Everything old is new again. A few hardware generations ago on older machines, there were a string of titles which were really nothing but a lot of low-quality full-motion video (FMV) packaged to fool people into thinking they were actual games. While the definition of what is or is not a "game" doesn't exactly have any rules carved in stone, it's pretty safe to say that those titles were more B-movie than anything else. Those misguided and incredibly tacky efforts to blend live-action low-budget Hollywood films with the play value of Silicon Valley quickly disappeared, having done little more than bore gamers everywhere and convince Congress that videogames are a catch-all scapegoat for societal ills thanks to something as cheesy as Night Trap. Still, despite the failures of those early attempts, the core concept was very attractive to some people and obviously still is today, albeit in a slightly different form. While not a direct descendant of those ill-fated FMV games, a different form of the same spirit can be seen in one of the PlayStation2's most recent releases—The Bouncer.
The Bouncer is the latest big-ticket release from the makers of the Final Fantasyseries as well as a long list of other notable RPGs, Square. Co-developing is Square offshoot Dream Factory, who are best known for a string of quirky, free-roaming fighting games. Anyone whose been playing videogames for any amount of time has undoubtedly spent many hours with at least one Squaresoft title or another, but before anything else is said in this review, let me emphatically state that The Bouncer is not what most fans would expect from either company, and it is most certainly NOT a game in the traditional sense.
After receiving a rather cold reception from both the press and gamers everywhere, Square itself is solely responsible for the substantial backlash The Bouncer has received due to misrepresenting it as part RPG, part beat-em-up, part "revolutionary experience." Very few games ever live up to the kind of end-all, be-all hype that surrounded this game prior to release, and in actuality, The Bouncer is simply an extremely improved take on the concept of interactive movies. Expecting something substantially different from what the disc actually delivers, some gamers and reviewers were more than a bit dismayed and negative about the game. Honestly though, it should come as no surprise to anyone that The Bouncer is the most logical end result of Square's efforts over the last several years. With their heavy emphasis on computer-generated (CG) cinematics and dramatic visual storytelling in their most notable projects (Final Fantasy VII being the first major example of their new philosophy), the only surprising thing about The Bouncer is that it greatly succeeds where its more primitive cinematic ancestors have failed, and breathes new life into a previously abandoned mode of electronic expression.
The game itself consists of a huge amount of stunning and well-directed non-interactive story scenes using either CG or the game's actual character models, occasionally broken up by 3D free-for-all battles. Interestingly, The Bouncer is the first game that I'd say that the quality of visuals presented using the in-game graphics were superior to the game's pre-rendered CG. There are also language and subtitle options, so every viewer has the ability to optimize the experience according to aural and visual language preferences.
While watching one long computer-graphics movie probably doesn't sound very thrilling in and of itself, the hook here is that the story's perspective changes depending on which particular bouncer you choose to control at various key points in the game. For example, while going through the game as the main character, you often encounter mysterious military-style troops that are never explained. Going through the game again through a different character's eyes, not only are the troops origins revealed, there is an entirely unexpected twist which adds a whole new dimension to the story. The whole story can't be truly appreciated until it's been seen from all three viewpoints, but after doing so I would say that The Bouncer turned out to be the most satisfying and well-told story that Square has created in a very long time.
Strong characters are paramount to the success of something like this, and The Bouncer certainly doesn't disappoint. Designed by artistic wunderkind Tetsuya Nomura, the game's cast of bouncers—Sion Barzahd, Volt Krueger and Kou Leifoh—are all quite distinct and appealing. Each of the fighters has a unique style of combat, quite similar to characters Dream Factory have used in their other games, Tobal No. 1 and Ehrgeiz.
The combat portions are usually quite short and easy, with players being able to move freely on a 3D plane. The fighting gameplay is actually almost identical to the titles I mentioned earlier, featuring high, middle and low attacks and several combinations using a "special" button. While the flashy special attacks are quite simple to pull off, I found the game's use of the Dual Shock 2's analog buttons for the normal attacks to be somewhat frustrating. Certain combos would need to start with either a hard tap or a soft tap, and in the middle of a battle it was tough to consistently produce the attack I wanted.
Other than the dubious nature of the buttons, it controls like youd expect a free-roaming brawler to control and is very simple to play. It should be noted that there is no multiplayer option in the Story mode, though since the player becomes the game's "director" in effect, it's a very logical choice on Square's part. The Bouncer does offer multiplayer battle modes using all of the games major characters besides the three heroes in a separate option.
To talk about The Bouncer's shortcomings, the biggest and most obvious thing to most gamers (besides anything related to the fact that it's a movie and not a game) will be that the amount of actual playtime is less than a third of the game's total length. Running time is about two and a half hours to complete, and if the player skips watching the cinemas, its possible to finish the game in under 45 minutes. Not exactly what I'd recommend to keep a player occupied for days on end, though it compares favorably to a feature film. However, since the average movie ticket can be had for under $10, a gamer on a budget may want to pick up a game that provides a better cost-versus-playtime ratio.
Also, in a game where the actual "play" portion is so short, I would have expected that the developers spent more time making sure that the sections which require the player to be actively involved ran a bit smoother. When taking on three, four or more opponents at once, the camera never failed to find the most inappropriate angle possible, often leaving most or all of the enemies completely off-screen. Most of the battles, except for some of the boss fights, are extremely easy so it didn't have a huge effect on whether I won or lost, but it's still annoying to hear fists hitting flesh and not see what's going on.
Finally, while there was a small amount of variety in the interactive sections, the game needed much more in order to stop from feeling so repetitive. Out of the three individual branches to take, only Kou's section was significantly different enough from the other two to really make it stand out in my mind. I'd like to see Square make the paths more different from each other in any future sequels, as well as add more branches, character-specific situations and endings to increase the appeal of replays.
While it's indeed unfortunate that Square chose to promote the game in a way which only undermined its true strengths, The Bouncer holds much appeal for those who are willing to look at what we think of as "games" a little differently. Personally, I enjoyed the entire experience quite a bit, and found its approach to storytelling to be a very effective one. Although the actual player interaction is minimal, there is a great amount of potential for Square to broaden the content and take this type of interactive movie game further. Is The Bouncer a huge step backwards, or a prototype for a new entertainment medium? As it stands, The Bounceris a visually appealing framework for an idea which hasn't been completely realized, yet remains an interesting, possibly atavistic and definitely unusual creation to be proud of.