Version tested: PlayStation 2
Dr. Muto's not your average mad professor. No, before you ask, he's not mute; he's apparently a Doctor (although of what, we're not entirely sure) and he can mutate himself into other creatures. Do you see what they did? Those crazy fools.
Muto is your classic Einstein on Acid mad professor; wild hair, milk bottle glasses, and a worrying tendency to accidentally destroy planets. But he wants to make amends for his error, and presumably the genocide of billions of innocents, by rebuilding his home planet by harvesting bits of four other nearby planets. Armed with some nifty morphing technology which at various points allows him to morph into a Mouse, Spider or a Gorilla, Dr. Muto has to run, jump, open crates, collect everything not nailed down, and complete a multitude of tasks on the way to defeating the inevitable end of level boss.
Before you all fall into a coma at the prospect of yet another platform game, the first thing in Dr. Muto's favour is that it's not a sequel! In a stale era where publishers play it safe, churning out multiple sequels it's a surprise to not only find a company willing to take a chance on a new character, but to make it sufficiently good to stand out immediately.
Oh look, glowing stuff to pick up
Despite the entertaining high gloss cut scenes, things get off to an ominous start. Ah hello, my glowing object family. We meet again. How inconsiderate of you to be left lying around all over the place. We'd better guide this goggle eyed freak around and scoop you all up. Crates? Well, we'd better crack these open, you never know what might be inside. If there's one thing we can't abide, it's a mess; call us domesticated, call us anally retentive, or more politely, call us tidy. It's the way we're made; we can't help it. Don't hold it against us.
And, would you credit it? There's a whole army of patrolling enemies just gagging to have their bodies broken into tiny pieces. And oh look; they're considerate enough to leave behind health pickups. So far so predictable, but despite our justifiable cynicism, we couldn't help but warm to Dr. Muto within minutes.
With a bigger budget, we'd probably have had the whole metamorphosis concept rammed down our throats a hundred times, but in the event it came as a nice surprise to be able to change our form, by tapping the triangle button. From the first level you're able to shrink down into the body of a mouse (with Muto's features, disturbingly), and immediately scurry into a conveniently mouse-sized hole, bound around for a few minutes before exiting later and returning back to your former state.
Are you a Man or a Mouse? Or a Gorilla, or Spider, or Fish?
As you charge through the delightfully detailed world you'll pick up the blueprints of new creatures that the good Doctor can morph into. By stunning the required creatures with your electric shock gun you can extract their DNA. Extract enough and you can then build up a roster of creatures that enable you to access otherwise inaccessible parts of the planet. For example, as a mouse you can enter the tiniest of entrances, as a Gorilla your giant hands allow you to climb fences and overhead bars, as a Spider you can traverse walls and ceilings, while as a Fish you can breathe underwater. Each form has its own unique set of attacks and moves accessible via the X, Square and Circle buttons, and you'll quickly work out which creature can most effectively deal with the patrolling hordes.
In addition to the array of morphs are a selection of area-specific power ups, which include jet packs, guns, or even cannons you can mount to take out enemy or pieces of scenery you're tasked with destroying. Also a nice touch is the way Muto has to utilise each planet's 'Gomer'. These poor sods squat around minding their own business, until you zap them, and subsequently chuck them at crates or generators, and so forth, within the 30 second limit. Hear their futile, wibbling moans, and try not to crack a smile.
Mercifully, despite the game's tendency to kill you at extraordinary regularity, the frustration levels are kept to a minimum thanks to a considerate checkpoint system that not only keeps a track of which of the key objects you've collected, but also restores all the health crates. Save points are also regularly dotted around, and therefore your motivation to carry on is greater. You're rarely forced to keep doing the same thing over and over again, and it's this consistent variety that ensured that once we got into Dr. Muto, we really had trouble putting it down.
As well as having a neat gadget/morphing system, the game is a real looker. The scenery doesn't ever hit the heights of Ratchet & Clank, but in terms of character models, these are among the best we've seen on the PS2; both superbly detailed and well animated, and full of charm. It's obvious there's real talent behind the game, and the level design is also commendable, being cleverly designed around the strengths of the various morphs at your disposal. The instant rescaling of the levels as you shrink and grow is also handled with aplomb, when it could have been a nightmare.
The inevitable downside
Sadly, it's not all good. The camera system is controlled in Jak & Daxter style, with movement assigned to the left stick and the viewpoint swinging around the character with the right stick. And in common with J&D's worst excesses, you're often tripped up by a wayward system that never quite feels convincing. In addition to that, the game can tend to be poorly signposted, even in the early stages, leaving you trudging around battling it out with respawning Robo dogs and Rent-a-cops (evil Midway, plain evil). Rather than helpfully suggest you might wish to try changing your form, you're left to your own devices, until inspiration strikes and you realise your 'mistake'. The decision to allow both enemies and pick ups to suddenly appear as you walk up to them strikes us as a lazy, inexplicable inclusion too. It may well keep the frame rate high, but we've never seen that kind of behaviour in rival games, and it simply adds an unnecessary and irritating hindrance to clearing each level.
Dr Muto's rarely gives you an easy ride, which might put some people off, but with hindsight we're glad it's slightly tougher than your average. Far too many collectathons seem to think it's acceptable to allow the player to breeze through half the game on their first go. Make no mistake, this will take you a fair while - easily 20 hours plus to get to the end first time through.
Having cracked all the best this genre's got to offer recently, it's a rare joy to play a wild card such as this. An unheralded, unhyped game, with some neat new ideas, a stylish look and a backbone of tried and tested ideas to entertain throughout. With a little more polish, a less insane camera and some mini-game variety, this would have been a must have. As it stands, Dr. Muto joins the growing band of quality platformers on the PS2, without touching the heights of the very best. Buy it if you're a platform junkie, or at the very least rent. You'll be pleasantly surprised.
7 / 10