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Backlog Twosome | Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story

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Doesn’t 2021 seem like the perfect year to get your fix of both horror and cyberpunk themed entertainment? I mean, the pivotal Keanu Reeves film Johnny Mnemonic was supposed to take place during 2021! Oh and the nail biting John Krasinski film The Quiet Place as well! If they don’t set the tone for the upcoming year, I don’t know what would!

Well, to keep that theme running, Suzaku and Top Hot Studios have teamed up with Eastasiasoft to bring their successful Kickstarter project, Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story to the Switch! However, will this ambitious dystopian fright fest keep us on the edge of our seats as it makes its way to the hybrid handheld, or will we be better off waiting until the inevitability that is 2021, comes knocking at our door? Hopefully in the form of a buff John Krasinski and not eyeless alien beasts!

I can’t say I’ve played a lot of these types of survival horror/adventure games, other than The Long Reach, but I’ve watched Mr. Backlog wind his way through plenty of similar titles.That being said, I had a pretty good idea what to expect with Sense prior to booting it up for the first time just a few short days ago.  

About a year or so ago I recall seeing an announcement or two for Sense and thinking it looked really exceptional. All those neon lights, fun looking characters, and a horror setting to boot presented a really attractive package all around. Now I know there has been some controversy swirling around about said flashy graphics and the overblown reaction didn’t tarnish my opinions in the slightest. In fact, I have an even higher respect for the publishers and developers for standing behind their work and I can’t thank Eastasiasoft enough for giving us the opportunity to get an early look at this upcoming console version release.

Aside from catching wind of Sense a year or so ago, I didn’t have too much of an idea of what the game actually was. I mean, at first glance, the art direction in Sense was absolutely stunning, so I put it in my back pocket as a game I definitely wanted to try out once it was released. That being said, I kind of forgot about it, at least up until recently when Eastasiasoft announced that they would be publishing a console port for Switch, Xbox One, and PS4. Oh and the apparent controversy of Sense’s art style that came along with it.

Regardless, I was eager to play Sense. Honestly, the art style was and still is the biggest draw of the game for me, and the discovery of it also having horror themes was just the icing on the cake.

Unfortunately, this is where the road gets a little more rocky. Like I said earlier, Sense was an ambitious title, with high quality artwork, fantastic character designs, an interesting concept, and, of course, a solid horror themed gameplay loop. Where it failed however, was in execution. At least when it came to the Switch port. The biggest blow? The horrible scaling of the textures and sprites in order to get it to run properly on Nintendo’s flagship console. Which basically marred the one aspect of Sense that I was most excited for, the visuals! What we’re left with is a disappointingly blurry and pixelated mess of a port that’s still framey in spite of it all. Horrors that not even the main character Mei could escape from!

Outside of that, the gameplay and story were just ok. There were definitely aspects that I enjoyed like being tasked with trying to free the various spirits that wandered the halls of the haunted apartment building that Mei has found herself in. That and the adventure game style puzzle solving, but as you get further and further into the game, those things kind of lose their luster and become repetitive. Especially when you find yourself backtracking to get items time and time again. You know you’ll need that item eventually Mei, just pick it up dang it!

As I mentioned earlier Sense, on the outside, offers a very attractive package to anyone who’s interested in these types of games. The visuals were colorful with an undoubtedly unique artstyle that really played into the cyberpunk theme perfectly, right down to the PDA/backlit screen styled text panels.

Unfortunately, the graphics in the version we were given for the Switch had to be downscaled so much that those gorgeous visuals were now a blur. Mei, the main character, was not as clear and present as a main character should be, and I’m sorry to say this definitely detracted from the overall experience. Having to lower your expectations for a game right out the gate is pretty disappointing to say the least and fortunately there were plenty of other positive points within the game to even it out.

Obviously the downscaled graphics were a pretty big letdown but that’s something that can be remedied by simply playing pretty much any other version of the game, other than the one on the Switch that is (hopefully anyway). Something of a smaller gripe I would say was the fact that in a game rife with items to pick up and use, most of the time you are only teased with an item’s existence and then forced to backtrack later in order to retrieve it.  See here’s the thing, as you explore, anything you will need to solve a puzzle or complete a task is highlighted in purple text as Mei examines her surroundings. However, you aren’t able to pick up these items or explore them further until you trigger the proper event. You may already know what you need it for, but until some other action is taken the item will just sit there mocking you. Like I said, it’s a small gripe but it was a bit frustrating when there are ghosts chasing after you and you’re getting shy on Jade Bangles.

Most everything else I’d say was right on point gameplay wise. The story was creative and interesting. I really enjoyed all the various aspects of the Cantonese folklore used to drive the narrative. It wasn’t something I’d seen much of before so I really found myself uncharacteristically drawn to reading all the documents. Not many games can boast that for me personally!

One thing that Sense could definitely benefit from, in a gameplay sense, would be a change in its core gameplay loop. Primarily, eliminating the amount of backtracking. Let players just pick up everything, and challenge them with trying to figure out what goes where. I think that would add a pseudo non-linearity to the experience and make the puzzle solving more rewarding! That and maybe add a little more variety to the environments. I get that each floor was a bit different from the last, but come on, you can only run back and forth in a hallway so much before you get sick of it.

Now, despite being supremely disappointed with how the visuals turned out on the Switch, I don’t think it was the biggest issue with the game. Not to say I wouldn’t love to see the visuals fixed, but for me, it’s the one thing I would definitely keep. Well, as long as they don’t look like we’re viewing them through a pair of drunk goggles. In fact, like I said earlier, the artistic direction and character designers are top notch, and I hope the devs deliver more games to showcase their style.

Truthfully, this is the toughest recommendation I’ve had to make to date. Everything about Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story screams you should try it. It screams I should love it, or at least cherish it as a unique indie experience. Especially because of its 2D horror aesthetics. I just don’t think you should play it on the Switch. In fact, I think you should go out of your way and check it out on Steam instead. I know that the PC version won’t fix some of the gameplay gripes, but it seems like the version you would want to play if you want the full unadulterated and crystal clear experience. I know that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

The short answer is yes. I would definitely recommend Sense for anyone looking for a classic slow build horror survival game. But I would also recommend that they buy it on the PC for the most ideal experience possible. I know the true potential of those colorful and playful graphics and the Switch version unfortunately just doesn’t do them a speck of justice! I can say with certainty that the Steam version is already in our cart and just waiting for purchase. It’s a solid game that absolutely deserves a playthrough in all its many splendored ghost riddled glory.

So, Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story may not have lived up to our expectations, but we can most assuredly recognize the amount of effort that was put into it. Which is really too bad because we were so very much rooting for it. Despite that however, there’s still some fun to be had with playing the game (on a non-Switch platform), and I think Suzaku is a developer we should keep our eyes on in the future. They have a ton of potential and I hope their next game is a huge success.

If you’re interested in checking out Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story you should probably play it on Steam, but you can also find it on the Nintendo Switch!