Version tested: GameCube
First out of the blocks from Production Studio 4 is P.N.03. If that sounds like an odd equation, then wait till you get your head round the concept of the game. Obviously tiring of the standard third person action mindset which has beset the current generation of consoles, Capcom's latest development outpost has concocted a game which marries the tenets of a traditional 2D shooter like Gradius or perhaps even Ikaruga with the visuals of a sci-fi Tomb Raider. The result is a game that demands a thought process quite apart from your average approach to the ubiquitous "action-adventure".
To begin with, P.N.03 feels like a step backward. Heroine Vanessa Z Schneider can run, turn, crouch and even jump like Lara Croft on steroids, but like Resident Evil, precise movement is restricted. Vanessa can't strafe - instead she is limited to spinning sideways at a single tug of either the left or right trigger, and cartwheeling for a double. And she can't move while she fires; nor can she interrupt her firing move with another action - which grows particularly maddening when you're trying to execute one of her Street Fighter II-style D-pad/A button combinations in the heat of battle.
However if you spend more than a few minutes with the game it rapidly becomes clear that many of Vanessa's limitations are vital gameplay components. With a couple of exceptions, levels in P.N.03 are split into simple rooms with a few enemies - often spawning in at uncomfortable moments - perhaps a few obstacles and power-ups, and one or two doors to escape through. Enemies have strictly observed firing patterns, much like those in an old-school shoot 'em up, and it's up to you to prey on them during their moments of inactivity. Standing tall and holding the fire button won't do you much good, because a single shot from one of your robotic adversaries will leave Vanessa reeling.
Quickly it becomes clear that to overcome each room, you will have to find shelter amongst the archways and low-lying walls and seek opportune moments to strike, pirouetting out of cover long enough to deplete an enemy's energy bar, before sweeping back into shadow and watching blasts of laser fire streak past. Upon completing a room, the player is given a statistical rundown of their progress - how many rooms have been taken, how many there are in the level, how many points were earned, the time it took and the value of any combos.
Once, twice, three times a lady
Like any good Capcom game, whether it's Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe or Street Fighter, killing enemies is a good thing, but dispatching them with a flurry of moves is far better. P.N.03 is no exception. When you kill the first enemy in a room, a little combo notification pops up in the top-right with a timer counting down - destroy another enemy within that time and it will bolster your combo and give you more time to kill the next. Taking several enemies out without losing your combo means a big points total, and as we're about to learn, points definitely mean prizes.
Between levels and at mid-level save points, Vanessa has the opportunity to go shopping. We'll make no jokes. Along with handy things like extra lives, the slender assassin can buy new Aegis suits to replace her basic outfit, and rather than a voyeuristic undertone, new suits bring different "Energy Drive" special moves. Each suit comes with a basic Energy Drive move, as well as the capacity to have its Barrier (health), Palm Shot, Automatic (rapid fire capacity) and Energy (to power the Energy Drive) values increased. Some go further than others, and some Energy Drive moves are far more valuable than others.
Energy Drive moves are activated in battle by a D-pad combination and A, and have varying effects. The first one, for example, is right/left/A, and dispatches an array of six arcing lasers, which decimate any opposition within a direct line of sight. Other moves work better in close quarters, or have a more subtle effect like increasing the effectiveness of Vanessa's Palm Shot for a short period of time.
As you'd expect, the difficulty of completing levels quickly ramps up, with more rooms, less Barrier and Energy pick-ups, save points distanced further apart and increasingly destructive enemies - including some thoroughly mean bosses. It's a relatively short game, with just eleven actual missions to overcome, but if played on the Normal difficulty level (and the subsequently unlocked Hard difficulty level), these eleven missions will take quite some time to defeat, and easily test the limits of your patience.
Design increases in complexity within a matter of a couple. Although the first few levels are basically just small rooms with obvious outcroppings of cover and sluggish bad guys, resistance quickly intensifies and meaningful cover rapidly evaporates. Before long you will almost certainly find yourself feeling out a level dozens of times and inching further and further in as you work out how to successfully negotiate each room without dropping too much of your Barrier or wasting too much vital Energy.
Fortunately you can make use of a Trial Mission option between levels, allowing you to run through a mission randomly generated from previous outings. Conquer this and you'll keep any points you earn, which can be put towards your next upgrade or Aegis suit. Trial Missions also serve as good training grounds, giving you a more thorough appreciation of the game's unusual mechanic.
However, it is by our reckoning something of a flawed mechanic. Although Capcom's hand was clearly forced by its own design, we have never enjoyed being unable to move with the freedom analogue sticks usually guarantee, and being unable to interrupt a firing animation - or even tap out an Energy Drive move whilst your Palm Shot animation is concluding - should be a capital offence. Because the result is that as your Energy Drive fails to act, Vanessa lurches into another useless Palm Shot, and so the cycle continues until you give up or get shot. More often than not, unable to move as you try to wrestle her into performing the desired attack, she gets caught when the volley of laser fire recommences - and as the game grows older, each shot proves more deadly than the last.
What's more, as much as we applaud the stunningly clean, almost textureless look of the game and its magnificently detailed, beautiful explosions, we would have enjoyed some more varied environments. Even if they are very, very nice explosions, where bits fly off and scatter like shrapnel as a little wave of fire erupts from each erstwhile bad guy. Almost without exception though, the game is as whitewashed as it looks in the screenshots, and it wasn't long for us before even the gorgeous laser-assisted deconstruction of our robotic foes lost its initial punch. Likewise, the game's soundtrack and sound effects grew increasingly tiresome in the face of visual monotony - and it matters not to us now that the lusciously detailed Vanessa is meant to be fighting to the synthetic beat. With Dolby Pro-Logic surround absent, we quickly gave up and dug out some Massive Attack.
And yet, although P.N.03 is plainly flawed, with a little perseverance the gameplay still shines through as something relatively new and engaging. We're always pleased to see new and interesting ideas, particularly when they're cunningly infused into a genre of which we were growing weary, and not simply notes in the margin of a glossy B-movie (P.N.03 certainly can't be accused of that - it barely has a plot). Perhaps what's missing is a little inventiveness beyond that initial spark of genius.
Are you game?
It's difficult to gauge just how valuable an addition P.N.03 would be to the average Cube owner's gaming collection. Although we sympathise with desperate gamers bemoaning the lack of new software on the format, once again we're forced to suggest a rental - or perhaps a visit to GAME to pinch one of their demo disks before the game's release. If you read this too late though, just ask yourself - am I patient, dextrous and in need of something different? If the answer is yes, than P.N.03 might just fit the bill.
7 / 10