Game Description: After Dominique is kidnapped, three of her friends who happen to be bouncers at a seedy bar called Fate set out to rescue her. You take control of Volt, Sion, or Kou as they engage in hand-to-hand combat with a wide variety of enemies on their quest to find their friend. When you defeat an enemy, you will earn bouncer points that can be used to buy new skills and improve baseline statistics. It’s up to you to save Dominique in The Bouncer. Experience action, adventure, and RPG elements as you fight your way through a shifting storyline in this Square-made brawler.
Everything old is new again. A few hardware generations ago on older machines, there were a string of titles which were really nothing but a lot of low-quality full-motion video (FMV) packaged to fool people into thinking they were actual games. While the definition of what is or is not a "game" doesn't exactly have any rules carved in stone, it's pretty safe to say that those titles were more B-movie than anything else. Those misguided and incredibly tacky efforts to blend live-action low-budget Hollywood films with the play value of Silicon Valley quickly disappeared, having done little more than bore gamers everywhere and convince Congress that videogames are a catch-all scapegoat for societal ills thanks to something as cheesy as Night Trap. Still, despite the failures of those early attempts, the core concept was very attractive to some people and obviously still is today, albeit in a slightly different form. While not a direct descendant of those ill-fated FMV games, a different form of the same spirit can be seen in one of the PlayStation2's most recent releases—The Bouncer.
The Bouncer is the latest big-ticket release from the makers of the Final Fantasyseries as well as a long list of other notable RPGs, Square. Co-developing is Square offshoot Dream Factory, who are best known for a string of quirky, free-roaming fighting games. Anyone whose been playing videogames for any amount of time has undoubtedly spent many hours with at least one Squaresoft title or another, but before anything else is said in this review, let me emphatically state that The Bouncer is not what most fans would expect from either company, and it is most certainly NOT a game in the traditional sense.
After receiving a rather cold reception from both the press and gamers everywhere, Square itself is solely responsible for the substantial backlash The Bouncer has received due to misrepresenting it as part RPG, part beat-em-up, part "revolutionary experience." Very few games ever live up to the kind of end-all, be-all hype that surrounded this game prior to release, and in actuality, The Bouncer is simply an extremely improved take on the concept of interactive movies. Expecting something substantially different from what the disc actually delivers, some gamers and reviewers were more than a bit dismayed and negative about the game. Honestly though, it should come as no surprise to anyone that The Bouncer is the most logical end result of Square's efforts over the last several years. With their heavy emphasis on computer-generated (CG) cinematics and dramatic visual storytelling in their most notable projects (Final Fantasy VII being the first major example of their new philosophy), the only surprising thing about The Bouncer is that it greatly succeeds where its more primitive cinematic ancestors have failed, and breathes new life into a previously abandoned mode of electronic expression.
The game itself consists of a huge amount of stunning and well-directed non-interactive story scenes using either CG or the game's actual character models, occasionally broken up by 3D free-for-all battles. Interestingly, The Bouncer is the first game that I'd say that the quality of visuals presented using the in-game graphics were superior to the game's pre-rendered CG. There are also language and subtitle options, so every viewer has the ability to optimize the experience according to aural and visual language preferences.
While watching one long computer-graphics movie probably doesn't sound very thrilling in and of itself, the hook here is that the story's perspective changes depending on which particular bouncer you choose to control at various key points in the game. For example, while going through the game as the main character, you often encounter mysterious military-style troops that are never explained. Going through the game again through a different character's eyes, not only are the troops origins revealed, there is an entirely unexpected twist which adds a whole new dimension to the story. The whole story can't be truly appreciated until it's been seen from all three viewpoints, but after doing so I would say that The Bouncer turned out to be the most satisfying and well-told story that Square has created in a very long time.
Strong characters are paramount to the success of something like this, and The Bouncer certainly doesn't disappoint. Designed by artistic wunderkind Tetsuya Nomura, the game's cast of bouncers—Sion Barzahd, Volt Krueger and Kou Leifoh—are all quite distinct and appealing. Each of the fighters has a unique style of combat, quite similar to characters Dream Factory have used in their other games, Tobal No. 1 and Ehrgeiz.
The combat portions are usually quite short and easy, with players being able to move freely on a 3D plane. The fighting gameplay is actually almost identical to the titles I mentioned earlier, featuring high, middle and low attacks and several combinations using a "special" button. While the flashy special attacks are quite simple to pull off, I found the game's use of the Dual Shock 2's analog buttons for the normal attacks to be somewhat frustrating. Certain combos would need to start with either a hard tap or a soft tap, and in the middle of a battle it was tough to consistently produce the attack I wanted.
Other than the dubious nature of the buttons, it controls like youd expect a free-roaming brawler to control and is very simple to play. It should be noted that there is no multiplayer option in the Story mode, though since the player becomes the game's "director" in effect, it's a very logical choice on Square's part. The Bouncer does offer multiplayer battle modes using all of the games major characters besides the three heroes in a separate option.
To talk about The Bouncer's shortcomings, the biggest and most obvious thing to most gamers (besides anything related to the fact that it's a movie and not a game) will be that the amount of actual playtime is less than a third of the game's total length. Running time is about two and a half hours to complete, and if the player skips watching the cinemas, its possible to finish the game in under 45 minutes. Not exactly what I'd recommend to keep a player occupied for days on end, though it compares favorably to a feature film. However, since the average movie ticket can be had for under $10, a gamer on a budget may want to pick up a game that provides a better cost-versus-playtime ratio.
Also, in a game where the actual "play" portion is so short, I would have expected that the developers spent more time making sure that the sections which require the player to be actively involved ran a bit smoother. When taking on three, four or more opponents at once, the camera never failed to find the most inappropriate angle possible, often leaving most or all of the enemies completely off-screen. Most of the battles, except for some of the boss fights, are extremely easy so it didn't have a huge effect on whether I won or lost, but it's still annoying to hear fists hitting flesh and not see what's going on.
Finally, while there was a small amount of variety in the interactive sections, the game needed much more in order to stop from feeling so repetitive. Out of the three individual branches to take, only Kou's section was significantly different enough from the other two to really make it stand out in my mind. I'd like to see Square make the paths more different from each other in any future sequels, as well as add more branches, character-specific situations and endings to increase the appeal of replays.
While it's indeed unfortunate that Square chose to promote the game in a way which only undermined its true strengths, The Bouncer holds much appeal for those who are willing to look at what we think of as "games" a little differently. Personally, I enjoyed the entire experience quite a bit, and found its approach to storytelling to be a very effective one. Although the actual player interaction is minimal, there is a great amount of potential for Square to broaden the content and take this type of interactive movie game further. Is The Bouncer a huge step backwards, or a prototype for a new entertainment medium? As it stands, The Bounceris a visually appealing framework for an idea which hasn't been completely realized, yet remains an interesting, possibly atavistic and definitely unusual creation to be proud of.
Like Brad, I too was confused by The Bouncer from how it was pitched early in its development. I struggled to understand where the game was coming from conceptually, and what it was trying to achieve as an interactive experience. Still, despite poor word of mouth from the press and gamers alike, I still gave The Bouncerthe benefit of the doubt. In the process of playing through the game for the purposes of my review and enjoyment, I tried to look at it from different angles, but no matter which context I tried to look at it from, it still pretty much stank up da house.
As a hand-to-hand combat game (or beat-em-up as my astute colleague noted) in the grand tradition of Double Dragon and Final Fight, The Bounceris inept at best. The fighting engine is about as deep as the kiddy end of a swimming pool. Outside of holding down the block button to parry occasional attacks, there really isn't much more to fighting than the near mindless yet universally popular technique of button mashing. You would think that Squaresoft would try to keep things interesting by interjecting a robust game engine capable of executing devastating combos, diverse grappling moves and capping things off with being able to get medieval on some bad guys with loads of foreign objects and weapons. Shockingly, The Bouncer strikes out on all three possibilities.
The fighting end of the game is a limited affair because—regardless of some of the special attacks that can be obtained during the course of play—enemies usually can't take more than a couple of attacks before falling to floor; making long strings next to impossible. There are no extensive follow-up ground attacks, either. As far as combo attacks go, the game makes a huge case for the analog buttons being outright faulty by design. In The Bouncer, some combos are performed according to the level of pressure applied to the analog sensitive buttons. This may have sounded like a good idea on paper, but the final implementation proved to be an exercise in confusion. I don't if we should blame Sony for the technology or Squaresoft for utilizing it so poorly. Either way, it doesn't work (not consistently anyway) and that's only one of the major problems with the game.
Even as an interactive movie or story book in the grand tradition of Dragon's Lair and Night Trap as Brad tried to the defend the title, I still think The Bouncer comes up short in a number of big ways. For starters, the pacing is all wrong. Constant load screens and the save game option disrupted the flow of play and had me feeling detached physically and emotionally. In addition, for a so-called "interactive-movie," there isn't much to interact with. Despite the promise of a storyline that alters according to player action and character selection, the experience is very linear in design the final outcome is still the same. The changes in the storyline were mostly cosmetic, and there aren't any convincing branches in the story arcs that made me feel I could mold the plot.
I also strongly disagree with Brad about the quality of the story. I felt the story was bland, shallow and predictable regardless of playing the game from different character perspectives. The script was unintentionally laughable at times, and despite some solid voice-acting and potentially interesting characters (excluding Sion, the prototypical brooding bad boy anti-hero hero with the gaudy '80s style New Kids On The Block outfit), most characters still come up severely underdeveloped.
The final angle that I tried to examine The Bouncer from was that of a graphical benchmark; a demonstration of CGI wizardry. Yet even on that level, I think the game is weak. Yes, the Hollywood-style camera work and action-film-like opening title sequence will initially impress most gamers, but after several minutes into play, the "wow" effect quickly fades away. It's not like we're witnessing groundbreaking CG work here. Films like Dinosaur, Toy Story 2, and even the preview of Squaresoft's own Final Fantasy: The Movie, easily surpasses that of The Bouncer. So not only are we not witnessing anything new here, even on a visual artistic sense, there's not much substance to hold on to. One quick side-by-side comparison to the opening introduction movies between The Bouncerand Capcom's latest take on the survival-horror genre, Onimusha, will tell you what's wrong. In Onimusha's movie, there's much attention to drama, style, ambiance and lighting. Almost all of those elements seem missing from The Bouncer in one way or another.
That last line is symbolic of my review. I would have loved to hail The Bouncer as some sort of digital ode to Rashomon or even the classic Choose Your Own Adventure book series of my childhood, but alas that was not the case here. Anyway you look at it, The Bouncer is simply lacking.
According to the ESRB, this game contains: Animated Violence
Parents should be aware that The Bouncer features large amounts of hand-to-hand combat, both in gameplay and during the cinemas. There are also a few scenes which might be a little graphically intense for younger players, with the most notable being a graphic death scene. There are a small handful of words which might be questionable, though nothing overtly offensive. There are no scenes of nudity or sexual content.
Gamers in general should be aware that no matter how theyve seen it advertised, or what the clerk at Electronics Boutique says, The Bouncer is NOT a game—its an interactive movie. If that sounds like something you'd be interested in experiencing, it comes highly recommended. If you're looking for a solid beat-em-up to get your thumbs blistered and your blood pumping, youd better look elsewhere. Also, be aware that the entire game can be seen and every feature completely unlocked in less than eight hours, or even faster if you skip the cinemas.
Gamers on a budget might want to rent instead of buy.
Square fans who are expecting some form of RPG with action bits will be disappointed since The Bouncer strays far afield from the 50-hour fantasy dramas Square is usually known for. RPG elements present are minimal and mainly related to unlocking special moves. However, the disc does feature the most coherent, well-told and compelling story Square's produced in several years, and the characters are quite good.
Fans of cinema sequences are in for a real treat since theres a TON here which look great and develop the plot in a wonderful fashion, especially when you play through once with each character to get the entire story. The Bouncer is eye candy of a superior order.