VA11 Hall-A: a story within a story

After COVID-19 scuppered my plans to meet up with Luke from Hundstrasse in March, we decided to send each other the most bizarre retro games we could find. This was the start of the game-swap and I went on to complete more exchanges with other bloggers.

I recently finished my fourth and although our choices weren’t entirely to each other’s taste, it’s been a pleasure collaborating with Frostilyte from Frostilyte Writes. I found this the hardest game-swap so far in terms of picking a title for him because his gaming preferences are quite far removed from my own. In the end, Pete wanted to send him Maize because he thought Frosti would find it funny; but I also gifted him Paradigm as a little extra, because I thought he’d enjoy its offensive humour. You can find out what he thought about the games here.

In return I received VA11 Hall-A (pronounced ‘Valhalla’), described as a ‘booze-‘em-up about waifus, technology and post-dystopia life’ by Sukeban Games. It was a release I vaguely recognised from an appearance in my Steam discovery queue but hadn’t played before and so was up for giving it a go. Pete on the other hand wasn’t so enthusiastic: although he can appreciate a good story, he prefers more action than visual novels provide and so I took the controls for this game-swap.

It takes place in a future where corporations reign supreme, all human life is infected with nanomachines designed to control, and the terrifying White Knights ensure that everyone obeys the law. But it’s not about these people and is a far more personal tale: players step into the shoes of a 27-year old bartender named Jill who works at VA11 Hall-A in Glitch City. Although it’s just a small bar downtown, it attracts some of the most fascinating clientele who may be willing to share their stories if you keep them lubricated.

Instead of steering the direction of the narrative through dialogue in the way that normally happens in visual novels, here you do so by selecting which drinks to serve to your clients. They’ll directly tell you what they want most of the time but at others, it’s a puzzle: they might ask for something sweet or cold, or even a cocktail that uses a certain amount of ingredients. All recipes can be found in your handy tablet at the top of the screen where drinks are sorted by name, flavour and type.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to serve them their exact order though. For example, if a character is feeling down and asks for a certain drink, you can decide to serve them their favourite cocktail instead in the hope of getting a better reaction. You can also add more Karmotrine to the mix to get them drunk quicker (even though a bartender giving someone more alcohol than they asked for does seem a bit questionable). As you get to know your clients well enough to know what to serve, the experience becomes more intimate.

VA11 Hall-A, video game, bar, Streaming-chan, Dorothy Haze

Is it fun though? Well, it is for a few hours at least. The intervals at which these drink-mixing sections came up felt natural and didn’t interfere with the flow of the conversations, but I eventually found myself trying to get through the orders as quickly as possible because the gameplay was starting to become routine. The same drinks were being requested by different clients repeatedly – so frequently in fact that I can still remember their recipes several weeks later.

I’m not ashamed to say that I ended up turning to a walkthrough, but it wasn’t just to help me speed though the sections I didn’t enjoy. As I got to know my clients, I wanted to make sure I served the right drink to the right person at the right time so they would tell me their troubles because these are the parts of VA11 Hall-A which are the most interesting. The post-dystopian world that the bar exists in and the characters who frequent it are far more engrossing than the drink-mixing itself.

Let’s start with Dorothy. She’s a DFC-72 class Lilim, an autonomous humanoid robot designed to be highly modifiable and classified for specialising in ‘social interactions’. It’s immediately obvious from talking to her just what kind of interactions these are because she isn’t embarrassed by her profession and makes no attempt to hide it. The fact that she’s a prostitute who looks far younger than she is can be rather off-putting, but there’s more to this character than it first seems.

Then there’s Streaming-chan, a minor online celebrity who hasn’t have any qualms with streaming the entirety of her life 24-hours a day – and that includes ‘bathroom time and naughty moments’ for Premium subscribers who are happy to pay $99.99 a month. This character is used to provide social commentary but it’s done in a way where it’s not shoved in your face, and there’s an interesting moment towards the end of the game where she’s asked to consider why her viewers watch her.

You can probably tell from these two clients alone that a lot of innuendo and suggestive remarks are used throughout VA11 Hall-A. These come from characters of all genders and orientations so there’s a good deal of representation here and, because such conversations are taking place in a bar which serves alcohol, they don’t feel completely out of place. I can see how some of the discussions and the frequency at which sex is mentioned could make some players feel uncomfortable though.

For example, the subject changed abruptly during one conversation and a friend’s breast size started being compared to others. Then in another, it’s discovered that another customer has been hiring Dorothy to pretend to be his daughter once a year (although it’s not confirmed whether this contract is sexual in nature). And then there’s the moment where we find out a friend celebrated her 21st birthday by going to a bar with her father and pretending to date him. These were all moments that caught me off-guard and left me scratching my head.

But persevere through the drink-mixing puzzles and sexual innuendos, and you’ll find a game with plenty of heart and personality. I loved the atmosphere inside VA11 Hall-A, helping Jill overcome her inner demons and getting to know the people on the other side of the bar. Despite the situations described in that last paragraph, their lines are almost always incredibly natural – it feels as though you could be talking to a real person rather than a video game character.

What the title doesn’t have though is a clear story-arc and the lack of a definitive climax may leave those who enjoy a good narrative unfulfilled (no pun intended). Imagine an action-packed science-fiction tale set in a dystopian future, about a corrupt police-force who are destroyed when their secrets are leaked from the servers of a bank after a raid. Then imagine that around the corner from that bank is a small bar which serves cocktails. That’s VA11 Hall-A, a story within a story.

VA11 Hall-A, video game, bedroom, phone, Jo

As Frosti said himself: “It’s more about the journey than the ending.” Because you’re not involved in the bigger situation going on in Glitch City, it feels more personal and realistic. You don’t need to save the world – you just need to go to work, pay your bills and take care of your cat. And maybe make a few lives a bit brighter by serving drinks and having a conversation.



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Banjo-Kazooie: Nintendo and nostalgia

Over the past six months I’ve taken part in game-swaps with other bloggers. Possibly the best thing about them is the chance to broaden my gaming horizons: I’ve played a game I’ve never heard of before, a series I’ve never touched and a title with a mechanic I don’t usually like.

The latest game-swap has been with Nathan from Gaming Omnivore and we decided to go for genres we’re not skilled in. He was looking for a point-and-click and wanted something with a horror storyline; and out of the several options I proposed, he decided to go for Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. It may not be the scariest game but you can’t beat Tim Curry playing a sleazy protagonist. I can only apologise to Nathan for some of those puzzles though – nobody said that 90s adventures were logical.

In return, he asked my other-half and I to play Banjo-Kazooie. This was a very good choice for us in terms of the brief for two reasons. Firstly, neither of us are particularly great at platformers (check out our previous GameBlast streams to see us playing Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy and you’ll see what I mean). Secondly, it was also a sneaky way for him to get me to play a Nintendo game on stream (I still need to finish the post about why I dislike the company that I mentioned back in August). Well played, sir.

Rare’s release was just what we expected from a 3D-platformer published in 1998: big polygons, bright colours, caricatured characters and platforms where it’s impossible to tell how far you need to jump. It has a similarly cartoonish storyline to match. A bear and a bird – Banjo and Kazooie from the game’s title – must try to stop the plans of the evil witch Gruntilda, who has kidnapped Banjo’s younger sister Tooty with the intention of putting her in a machine and stealing her beauty.

They’re aided by Bottles, a mole who teaches them new moves, along with a shaman called Mumbo Jumbo who can turn the protagonists into other forms including a walrus and a pumpkin. The heroes travel to each of the nine levels through a central overworld known as Gruntilda’s Lair using collectibles to unlock doors. A certain number of Musical Notes will grant you access to a new section of the overworld, while jigsaw pieces known as ‘Jiggies’ will complete puzzles to get you through to a new level.

Each is made up of challenges involving standard platforming, helping non-player characters (NPCs) and defeating a range of enemies. Find Bottles’ hole within a level and you’ll learn a new ability to help you on your way. For some of these, you’ll need to seek out additional items such as Red Feathers for flying or the Turbo Trainers for speed boosts in timed puzzles. There are also the Jinjos to look out for, five small creatures in each level that will grant you a Jiggy if you locate all of them.

Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo, Kazooie, bird, bear, video game

The main reasons I don’t play platformers often is because I tend to suck at them and continuously seeing your character die isn’t an enjoyable experience. 2D versions aren’t too bad – for example, I managed to complete LIMBO for #MaybeinMarch last year – but I’m normally useless when it comes to 3D games. There’s something about the camera angles which means I don’t seem to be able to judge distances very well and falling off ledges ends up being a frequent occurrence.

Although you’re generally able to move the camera in Banjo-Kazooie, it usually ends up wandering back to its original position and is even fixed in one place in some cases. And let’s not forget about the inverted controls: when completing the underwater swimming sections, down on the controller moves the protagonists upwards and vice-versa. Although I played very small parts on stream, I’m very glad Pete was in charge for this game-swap because he did far better than I ever could.

He admitted finding the title hard at the start because it felt rather clunky being a 1990s platformer. But he’s now at the point where he’s really got the hang of it and has even managed to collect all Jiggies, Musical Notes and Jinjos in some of the levels. The swimming parts are still a pain in the butt and it’s proving far too easy to overshoot items when underwater or run out of air while trying to pick them up. But one or two more sessions (at the time of writing) and I reckon we’ll have another game-swap behind us.

I wouldn’t have been so positive if you’d have asked for my opinion during Furnace Fun though. This final level takes the format of a quiz show where players must answer questions about what they’ve seen, heard and discovered about Gruntilda during Banjo-Kazooie. It’s harder than it sounds: some of the screenshots shown during visual tests are so abstract they’re almost impossible to recognise, and we couldn’t hear the audio tests well due to our speaker-volume being turned down low to prevent feedback on stream.

Banjo-Kazooie, video game, path, lava, fire, quiz, Gruntilda

Consider also that if you answer incorrectly, you don’t get to move forward and one of your Honeycomb health-pots will be taken away. Lose all of them and you’ll find yourself being taken right back to the beginning of the level to try all over again from scratch. I have to say a big thank you to The_Ghost_Owl, The Gaming Diaries, Frostilyte from Frostilyte Writes and Nathan for helping us by adding the answers in chat and cheering us on when we finally managed to reach the end.

Speaking of the people who joined us in chat for the streams, it was lovely seeing so many of them share their past experiences with Banjo-Kazooie. It appeared Pete and I were definitely in the minority of those people who hadn’t played it as a child on the Nintendo 64 or in fact ever picked it up before. Ellen from Ace Asunder revealed that it’s in her top-three games of all-time; and Frostilyte had plenty to say, particularly when it came to the engine room in Rusty Bucket Bay.

That nostalgia is an incredibly powerful thing. Most people recall social contexts and good relationships when they’re asked to describe a nostalgic memory; so they might reminisce about a certain title, but the chances are that they’re actually thinking about a time they bonded with loved-ones or shared their hobby with friends. Because my other-half and I don’t have these memories, Banjo-Kazooie didn’t have the same impact and instead ended up being simply an acceptable platformer.

I’m not sure we’ll ever feel more about entries in the genre. It’s The Secret of Monkey Island that brings back fond recollections for me because I received it as a gift for Christmas as a kid and it was the first game I’d ever really played for myself; and Pete always brings up Zork on the Commodore 64, a release which both intrigued and frustrated him. I think we’re therefore always going to be drawn to narrative games and feel more for them, because they feature in our earliest gaming experiences.

That’s not to say this current experience hasn’t been worthwhile though – far from it. As I’ve written previously and mentioned again at the start of this post, perhaps the best thing about game-swaps is that they’ve encouraged me to try titles and genres I wouldn’t normally play. So I’ve got to say a huge thank you to Nathan for proposing Banjo-Kazoozie as well as telling him ‘well done’: you did it. You actually managed to get us to play a Nintendo game on Twitch, damn you.

I’m still plugging away at Final Fantasy XIII at the time of writing but now having reached the penultimate chapter, it won’t be long before we’re able to start our next swap. I know that Frostilyte wants to see Pete play a visual novel, a genre he’s really not a fan of; will he manage to convince him?

Final Fantasy XIII: staying focused

Over the past six months, I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in a few game-swaps with other bloggers. We’ll decide on a theme together, send each other a video game which matches the requirements, and then play the title received and share our thoughts on them.

Luke from Hundstrasse sent me a copy of Whiplash for ‘bizarre retro titles’, a PlayStation 2 platformer which caused some controversy when it was released. Then followed all the cutscenes and craziness that came with Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty after sharing ‘favourite series’ with Athena from AmbiGaming. The most recent game-swap is with Nathan from Gaming Omnivore, and Pete and I are currently playing through Banjo-Kazooie for ‘genres we’re not experienced with’.

I’ve also been playing Final Fantasy XIII since the middle of August for a swap with Ellen from Ace Asunder. Anyone who knows this lovely lady will be aware just how much the title’s pink-haired protagonist means to her. In a post entitled Lightning Will Not Leave Me published on her blog last month, she wrote: “Lightning’s story taught me about myself, the person I know the least about, and that’s a precious gift I never thought a series of video games could give me.”

It’s therefore easy to assume that the basis of our game-swap was ‘favourite games’ or maybe even ‘most-loved protagonists’, but it was something completely different. This collaboration was going to one which challenged us to play releases which make use of mechanics we don’t usually enjoy. I’ve never hidden how much I dislike turn-based combat, having written about the subject in the past and discussed it several times while streaming, and so I wasn’t surprised when a copy of FFXII appeared in my Steam library one day.

So why don’t I like turn-based titles? My biggest problem is that it feels so far removed from what would really happen in a fight. When you come face-to-face with a huge monster, you’re not going to politely wait while it takes it’s turn to strike – you’re going to get stuck in and hit it with everything you’ve got to prevent the beast from doing damage to you at the start. There’s no way I could see myself saying, ‘Oh no, I couldn’t possibly attack you first, that would be far too selfish! After you, good sir.’

This explains why I initially had some doubts about streaming Ellen’s gift. I knew how much this game and its follow-ups meant to my blogger-friend and so I was concerned I’d say or do something to spoil it for her. Would I be able to play it for long enough to be able to see what she found so special about it? Would that be what I needed to keep me going when the gameplay wasn’t to my taste or became tough? And would I even be able to pick up the mechanics in the first place, without throwing down the controller in frustration?

Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy XIII, video game, female, Lightning Farron, pink hair

I must admit that I don’t dislike the combat as much as I expected thanks to FFXIII’s Command Synergy Battle (CBS) system. Instead of controlling every character in your party and taking turns in a battle, the player focuses on the leader only and can perform actions as soon as the segments on their Active Dimension Battle (ADB) gauge is filled. Other party-members are controlled by the game’s artificial intelligence (AI) although you can switch between Paradigms to have them fulfil a different role.

It also helps that Ellen agreed I could play on easy mode and I’m making use of the Auto-Battle feature. This selects commands automatically for the player during fights depending on factors such as the party’s health and the enemy you’re trying to beat. I can totally understand why experienced turn-based fans would avoid it at all costs because it does take away some of the more tactical elements of the game – but for a complete novice like me, I found it invaluable. I’m not sure I’d have had the patience to continue without it.

The thing I don’t like though is the Battle Rating system, as I don’t feel the need to be graded on every single fight because all I care about it making it out alive and getting back to the gameplay. And I know it’s a fundamental part of turn-based RPGs but I don’t like having to keep switching between characters either. As I’ve written before, I much prefer sticking with one protagonist so I can get to know their backstory, personality and skills fully rather than having to jump between several of them.

Pete and I have found that the people joining us on Twitch while we’re streaming FFXIII have been firmly in one of two camps: they either adore the game or it’s their least-favourite entry in the series. There doesn’t seem to be any in-between and the more frequent complaint is the game’s linearity. On one hand, I can see what they mean. You’re essentially travelling down a long corridor which is interspersed with fights at regular intervals and, although we’ve been told it opens up later on, we haven’t reached that point yet.

Final Fantasy XIII, video game, battle, fight, Lightning

Personally I don’t have a problem with this. Sometimes I like being able to sit back and enjoy the journey the developer wants to take me on, rather than having to deal with the pressure of choice. My issue is more with the number of battles in each corridor. I understand these are needed to gain Crystogen Points (CP) to level up your characters but the enemies are often the same in an area and it feels a little repetitive. Maybe I’d have a different opinion on this if the game was entirely an action RPG and used mechanics that come more natural to me.

Speaking of the characters, I’m warming far more to the female protagonists than the male ones right now. Hope is growing on me a little since toughening up but at first, I groaned each time he appeared onscreen thanks to his downbeat nature (we renamed him ‘Mope’). I’m not sure I’m ever going to like Snow though. Anyone who calls themselves ‘The Hero’ has got to be an idiot and as Lightening says herself, he’s ‘arrogant and chummy from the get-go and thinks he’s everyone’s pal’.

Playing FFXIII has taught me two things. The first lesson is that I can manage turn-based combat if I put my mind to it, even though I may not enjoy it anywhere near as much as other mechanics. The second and more important lesson is that it’s important to remember that everyone has a special game which is unique to them. We might not always understand their choices or see what they see in a certain title, but there’s something in it which spoke to them and possibly helped them through a tough time.

For example, that game for me is Fable. It will always have a special place in my heart because it was the one which brought me back to gaming after stepping away from it for several years and I might not be here writing this post today if it wasn’t for Peter Molyneux’s project. But I’m well aware it’s very much a game of its time and feels awfully clunky to play nowadays, having picked it back up again myself after watching Athena play it on her stream. It therefore won’t be something that everybody enjoys or finds as special as I do.

It’s therefore important to be aware of other opinions about a title and take them into account – but as discussed last month, it’s also vital to be honest when it comes to sharing your own views. You just need to make sure you explain your viewpoint so readers can understand where you’re coming from. Everyone is going to have their own perception of a game because of their unique backgrounds and experience, and that’s ok: the gaming world would be a pretty boring one if we all liked the same kind of releases.

The great thing about game-swaps is that they’ve encouraged me to try genres I wouldn’t normally play. If it hadn’t been for these collaborations with other bloggers, I’d never have found out about the uproar caused by a weird release back in 2004; my feelings about the representation of certain characters in Hideo Kojima titles; or just how terrible my spacial awareness is when it comes to 3D-platformers. Every swap has been an experience which has broadened my gaming horizons and I’m grateful for that.

I’m about 16 hours into FFXII and I’m going to keep playing for now. I don’t know whether I’m going to be able to finish it; at the time of writing, I’m a little stuck on a particular boss and have failed numerous times. But I’m going to keep trying for a few more sessions and see how I get on. To quote Lightning again: “We can win if we stay focused!”

Games of their time: still something special

Have you ever felt like replaying a game you haven’t touched in years, and then felt slightly disappointed when you do? There’s an image of it in your mind and you remember what it like the first time you played – but are let down when what you’re playing now doesn’t match up.

I’ve had the opportunity to take part in several game-swaps with other bloggers this year and this has given me the chance to try some older releases I’ve not experienced before. First up was Luke from Hundstrasse, who sent me Whiplash for my PlayStation 2 after we decided to find the most bizarre retro titles we could. Next was Athena from AmbiGaming with whom I swapped favourite games, and you can find out what I made of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in last Wednesday’s post.

In return, Athena bravely challenged herself to play Fable on her Twitch channel every week until she’d completed it. Work conference calls sometimes got in the way but I tuned in as often as I could and, watching her experience the title that had me back into gaming in my early 20s, I remembered a lot of fond memories and found myself wanting to play it again myself. That weekend I turned on our Xbox One, tracked down Fable Anniversary on Game Pass, hit the install button and waited eagerly with the controller in hand.

I’ll always love this series. I understand why it gets a lot of criticism in certain respects, one of them being that it never lived up to the expectations that the proclamations of designer Peter Molyneux set for it, but I can see past that. To me he was someone who was pushing the boundaries, being inventive, taking risks instead of churning out cardboard-copy titles and I can admire him for that; and there’s a chance that without Fable, I wouldn’t be a gamer today or be sitting here writing about my hobby.

Playing through the start of Fable Anniversary reminded me of how much the original title had pulled me in back in 2004. It was something to do with the land of Albion, its real-but-fantasy setting which felt like something out of a fairytale and made you believe the protagonist was destined for great things. It was the world’s inhabitants too: perhaps my favourite thing about them is the humour, and anyone who enjoys a Monty-Python-style of comedy is sure to find something here which appeals to them.

But damn, the controls were bad. Like, really bad. I didn’t remember it being like this before and had no trouble picking up the title all those years ago. But now the buttons felt as though they were back to front and I was behaving like an uncoordinated mess (more so than usual). Accessing the menus felt counter-intuitive, the items on the D-pad changed continuously and the camera never stayed where I wanted it to. No wonder Athena had remarked about the control scheme on a few occasions during her streams.

She also made a comment about certain releases being ‘games of their time’ during her next session on Twitch the following week and this really struck a chord with me. It completely hit the nail on the head when it came to the original Fable. Its story and humour were still current enough and the graphics didn’t let it down too much, plus it had been positively received when it had been released 16-years ago. But the controls had aged terribly and made playing the title sluggish, giving it a heavy and dated feeling.

I feel the same way whenever I turn on my PlayStation 2 nowadays. The console may have had some great releases but I dislike the controller immensely now, mainly because the jump button never seems like it’s in the right place. I had to hand it over to my other-half while playing Whiplash for my game-swap with Luke because there were certain bits I just couldn’t get to grips with; and I made the decision to play MGS2 on our Xbox for my collaboration with Athena, thinking it may be easier with a modern controller.

It didn’t help much though. I struggled with the way the protagonist insisted on sticking to walls whenever I got too close to them and he wouldn’t do certain actions unless I removed his weapon first. I may had had a few issues with my first Kojima game but as several people in the Twitch chat said to us: there was nothing on the market back in 2001 which was as cinematic or ambitious in what it was trying to deliver, so I can imagine it was something truly spectacular for players at the time.

I guess that’s what ‘games of their time’ are. They may feel old and outdated to us but, when you look back on what they managed to achieve when they we released, it’s clear there was something special about them. Without these titles we may not be where we are today in terms of narrative strength, innovative mechanics or impressive visuals and you can see their influence in many of today’s titles. We might not get the same feeling from playing them now but we’ve still got a lot to thank them for.

The next game-swap lined up is with Ellen from Ace Asunder. She was rather put off of full-motion video (FMV) after watching us play the strange Dark Nights with Poe and Munro in May so I’ve sent her copies of Her Story and The Madness of Doctor Dekker to prove that there are some good entries in the genre. In return she has gifted me Final Fantasy XIII to help me get over my aversion to turn-based combat, so we’ll see if we manage to convince each other to come around to the others’ way of thinking and open our eyes to new genres.

FFXIII was released in 2009 so it’s a little newer than the other titles I’ve played for game-swaps so far, relatively speaking. I’m curious to find out if it turns out to be another game of its time, and whether I’ll see what it is that makes it special for Ellen.

Whiplash: weasel your way out of this one

COVID-19 has meant many gaming events have been cancelled this year. EGX Rezzed has been pushed back by three months; Insomnia66 was abandoned in favour of Insomnia67; and my other-half and I made the decision to not go to the London Gaming Market in March.

This may have been the right choice but obviously we were disappointed. You see, not only were we looking forward to picking up some additional games for our PlayStation 2 and Master System collections, we were also planning to meet up with the awesome Luke from Hundstrasse at the event. We hadn’t seen him in person since the meeting for the first time at EGX Rezzed in April 2018 and so we’d all been excited about some retro-gaming talk over a coffee or two.

In addition, Luke and I had been plotting a collaboration about our time at the London Gaming Market: we were going to search the stalls to find an obscure title for each other within an agreed price limit, so we had something to take home and review. Rather than letting the coronavirus ruin our plans completely, we decided to carry on with our project using snail-mail and you can find out about the strange games I sent to him in this post on his blog (he knows how sorry I am).

One day a package landed on my doormat and opening it revealed 2004’s Whiplash for the PlayStation 2. It’s not a release I’d ever heard of before this collaboration, but at first glance it certainly seemed to fit the brief of being ‘weird’. The front of the case pictured an angry white rabbit being thrown at a pane of glass by a weasel and I was surprised to see the Crystal Dynamics logo in the bottom corner; this looked nothing like a Tomb Raider game and I wasn’t sure Lara Croft would approve.

As with all good retro games, the accompanying booklet provided a lengthy overview of the storyline and characters (I really miss those manuals). The title is set within the walls of the Genron Corporation, a high-tech laboratory where animals are used to test products for humans. Spanx is a crazy weasel once used for electro-shock testing; Redmond is a know-it-all rabbit who failed his last mascara test in the makeup lab; and they’re now due to be chained together and shoved inside the Genetic Recombinator.

The company’s diabolical plan is to fuse them together into a freaky new creature but a miracle happens: our heroes somehow escape from their cage at the last second and now they must get out of Genron together. What lies in front of them is a perilous journey through a place where chimps with afros are given extreme haircuts, hamsters are fired at walls just to see how well they stick, and a cheery announcer provides messages about new product lines and how the abuse of animals is great.

Whiplash, video game, box, PlayStation 2, Spanx, weasel, Redmond, rabbit

Although there are two main protagonists here, Whiplash plays like most 3D-platformers from the PlayStation 2 era and it’s clear the developers drew inspiration from releases such as Ratchet & Clank. The left analogue stick or directional buttons control Spanx (and drag Redmond along behind him on the chain) and pressing L2 gives him the ability to sprint or scurry along rails. Tapping X makes the character jump and he can interact with the world using the triangle button.

So what’s the point of Redmond if the player is controlling Spanx? Well, the testing of Genron’s super-hold hairspray means that his fur has turned into a super-tough suit of armour so he makes the perfect indestructible tool. He can be used as a whipping weapon to defeat oncoming enemies, thrown into air-purifying spheres and turned into a grapple, swung around the weasel’s head to provide a gliding skill and attached to ziplines. It seems like the rabbit got the raw end of the deal.

A selection of baddies including scientists and robotic spiders will try to prevent your escape but the combat isn’t difficult. A variety of combo moves are available including an Air Smash and Hyper Dash, but mashing the square easily deals with most of them if you can’t remember the buttons like me. It’s worth noting that enemies won’t be completely destroyed and will eventually wake up after being temporarily stunned; but if you can’t be bothered to put up a continued fight in a particular area, you can simply run around them.

Although your main objective is to get the hell out of Genron, you can do a lasting service for animals everywhere by hitting the company where it hurts the most: in the bank. Freeing creatures around the facility sees them take revenge on their captors and makes your escape slightly easier, and you can drive Genron into bankruptcy by destroying everything that isn’t nailed down. This is probably the most fun part of the gameplay mechanics and it’s great seeing Redmond enter Hyper mode once he has caused enough damage.

Sadly though, it’s not all good with Whiplash. There are a fair amount of lasers-in-corridors and fire-ducts-in-ventilation-shafts sections which feel like filler. The hub-based level system can be difficult to navigate and sometimes it’s not clear what your immediate objective is. And as with a lot of old games, bad camera angles cause unnecessary deaths and frustration when they don’t look in the right direction – so much so that I passed the controller to my other-half for a lot of our first session.

I’ve seen been back and played the game again off-stream, and I can see a certain sort of charm even though I haven’t finished it yet. The title’s absurdist humour is its highlight and I love the way the protagonist’s personalities are reflected through their movement and one-liners. Even when they’re standing still, Spanx and Redmond perform little dances or look around for enemies; and Redmond comes out with phrases such as ‘You do realise I’m a rabbit and not some sort of asbestos plush-toy, don’t you?’

But again, it’s not all positive here. The relationship between the characters is a pretty violent one and although this suits the type of humour Crystal Dynamics were going for, at times you do find yourself almost wondering whether it’s entirely appropriate. The poor bunny is electrocuted, set on fire, filled with helium, frozen in ice and dumped in radioactive waste. Pete and I couldn’t help but look at each other and grimace each time Spanx shoved Redmond into a grinder to open a door.

Whiplash appears on Wikipedia’s List of controversial video games and this references an article published on The Telegraph website on 15 February 2004. It reports concerns from several bodies about the way animal testing is depicted and Labour MP Dr Ian Gibson is quoted as saying: “It is a nasty and vicious way of prejudicing young minds for the rest of their lives… Young people with fresh minds need to be brought into an understanding of the problem with both sides of the argument being put forward in a rational and reasonable way.”

Whiplash, video game, weasel, rabbit, Spanx, Redmond, grappling hook, electricity

This is despite the whole premise of the release being against animal product testing and it not causing the same reaction when it was released in America during the previous year. In a statement, publisher Eidos Interactive said: “Whiplash is based in a fictional animal-testing laboratory where the object is to rescue all of the animals and destroy the evil testing lab. Although the video game is fictional, we hope that it raises positive awareness of animal testing among children.”

Whiplash may not be the best game I’ve ever played but it’s definitely one of the best choices Luke could have made for our collaboration. It perfectly meets our brief of being something ‘weird’ and the gameplay, artwork, voice-acting and humour encapsulate the feeling of the early 2000s. On top of all that, the stories about the controversy mentioned above are a reminder of how overreactions to video games were quite common back then and it’s a nice slice of gaming history.

The next London Gaming Market is due to take place on 19 July 2020 and who knows, maybe Luke and I will get to do a follow-up on our project in person there. Until then, stay safe everybody.