastered all around the scene of the original crime, there is no reason why should just ignore it, how lazy or bad are they?
The evil villain in the game is your typical Japanese little girl, dressed in white and with black hair covering her face, and in the end is just an angered spirit, filled with vengeance. This is an incredibly lazy move on their part, considering how many plot holes she can be sometimes. Why is the image of a well constantly used in the 8-bit game? It has nothing to do with the story, and it’s only there because The Ring had a well. And why does the game kill after seven days? They didn’t even try to give an explanation to that, that’s just stealing lazily!
And then we reach the final level. This forces us to a countdown until sunset of the seventh day, and we have to talk to the ghosts of all of the characters before reaching the end of the cape where the lighthouse is. Mind you, the problems with the controls come back here in full force, because we have to talk to statues of the deceased, wait for them to turn into ghosts, let the ghosts touch you (something you’ve been trying to avoid the entire game), talk to them, and then repeat the process, and then reach the end of the stage by talking to the ghost girl. All while navigating a pretty long walk with many curves and places to get stuck on. And in the end, you realise there are different endings! Specifically, there’s a good and a bad ending. You have to find all of the items sprinkled to the levels before reaching the final stage, then you get the good ending. And what’s the difference? None! They are the same! The good ending has a cutscene in which the ghost girl ascends to the heavens, whereas the bad ending doesn’t. That and a possible hint for a sequel in the bad ending. That’s it. It’s not worth replaying the game for 10-20 seconds of cutscene, none at all. Overall, the game clocks in at 4h of gameplay, even less so if you’ve already played the game. 4 hours, that is incredibly short for a story-driven game! There are scary games out there, free to play games that have much more content than this!
I am honestly surprised Square Enix approved the publishing of this game, and even more so that it has more than one sequel. Most outlets and review sites have very good things to say about this. Am I missing something here? This is awful, and I don’t really get the sequels it got, or the fact Japanese outlets gave it a very decent score. Awful controls, mediocre graphics, unfulfilling and short story that is basically The Ring with a video game… This is not a good Japanese horror title, just go play the myriad of good titles out there.
You know it deserves the GOTY.