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Game Review: Amy

For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)

From: Vector Cell/Lexis Numerique

ESRB Rating: Mature (use of drugs, blood, intense violence, language)

Price: $10

In the thin strip of land separating challenge and undying aggravation, the checkpoint is king. As it goes, so often goes a game's fate, especially when it's a horror game crawling with elements seemingly designed to purposefully work against you.

The Amy in "Amy" is a young girl who, for reasons not really clarified, cannot speak and wants zero to do with a place known casually as The Center. When things go awry, she's in the care of Lana (that's you), who shares her sentiments.

The upshot of the not-really-explained story is that "Amy" overwhelmingly is an escort game. You indirectly control Amy by pressing a button to hold her hand and pull her around, but she's also capable (when the A.I. cooperates) of following, waiting, hiding and accessing places you can't reach to create access for you.

Arguably, when not wandering into mission-ending peril, Amy gives more than she receives. When nearby, she automatically heals Lana, and over time, she's able to (clumsily) wield telekinetic powers and create temporary safe zones that distort enemies' senses. In "Amy's" best trick, you also can hear (and feel, via the controller's vibration) her heartbeat when monsters, infected people and other enemies are near. The closer you are to peril, the more forceful it beats.

The tension that heartbeat creates is palpable, because "Amy" subscribes to much - good or bad - of what made horror games so scary during their mid-1990s advent. Lana isn't as clumsy to control as those early "Resident Evil" game characters, but her awkward turning skills and the controller gymnastics needed to make her break into a sprint (especially when holding Amy's hand) means she's working in the same neighborhood.

Sadly, her melee combat acumen fares even worse - a point you'll suspect in "Amy's" easy first chapter and confirm when things get exponentially hairier in chapter two. The weapons she uses break way too easily, and her swing wouldn't pass muster in a slow-pitch softball game. Though "Amy" offers a dodge mechanic and encourages you to use it, its sloppy camera and hit detection almost certainly will betray (and, if one bad break leads to another, kill) you.

This, by the way, is where "Amy" goes from endearingly antiquated to hellaciously frustrating.

There are checkpoints scattered across "Amy's" six chapters, but they are cruelly sparse. Once again, you'll likely realize this in chapter two, where you'll do some exploring, find some story clues, find Amy (who fled following chapter one's closing twist), see a cutscene and almost immediately get killed in one whack by the star of that cutscene.

If that happens, you have to repeat all that mundane exploring and hope to devise an escape plan so the quick demise doesn't repeat. But even if you escape, learn about Amy's special abilities, solve a couple of key card puzzles and then die at the hands of another enemy you meet 20 minutes later, you have to start the entire chapter over. Because where most games would have dotted this half-hour stretch with two, maybe three checkpoints, "Amy" offers zero.

What a shame, too, because with even a reasonable checkpoint system, all of "Amy's" miscues - stiff controls, clumsy combat, A.I. lapses, some elaborately annoying trial-and-error processes, a stealth section that would feel ancient 14 years ago - could be written off as forgivable callbacks to a punishing niche genre that still has its fans. When "Amy" is tense, it is exceptionally so, and a reasonable scattering of checkpoints would have enhanced rather than ruined that. When immersive tension gives way to the dread of having to replay 30 minutes that weren't necessarily fun the first time around, there's no reason to keep playing.

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