Review: The MISSING: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories

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I’ve never been the biggest fan of SWERY games. Deadly Premonition was a charming curiosity but I couldn’t get past the gameplay, and D4 fell completely flat with me. But The MISSING has turned me around on his work in dramatic fashion. Beyond the wickedly clever writing and puzzle mechanics, this game explores a topic that is at once under-represented in gaming and one of the great social issues of our time. It’s an important game, a meaningful game, and one everyone should give a chance despite some minor flaws.

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J.J. and her friend Emily have taken a break from college to get away from it all, on a remote, picturesque island. It’s a lovely, cozy camping trip for two until Emily goes missing, and like any dear friend J.J. sets off to find her. But Emily’s trail will lead through strange places on the island, full of deadly traps and bizarre creatures. J.J. won’t get through it unscathed, and in fact her suffering will prove to be the key past many of the obstacles in her way. Her trusty phone will keep her in touch with some curious figures as well, including remembrances of her family and friends at college. Only at the end of this grim journey will J.J.’s fate become clear, giving her struggle new meaning for both her and player.

I would love to dig into what makes The MISSING so meaningful, but I can’t. J.J. and Emily both have secrets to be uncovered, and making those discoveries is a cornerstone of the experience. What I can say is that the journey of discovery is a poignant one, and one that casts a very current issue in our culture in a light that anyone should be able to identify with. I’m always hesitant to say that a particular game taught me how a section of the populace lives or contends with but The MISSING certainly tries, and makes J.J. one of the most sympathetic characters in the business. Part of that is thanks to the interludes on her cellphone, with some hilarious and insightful texts back and forth with the vibrant cast of characters behind her. Just be warned that this story goes to some sensitive places too, so if topics like sexuality and suicide aren’t what you’re here for, it may get uncomfortable.

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So we know the story is something special, but what of the gameplay that ferries you through it? The MISSING plays like a budget Prince of Persia, a stiff, technical platformer where you need to be standing in just the right spot to mantle up a ledge or shimmy under a buzzsaw. I had very little trouble getting J.J. to do what I wanted but it certainly felt awkward to get her to do it, and in more than one place it wasn’t clear if the landscape allowed me to do what I wanted. The puzzles you’ll face aren’t terribly challenging and there’s no platforming that even approaches the aforementioned Prince of Persia, but there are a few chase sequences with poor feedback that sap some of the tension. Overall it’s not a dealbreaker, but gamefeel is a huge factor in enjoyment and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it not feeling so great here.

Those puzzles I mentioned won’t be like anything else you’ve dealt with, though. Through a fairly shocking turn of events, J.J. ends up with the ability to fully regenerate her body. This is handy when traversing all these rooms with giant saw blades, wrecking balls, and barbed wire coils, because you’re not always going to be able to avoid hazards. No, several puzzles in The MISSING require you to sever J.J.’s body parts on purpose or set her ablaze or do all sorts of horrible things to her body to progress. My favorite are the puzzles where you need a counterweight or a certain number of items when not enough are provided, so you have to substitute one of J.J.’s own limbs to get past. It’s a brutal and clever mechanic that’s used to the fullest in the game, and both tempered and somehow made more horrific by the art style that shows no actual gore when your lady friend gets rent asunder.

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This theme of self-destructive behavior ties into the story in a big way, and makes a big part of the ultimate reveal. Along the way the narrative takes plenty of twists and introduces some decidedly David Lynch elements like the bizarre moose doctor and your little buddy F.K., all which contribute to the excellent atmosphere. It’s one of those games where you’ll waver between thinking it’s all a dream or some kind of mental construct, and some kind of magical realist pocket in our world. Not many games can toe that line effectively, but The MISSING commands its story with a deft hand. You’ll definitely want to go out of your way to snap up the collectible donuts hidden along your path, not just because they’re donuts but because they reward you with additional texts that flesh out the story, and cute new outfits for J.J.

With only some stiff gameplay to hold it back, The MISSING is easily a game that everyone should have an interest in. Simply getting through the story will take six to seven hours, and hunting down all the delectable donuts will take a good bit longer. That’s half a dozen hours of clever platforming and puzzling using mechanics you don’t really see anywhere else, and a story that should touch your heart no matter who you are. I’m not often this impressed with a game, but The MISSING has something meaningful and important to say, fully supported by its gameplay conventions. It’s a smart game with a lot of heart, and those don’t come around all that often.

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