This macabre puzzle platformer puts the severed ‘limb’ into Limbo.
Beautiful, brutal and frequently bizarre, The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories is a side-scrolling puzzle platformer that has cult hero game director Hidetaka Suehiro’s (aka Swery’s) fingerprints smudged all over it. Yet amidst the schizophrenic tonal shifts and fantastical, deathtrap-strewn settings, The Missing manages to tell a surprisingly human story that builds to an emotionally powerful payoff at its conclusion. Its execution may be a little rough around the edges compared to genre champions Limbo and Inside, but it brings plenty of its own unique personality that allows it to shine despite the slight lack of polish.
College students Emily and J.J., the player, spend a night camping on a small island off the coast of Maine. However, Emily goes missing during the night and J.J. must journey deep into the heart of the island overcoming obstacles and enduring nightmarish visions in an effort to find her mysteriously absent friend.
J.J.’s body breaks up and gets back together again more frequently than Fleetwood Mac.
The environmental puzzles start out fairly staid, pushing crates to clamber up ledges, rope-swinging across gaps and the like, but it’s not before long that The Missing’s biggest gameplay wrinkle reveals itself: J.J.’s body is able to regenerate after suffering all but the most grisly of fates. Whether she steps into Super Meat Boy-style saw blades, is shocked by exposed electricity, or falls from a great height, J.J.’s body breaks up and gets back together again more frequently than Fleetwood Mac.
J.J.’s ability to come back from near-death isn’t merely a smooth way to quickly retry puzzles without being kicked back to a checkpoint, it’s a curse that’s crucial to actually solving the bulk of the puzzles themselves. A severed leg can be picked up and thrown to dislodge objects out of reach, multiple appendages can be stacked to act as a counterweight to raise a fallen platform, or her entire body can be set alight and serve as a shrieking human torch to burn away a wooden barricade. It enables an undeniably grim yet also incredibly fun and satisfyingly inventive gameplay loop, as you induce and undo a variety of violent impairments on J.J. at each roadblock in order to puzzle your way through them.
J.J.’s journey takes her through rural woodland areas to a lumber mill and eventually to more urban locations like a local diner and bowling alley. A number of these settings would be mostly unremarkable in aesthetic were it not for the gallery of surrealistic, David Lynch-ian inhabitants, such as the backwards-talking deer in doctor uniforms or baby dolls that descend on spider webs and unfurl a Swiss Army set of J.J.-slicing implements.
Yet elsewhere, The Missing allows the player to revel in some truly stunning landscapes, crossing vibrant fields of flowers set against a backdrop of towering windmills illuminated by distant lightning strikes, or exploring the ornate interior of a towering church. These are just some of the moments of genuine beauty to be found in The Missing, cleansing your palate before you’re soon given another gristly, suicidal set piece to chew on.
… By the game’s conclusion, each of the seemingly disparate threads of the experience are pulled together to make holistic sense.
Such dichotomy is further evident in the gameplay. One moment you’re desperately fleeing from a blade-wielding demon in dogged and deadly pursuit, the next you’re scrambling up a tree branch to collect one of the 271 iced donuts to be found throughout the game. Then you’re deciding which body part to gum up a gearworks with, before absentmindedly tapping your way through snarky text message exchanges with classmates on the in-game phone. Yet the ever changing shifts in tone keeps things interesting, and by the game’s conclusion, each of the seemingly disparate threads of the experience are pulled together to make holistic sense in retrospect. (Well, aside from the donuts perhaps.)
There are some control quirks. The button to interact with objects in the environment is the same input to make J.J. call out to Emily, meaning that often when I was trying to pick up a bottle I’d end up repeatedly wailing her name to near-Heavy Rain, ‘press X to Jason’ levels of absurdity (to exacerbate the issue, the game’s voice-acting is far from its strong point). Additionally, turning crank mechanisms by swivelling the thumbstick feels finickier than it should, which becomes particularly frustrating during some of the more punishing, timing-based sequences near The Missing’s end.
Speaking of that ending, the plot twist that arrives in the closing chapters is also not as surprising as the developers intended, perhaps, particularly if you bother to pay any attention to the optional phone exchanges with J.J.’s close friends and mother over the course of the adventure, which flesh out the protagonist’s back story. But even if it’s not an earthshaking blindside, it’s still bold and emotionally resonant, and earnestly deals with subject matters rarely tackled by the medium.