Tonkatsu's hands-on impressions from the GameCube in Shibuya event!
At the GameCube in Shibuya event February 16, I had a chance to sit down with Animal Leader for about 45 minutes. Although I was excited about its impending release this Thursday, February 21, I am much more excited having played it. It seems to be a solid, innovative title with tight control and smooth, though unusual, visuals.
The game begins with a transparent tutorial disguised as a slow start through a simple grassy plains area, gradually familiarizing the player with the purpose and controls of the game. You start as a pig comprised of only a head that lopes around limply, devouring grasses at first, which the in-game text explains serves to increase your strength.
After following the beaten path laid out among the higher grasses for a few turns, you eventually encounter a few simple bugs, single-jointed creatures that resemble both leaves and inchworms. You are then given instructions about how to lock-on and attack prey, as well as devour them. As the bugs pose no threat, you can take as long as you need to become familiar with this hunting technique.
This walkthrough style continues as you encounter new areas and items such as attraction hearts, each with accompanying explanation. Before long, you limp your way around a corner to find a large wooden dummy shaped like a horse, which serves as practice for advanced hunting skills. In Animal Leader, you must attack and stun other animals, and then bite at them, tearing off flesh. But, animals such as yourself won’t take being devoured as kindly as simple bugs, and thus will try to attack you as well. The horse dummy is accompanied by an explanation of how to attack and rend your opponent’s flesh, and gives you a chance to practice on a stationary target.
Soon after, you encounter your first true opponent, who darts around until you lock on, strike and stun him before latching on and biting off his flesh. Once you’ve defeated him, you writhe and twitch, and then transform into a new shape, now with a new ‘body’ part attached to your head in the same style as the beastie you killed. Additionally, the game explains that this is the basic structure of gameplay and congratulates you on your first transformation.
I managed to continue to play on in this manner, gradually encountering more complex and aggressive animals in larger and more complex environments before I had to relinquish the kiosk I was playing at. As such, although I played through the same beginning level several times, I never had a chance to play more than 15 minutes in a single sitting.
The largest concern I had before actually playing the game was whether or not the control would be lacking. However, I found the control scheme to be very intuitive and easy to use, and overall control and movement to be very tight and responsive. Your animal responds quickly and confidently using the analog stick, especially after a little evolution when you actually have appendages to prance around on. At first the visible area felt a little confined and awkward, and more so when suddenly attacked by something leaping at you from off-screen. However, the radar is very clear and helpful, and once I got used to tracking my opponents’ positions using it, hunting was very easy.
Well, not easy. In theory, the controls and interface allow for ease in playing, but in practice, it can be damn hard. I don’t mean due to game flaws or clumsy control, but rather because the other animals are really challenging sometimes. Although I only experienced the very beginning of the game, some of the beasts I encountered further into the level were quite agile, and good at dodging and counterattacking. Indeed, of the many people who tried the Battle of the Boss challenge against the wolf-beast and his two lackeys, very few managed to defeat them within the time limit. Most ended up getting killed, and the most frequent comment after playing was, “It’s hard.”
However, I was pleased at the level of challenge Animal Leader seemed to present. Given the tight controls and intuitive gameplay, I feel that it may have a balanced learning curve combined with high-end challenge. But I can’t help wondering just how long it will last, and how replayable it will be.
The graphics. Some loved it, some hated it. The creator of Animal Leader, Gento Matsumoto, defended the game’s odd style upon the merits of substance over style, a game where the playability and enjoyment are so absorbing the player forgets about how it looks. Personally, I really like the simplistic, blocky style. But beyond style, the visuals are very smooth and the animation is superb. Granted, Animal Leader is hardly pushing the GameCube graphics envelope, but there is a lot of character and attention to detail such as the unique walking/crawling/squirming animations of each different animal. The animation when a large predator pounces from off-screen, latching onto some poor creature’s hindquarters sending them both sliding in the dirt, while certainly simplistic from a polygon-count perspective, definitely has a real National Geographic documentary feel to it.
A lot of people had negative reactions though, claiming that the same type of game should’ve been made using realistic graphics. Personally, I support Mr. Matsumoto’s vision and was quite thrilled just to be playing such an entertaining and absorbing game, unbothered by its visual style. In fact, I noticed that many of the same people who were badmouthing Animal Leader’s graphics were the same people impatiently waiting in line for a third or fourth chance to play it.
Regarding sound, I really didn’t get a feel for it, as the event floor was noisy and the TV audio was set low. The only really catching bits were the growls and whelps of predator and prey, which although kind of tinny in a retro, 8-bit way suited the game well and had a lot of character.
Also, I need to say that this game will not be import friendly. I saw no evidence of English menus, and the game text is purposely retro and aliased making it hard to read sometimes. However, the basic gameplay is intuitive enough, so anyone who can pick up the control scheme could probably enjoy playing Animal Leader, even if they miss out on a good deal of explanation.