25th February 2012 - Amy is the pet project of French publisher, Lexis Numerique, and the development team known as Vectorcell. Advertised as a cross between ICO and a trailmix style blend of apocalypse and zombie scenarios, this game has had, to be generous, a troubled production. It originally set out to be a full blown retail game, then got trimmed down to a PSN exclusive meant to have been released last year, and now it's gotten a release on XBLA one week before PSN. To say the expectations for this game is as mixed and varied as a bag of Skittles would be an understatement, Skittles only have five colors and flavors. What is even more mixed, however, is the experience itself.
You play as Lana, a young woman who is on a train to her hometown of Silver City with a mute little girl named Amy. After about two minutes have passed, a zombie appears on the train, a meteor of some kind hits nearby, the train crashes as it enters the station, and Lana has lost sight of Amy. Upon recovering, the power is out all over the station except for a giant anti-zombie electric fence leading outside, the station is cold and foreboding, and there are piles of body bags in hermetically sealed off rooms. Apparently, the end of the world just happened in the span of a harmless train ride, and this is before the military shows up, the abnormal weather begins and the zombies that start showing up begin to mutate Resident Evil style.
It is in this prologue that one can find an analogy for Amy as a whole: It attempts to do too much. The story feels a little too focused on the big picture and not so much with the little details. Anyone with a basic grasp of Pacing 101 can tell just from the synopsis that there is way too much happening at once and it's because of this that the opening comes off as unintentionally funny as opposed to shocking. How did the zombie get on the train? How did the outbreak go from identifying Patient Zero to full blown epidemic in three minutes? If the station was sealed off, why wasn't Lana's train diverted or at least screeched to a halt?
Gameplay attempts to assuage this very jarring start but winds up being average at best. It's Third-Person over-the-shoulder style that focuses on melee combat with weapons that break as you use them, stealth, health observation, and button puzzles. The combat in the game is actually pretty bad, and that's why it works. The gameplay reinforces that Lana is an average woman, and as such her use of weapons is clumsy and awkward and her attempts to dodge are stilted. The movement controls are spotty and in the heat of things, lead to frustration as opposed to fear, and that's why it doesn't work. Forklift style controls may have worked back in the day, but much more acceptable models have been adopted.
If this was the only thing that was against Amy, it would probably get some looks from the likes of other apocalypse survival games like Metro 2033 or Dead Island for its focus on an atmosphere of doom and inevitability, but there is one novel idea that makes it stand out: how it handles its zombie outbreak. Game after countless game involving zombies of some kind always has the problem of making the player characters immune to the disease that is turning people into hulking monstrosities, turning the very fear of engaging a group of zombies attacking from all sides into nothing more than a shooting range. In Amy, however, Lana is equipped with a special health censor that shows whether or not she is infected and how far along she is before she starts getting a taste for human flesh. The effects of high infection is not dissimilar to the effect of a Sanity Meter in vein of Call of Cthulu or Amnesia: The Dark Descent, complete with hallucinations and hearing voices. If infected, Lana must find syringes with medicine and use them sparingly to keep herself going. Unfortunately, her health and the amount of damage she can sustain are not synonymous. In terms of combat damage it is represented by blood spatters on the screen, all of which go away given enough time. Understandably this is to compensate for the bad movement controls and makes one second-guess before attacking or avoiding large groups of enemies, but the problem with this is that now combat gameplay and stealth gameplay are thought of in separate terms, instead of one big oppressive whole.
Thankfully, these above issues are par for the course in horror-style gameplay, but what truly makes Amy a chore to play is the character of the title. It was revealed early on that on top of sneaking away from monsters, fighting back, and making sure the disease doesn't turn you, you are also charged with looking after Amy. This addition reminded a lot of players of the iconic title, ICO, which also had you escorting a girl by the hand through the unknown. The reason why ICO is remembered fondly is two words: human sympathy. The game was split between holding the girl by the hand and guiding her to the next room, and protecting her from monsters, monsters which generate the usual reaction of the girl staying close to the other main character. This is a natural human reaction. Amy by comparison, both the game and the character, seems to not understand basic human reactions or mannerisms. Unless you hold or press two specific buttons while traveling, Amy will just stand there like a robot while shambling piles of ugly start helping themselves, and since its been established that she is a mute character, there is no annoying “Help Me!” happening. It also doesn't help that you need to use her for a bunch of tedious puzzles comprising of putting her on a platform and praying she doesn't wander off, slipping her through a vent so she can unlock a door, and tucking her away when enemies show up. In terms of annoying tedium, this is somewhere between doing ones taxes and watching an actual child that's wired on sugar and running through a department store while someone is berating you on parenting skills.
Combine all of these gameplay shortcomings on top of a muddled and unclear level design and various tedious and annoying puzzles that are exacerbated by the controls, and Amy will more often generate anger than terror.
Amy in terms of graphics, attempts to reset the standard of most downloadable games by trying to be on the graphical equivalent of at least the last console generation. Unfortunately, this is a goal that turns up short. The atmosphere of Amy is quite engaging; very claustrophobic, very unnerving. But, everytime that a creeping feeling of dread starts to seep in, a wall winks out of existence for a second, a person's head turns the wrong way, or the uncanny valley does what it does best to the characters' faces.
This shortcoming is lampshaded somewhat by having transitional cutscenes between Chapters of the game presented in a hand drawn graphic novel style, but at the cost of aesthetic consistency.
To its credit, the sound effects and music of Amy is spot on, too bad the editing and mixing could have been crisper. More than once I would be walking across a room, hearing glass and debris crunching beneath my steps, only to immediately panic after hearing the exact same footsteps, just to see it's a support character in another area. Voice acting is sub-par however, with most people phoning it in.
Amy is the worst kind of game to see on the market. Not in terms of gameplay or relevance, but in terms of unseen potential. I can't think of a current generation horror game that has attempted to sell a truly oppressive apocalypse experience, especially one where the player isn't immune to whatever is afflicting the world. But what is truly disappointing to see is the squandering of what should have been a key focus of the game: selling the parental bond between Lana and Amy. A game can be graphically uninteresting or not sport all of the latest tricks a major studio has, yet if its core gameplay is solid, it will succeed, look at Minecraft. But between backtracking to pull Amy from her static position for the tenth time and having to use her as nothing more than a separate pair of hands made her register more as an unresponsive liability than a human character. Escorting a helpless character should be the most effortless yet most intense aspect of a horror game, even more so if a bond is to be made between not just the characters in question, put the player as well. As it stands now, Amy is an unfocused mess, full of great ideas and concepts that are bogged down by control issues and various story related plotholes and pacing issues.
The spirit of Amy should be applauded, but the game itself just isn't enough on its own to justify 800 Microsoft Points. To my fellow gamers, give this one a pass, and to the developers, good effort but better luck next time.
AAG SCORE: 5/10
+ Sound Effects are well assembled
+ Atmospheric and Intense
+ Well implemented Combat and Stealth Gameplay
- Graphical Inconsistency
- Story and AI issues
- Annoying controls and Level Design
Reviewed and Written By Tyler Chancey