When is a video game not a video game? In recent years, Telltale Games’ story-driven experiences have asked us to rethink what constitutes a video game. At what point does a video game become something else? At what point does a lack of interactivity move the product in question into another medium? I don’t know where that line is, but 5pb’s, Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness certainly tests the limits.
While we accept that a visual novel will invariably have less in the way of traditional gameplay than a first person shooter or an action adventure game, even by the genre’s understandably limited standards, Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness really does tiptoe the line between TV show and video game.
Whatever the case, I’m not here to argue what constitutes a video game, but in this instance at least, it is pertinent to question whether making this ‘game’ interactive was required at all. I mean, would this have been better off as a new series of the much loved anime rather than an interactively limited video game? A case could certainly be made.
Again, visual novels are limited in their interactions by their inherent design, but you only need to look at other recently released examples of the genre such as Danganronpa and A.W. Phoenix Festa to know that the genre can, and often does, encourage a level of interactivity that goes beyond the extremely limited, ‘press X to read’ found here. Of course, its limited interactions doesn’t make this a fundamentally negative experience, but by keeping things as simple as they are here, the developer is putting a huge amount of pressure on the narrative and its ability to keep you actively entertained.
Of course, the chances of that will in part come down to your personal predilection for the source material. I’d argue that the story and characters are strong enough to make this a potentially compelling experience for the uninitiated, but it should come as no surprise to hear that this is aimed squarely towards devotees of the show.
Set in the year 2112, a hive mind named The Sibyl System is able to determine the likelihood that any particular member of Japanese society will commit a crime. Powered by 247 criminally asymptomatic characters whose own Psycho-Pass’ cannot be determined (Psycho-Pass being the direct crime coefficient of the individual in question), the Public Safety Bureau and The Sibil System that runs it are kind of like a large-scale take on the PreCrime police force and psychic ‘precogs’ found in Minority Report.
It’s not the most original of concepts given its inevitable similarities to the movie and the original short story by Philip K. Dick, but like those, due to the authorities complete commitment to the system and the apparent success of its implementation (crime in this future version of Japan is all but non-existent), it does ask some very interesting questions on the nature of freewill while dealing with the ethical dilemma that comes with incarcerating a ‘criminal’ for a crime they are yet to commit.
These themes are dealt with with varying degrees of success in the anime and the same is very much true here. Handling a number of interrelated cases, you chose one of two ‘playable’ characters at the outset of the story. Playing as either, Nadeshiko Kugatachi or Takuma Tsurugi, the story overlaps in much the same way with your decisions having a disappointingly limited effect on the overall narrative. You will get unique titbits of information based upon the choices that you make, but ultimately, the story will play out largely the same regardless of your input.
Speaking of input, I really wasn’t over-stating things when I suggested that the majority of gameplay comes down to pressing X to continue reading. For most of the dozen or so hours that the story should take to finish, you will be pressing X to skip between largely still, if beautifully drawn images of the core cast. You can even remove this requirement in the options menu with the story playing out in front of you with absolutely no input required from you at all. There is the occasional dialogue choice to make as you progress, but for the most part, this can be made a largely hands-free experience.
Still, while you won’t be doing much, the story itself is rather compelling, and following the narrative of an enforcer (an ex-criminal brought in to take down future criminals) or an inspector (those charged with keeping tabs on the enforcers and making sure they don’t get out of line), you do get the chance to look at each case from a relatively unique and largely intriguing perspective. What sells it though is the overarching narrating involving a compelling villain by the name of Alpha. Stuck in an intriguing moral grey area, this so-called villain provides extra weight to the numerous moral quandaries that you will encounter throughout your time with the game.
I struggle to shake the feeling that Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness would have been better suited to an additional entry in the popular anime. If it had more in the way of genuine interactions, it would be easier to accept its place on PS4 and PS Vita, but as its stands, this incredibly basic visual novel does little more than tell an admittedly compelling story. Fans of the series will find plenty to like and newcomers might well find themselves surprisingly engrossed by the shows strong narrative and core concept, but honestly, despite the strength of its storytelling, there really is little else here worthy of note. The choices have limited impact and traditional gameplay is all but non-existent. It provides an enjoyable enough experience, but for those looking for a video game adaptation of the show, this simply isn’t it. This is more like the show repurposed and told through static screenshots and a lot of pressing X.
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