Abandon all hope, ye who enter here…
Escape From Bug Island is ostensibly a story about unrequited love and hacking giant preying mantises into pieces with a machete. Originally given the more morbid and self-serious name Necro-nesia when it was released in Japan as a Wii launch game, the US version has quietly undergone a brand overhaul into a tongue-in-cheek horror game. It’s a clever brand of marketing that actually brings out some of the more evocative psychological overtones of your character stumbling through the palpably moist fog, smashing vaguely vaginal insects with a stick while trying to save a wholly asexual female character. An athletic mind might even argue that the game’s story elements almost work as schlocky psycho-sexual b-movie metaphors that might be at home in some of David Lynch’s or Daria Argento’s lesser films.
But then again, why bother? The game is so thoroughly incomplete, unrewarding, and cheaply made that all the intellectual posturing in the world couldn’t make 10 hours spent hacking your way through its plodding murk a worthwhile experience. The game is amazingly simple and straight-forward in a way that recalls some of the very first 3D action-adventure games of the mid- to late ‘90’s. Levels are empty vacuums with a handful of stiff enemy encounters and some entirely unnecessary item fetching. All of this leads to an arcane end-level scoreboard, informing you that it took 24 minutes to find a lead pipe and kill twenty vampire moths, before loading you into the next level to clumsily navigate around in the metaphorical fog.
Players use the nunchuk’s analog stick to move their player with the all-too-familiar tank controls from old Resident Evil and Tomb Raider games. Your character can only move forward, and if you want to change direction you have to first rotate him. It’s not quite as frustrating as it might have been, since the camera trails you from behind ala Resident Evil 4, but it’s still an awkward operation trying to figure out where you’re going when you first have to do the basic arithmetic of figuring out which direction you’re pointing in and how many degrees to the right or left you need to turn (and then cross-referencing it with the mini-map). It’s not an overly difficult operation, but it’s a cumbersome and unnecessary approach that most modern games have happily done away with.
The motion controls are easily the game’s most frustrating feature, even as they held the most conceptual promise. To attack with the game’s various melee weapons, you simply hold the B button and swing the Wii Remote up and down. The attacks don’t match your arm movements in the same way that Wii Sports miraculously tracks your smallest twitches and fidgets. Instead you’ll have to complete a full up and down motion before your character even begins the attack animation, giving a palpable and frustrating delay between you and the action onscreen. To compound the frustration, the game’s attack animations are long and can’t be interrupted by another attack command, making players feel even more disconnected from the game.
You can enter first-person mode by pressing the A button and pointing the Wii Remote at the screen to survey the environment and launch projectile weapons like rocks and little tiny sandbags (no comment) at enemies or environmental objects that need some jarring loose. To toss rocks, you keep the A button held down, then hold down the B button to lock the aiming cursor in place, and finally make a throwing motion with the Wii Remote. While the whole mechanic sounds like a terrific way to enhance the interactivity of the environments (if a little awkward in the amount of coordinated button presses it requires), it flounders in execution. The game is awful at centering your point-of-view when you first switch over, making it too cumbersome and time-consuming to effectively set up during combat. That is, except for the few times you’re required to fight a giant gorilla by tossing rocks at his head – not fun. Like the melee combat, there’s no variation in how far and fast the rocks travel based on your motion (the tutorial claims there is, but it’s negligible in reality), and the whole process feels like an overly complicated button push instead of a truly interactive gameplay advancement.
There are a few fun mini-games, like shaking the remote and nunchuk back and forth to shake swarming bugs off. There are some sequences where you’re asked to cross narrow logs and keep your balance by twisting the remote to keep an arrow centered on a balance meter. These help to break up the hack and slash monotony, but sadly, they never evolve into any more useful gameplay mechanics.
The game is largely underwhelming from a visual standpoint. This would have been an ugly Gamecube game, and it’s all the more disappointing to see something so crude and unoptimized on the Wii. The low-res textures, recycled environments, and blocky polygonal character models all belie how little effort has gone into making the game visually appealing. The budget tech can’t be saved by the art team either, as the enemy designs and character models are plainly adorned in simple primary colors with all the style of a J.C. Penny Sunday circular. The insect models have some intricately designed organic patterns that stand out against the otherwise drab and blurry canvas into which they’re thrown, but given the small number of enemies the game has on offer, even these will grow tiresome by the time you get around to finishing the campaign.
Another bizarre quirk of the game is (SPOILER ALERT) the fact that half way through, around the four hour mark, you are sent back to the first level and told to replay the whole game again. You read that right; once you get through half the game, you’ve essentially seen most of the playable area the game has to offer. Admittedly, several levels have a fair amount of newly unlocked area to explore the second time around, and there are a few secret level bonuses tucked away in previously inaccessible parts of the terrain. Even still, it feels like an insubstantial and cheap way to pad the fact that there wasn’t time or money enough to build more than nine basic environments. It might not have been such a disappointing experience if there was more to do than kill bugs with better weapons and unlock a few hidden boxes here and there, but retreading the same ground twice is particularly fruitless.
Escape From Bug Island is ultimately a hollow experience that can’t even deliver on its admittedly hokey premise with some mindless bug-bashing fun. The controls are awkward, methodical, and frustrating, while the visuals are a big step back, even by the standards of last generation’s hardware. Moving around the levels is a disappointingly monotonous experience of hammering the Wii Remote up and down while trying to find some arbitrary key or artifact to miraculously unlock the path to the next area. Even at a budget price, this game fails to deliver any genuinely redeeming qualities. If there’s a glimmer of promise in the campy and subversive elements of the story, it is buried underneath a mountain of outdated gameplay and bland environments. Play at your own risk.