Yeah, I’m not even going to put the entire name, that’s just insane.
SWERY is a man that needs more of a spotlight shed on him. He houses a mind that attempts to reveal the true human condition, and along with a lot of western influences, he manages to create experiences so surreal and unique, that gameplay quality is completely forgotten about. Deadly Premonition and D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die are two games that can be sold on their experiences alone, but is The MISSING going to be another similar title?
This is the latest title from SWERY’s studio White Owls and is one of the latest products published by Arc System Works, the developers and publishers made for weebs. From BlazBlue to Dragon Ball FighterZ, Guilty Gear to Under Night In-Birth, almost all of their related products are heavily Japanese, save for their port of BattleToads on the Sega consoles. No, seriously, they developed that, but anyway.
You play as the titular J.J. Macfield, a uni student who has gone on a camping trip to Memoria Island with her buddy Emily. While talking and having fun under an exceptionally bright star-lit sky, Emily suddenly disappears, with J.J. none the wiser. After failing to find her, being set on fire, and struck by lightning, all while being revived by a doctor wearing a deer head, she now has the ability to revive herself and regenerate from any injury she sustains.
This might sound like a straight-up SWERY game, warts ‘n’ all, a product so niche that it should only apply to people who at one point in their lives have willingly eaten surströmming, but no. The MISSING is hands down SWERY & Co.’s most restrained work, to the point where this isn’t just one of the most unique titles you’ll play this year, but is objectively SWERY’s best work yet.
If you’re a fan of obscure shit games, you might remember a failed 2012 release by the name of NeverDead, where you play as The Worlds Most Annoying Guy, who also cannot die, no matter how much you behead him. The MISSING’s mostly works in the same way, except it’s a platformer, where you’ll have to lead J.J through the grisly trials of chopping off some or all of her body parts in order to solve a puzzle.
Sometimes it won’t even be that you need to lose a limb. Sometimes you might have to set her on fire, or break every single bone in her body in order to reach new areas or secret goodies, in the form of donuts. Or sometimes, you’ll probably just have to do a boring physics puzzle, which can kill the fun quite a bit. While it is a bit harrowing to hear J.J weep and moan for Emily while half of her body is in a wood chipper, it was disappointing whenever I solved a puzzle by not using my God-given powers of immortality.
In truth, the design of The MISSING’s is smart and always comes down to you not remembering one of the ways J.J’s suffering can lead you to victory, which is great. Even the puzzles that don’t revolve around the gimmick feel gratifying to solve. That being said, it’s the only bit of meat for the whole package, unless you count some, unfortunately, lacking horror chases.
These are some fairly bog-standard encounters with unknown and terrifying forces that are hard to feel any sort of emotion for, whether it be terror or frustration. Said frustration could be tied into the final chase scene, where even though it’s thematically appropriate, mechanics are suddenly given a new spin with no time to recuperate, but in all honesty, it doesn’t affect the horror in play, as SWERY’s going for something a bit more personal.
The best thing you can say about how the game plays is that it feels “like a SWERY game”. It’s like in Deadly Premonition, how everything in that world moves with a weird force attached to their legs, like Rock Lee’s leg weights or some shit. It’s also like D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die, where part of it feels gimmicky, but not to the point of a confused over-burdening style.
If there is one problem anybody could have with the gameplay though, it’s that it doesn’t feel truly fleshed out. There are well-done puzzles related to the gimmick of undying in the game, but a lot of it feels wasted, to the point where it would’ve done a bit more good to leave the game in the stove for a while. Of course, it’s not the main event though.
Thus we come to the narrative side of things, and surprisingly, I’m not dreading this as much as I thought I would. You see, there are twists and turns in this story, some of which are fifty-ton freight trains you’ll never see coming, despite foresight. It’s a narrative I absolutely will not spoil, as it is a game that’s best experienced blind, but there are complaints that I have with it that don’t require spoilers everywhere.
For one, the pacing is tied to the skill of the player. You see, a lot of the story is told within text messages sent to J.J. throughout the story, and about eighty percent of them are tied to the donuts you have to collect, meaning you’re going to need to be nosy and skillful in order to get the full picture. Yes, these messages might be tied to secondary characters who don’t necessarily have an impact on the story, but that’s still world-building being sacrificed.
Even with these donut collectibles disregarded, the huge theme of The MISSING does kind of just arriving onto the scene. Like, you’ll be getting all spooked out by the uncomfortable vibes, you’re finally understanding what kind of person J.J. is, and then BOOM! Her mom drops this atom bomb on you with no pretense in her character or previous statements.
With that said, this is still SWERY at his most refined and perfected. It’s great that he’s stopped completely ripping off western media in order to try and tell his stories now, and with that shackle cast aside, he’s finally creating something relevant and unflinching, which might sound like a bad thing, but it really isn’t. It just means that he’s finally got the audience he’s deserved since 2010.
Whereas Deadly Premonition suffered from sucking on the teat of Twin Peaks too much, and D4 suffered from poorly flip-flopping between two different moods, The MISSING is his first work that stays consistently haunting and affecting. These weird flavors and zests added into a fairly simple story only help to ease you into the story much easier than on its own.
Pacing issues aside, J.J’s a really well-rounded character, and her interaction with Emily, her mom, her friends, they’re all human and perfectly portrays fear in youth. Hell, everyone does in this game, even the side characters you’re not supposed to give a shit about. There are comfortably accurate themes of rebellion, egotism, intimacy… It’s hard-hitting shit, and it’d be even more hard-hitting if it wasn’t for THE FUCKING PLUSHIE.
Right, I’ve been mulling every plot element of this game in my head for a good few days now, and I still don’t understand why, how, or when the bastard plushie is supposed to tie into all of this, and no, THAT moment doesn’t count. THAT moment doesn’t provide an excuse as to why they suddenly become the caregiver and answerer of all your problems.
Alright, maybe the plushie’s presence isn’t executed like that, but it’s still a part of The MISSING that feels uselessly tacked on when compared to everything else. Even the bloody deer head man thing makes more sense because he has an attachment to J.J that the plushie doesn’t, and the plushie doesn’t stop the story from being worth every moment.
After finishing The MISSING, it leaves you in this state of uncomfortable euphoria. You see the journey J.J has been on, the symbolism and mannerisms of the character, the red herrings and fake-outs it takes you for. While it may not be the objectively best game of the year– Because there’s no bloody way you’re beating Celeste— It was my favorite game of the year to play and experience.
In the end, it’s great to see SWERY find a beat and rhythm that not only he and White Owls Inc. are comfortable with, but it’s a beat and rhythm that can get him the recognition he deserves. The gameplay is lacking at points, but well designed, the story is paced weirdly, but heart-breaking to sit through regardless. It’s the most human SWERY game you’ll ever play, and one of the most human games you’ll play period.
Certainly more human than that bloody cat girl in D4, that’s for sure.
This review of The MISSING is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
While it might not be up to the same kookiness of previous titles from SWERY, The MISSING has other reasons to make you stay, leaving you shook and heart-broken with a stop-start narrative, and an gameplay gimmick that doesn't overstay its welcome.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.