Developer, White Owls, have really thrown themselves into ensuring the constant presence of unsettling themes. The game’s opening scene drops you into a pleasant camping trip, complete with awkward sexual tension, between protag J.J. and her friend Emily. Then it pulls you out of any such pleasantries. Quickly.
Emily goes missing and you’re not given much more context than that. The unusual island you’re on suddenly seems far creepier and, with J.J. calling out Emily’s name to no response, you know it’s all heading south. From here you’ll collect a donut, push a couple of blocks and solve some basic puzzles which lead you nicely through the game’s basic movement mechanics. Then it kicks off.
The beautifully realised storm effects ramp up as you move your way across the environment. Lightning strikes around you, setting off fires and it isn’t long before the scene looks a little more hellish. Then, quick as a flash (ha), J.J.’s struck by an almighty bolt, reducing her to a blackened corpse. Then Dr. Mooseman (which the credits ultimately corrected me to ‘Deer Man’) appears, notes your haemorrhaging then proceeds to perform some on-the-spot necromancy. J.J.’s back and she is distressed. Confused and sobbing, J.J. presses on with her journey to find Emily.
It’s not long before you start receiving text messages, which you’ll quickly realise act as the game’s way of handling plot development. Indeed, your phone becomes an excellent means of drip-feeding J.J.’s recent history and pushing its narrative. From the well-meaning banter and idol chit-chat, fleshing out J.J.’s personality, to the gradual realisation of some of the game’s themes, each time the phone went off, I was eager to pick it up to learn more. I don’t intend to delve too deep into spoiler territory here, for that would ruin the entire premise. Again: avoid spoilers.
Donut, it’s not Punny
The trick here is that, as you collect donuts, you’ll gradually unlock more messages (and costumes!) which reveal conversations between the important people in J.J.’s life. Messages from Emily and J.J.’s mother are unlocked through general progression and these serve as the plot drivers. Combining this with J.J.’s island-wide search for her friend makes for a creative take on a coming-of-age story that isn’t shy to jump into often avoided subjects such as self-harm, symbolised by in-game monstrosities and other metaphorical visualisations.
All of this is compounded by the excellent atmospheric soundtrack, using solemn piano pieces and the game’s carefully chosen moments of silence to great effect. Background noises of chirping crickets, howling wolves and creaking metal strengthen the horror vibes and the ever-shifting skies feel perfectly suited.
As you continue through the island at a mostly somniferous pace you’ll come across collectable donuts, some of which require you to solve specific puzzles to access. Solutions to some of these environmental puzzles are occasionally obtuse, but never beyond reason. However, they’re seriously creative. You have a limited number of actions – namely jumping, pulling/pushing, throwing, climbing and crawling but it’s the way these common elements are interweaved with both the environment’s many curiosities that makes it shine.
Early on, however, you’re introduced to the game’s main, and somewhat-disturbing, gameplay gimmick. J.J. can survive and revive after being ripped to pieces. By mutilating her undead corpse, mainly through dismemberment, she can squeeze into smaller gaps, use her limbs as balancing weights, outright tearing her arm off to stall a cog or even set herself on fire to burn previously impassable vines. A wall with a cross may look ready to breakthrough by the adjacent wrecking ball, but the reality is you’ll be hurling yourself at the ball, leaving your lifeless and dismembered body to break directly through the wall. This, in turn, snaps your neck, leading to the more common gravity shift/upside-down mechanic present in many a puzzler. Holding a single button will restore J.J’s body entirely, but her screams of despair keep reminding you of the torture she must push herself through in her desperation to make sense of her predicament. J.J. is deconstructing herself, finding herself within an unforgiving world, and the physical manifestation of this is effortlessly engaging.
The plodding pace will put many off, I don’t doubt. Platforming is floaty and occasionally imprecise, movement is generally clunky and the constant falling over becomes tedious. J.J.’s transformation from undead to revival, depending on the form, can take too long when attempting a physics-based pinball affair for the sixth time. This is at odds with the fantastically fitting animations but here’s the thing – it’s arguably by design. J.J.’s vulnerability is on display and that seems to be the point.
The linear nature of the environment is mirrored by the linearity in puzzle solving in that most puzzles have a single solution. There isn’t a lot of room for experimentation but that doesn’t detract from the fantastic way in which the environmental head-scratchers are combined with fairly subtle nods and prods, culminating in intuitively driven solutions.
Voice acting isn’t the strongest, feeling like somewhat of a missed opportunity where J.J.’s concerned. While competent, I got the impression that the voice direction wasn’t aligned with the theme. That is somewhat jarring, given the way the rest of the game gels and better alignment here could have served to pull me in further. I’ll say this though: J.J.’s screams are amazing.
The game’s shadowy aesthetic and atmosphere reminded me of the old PlayStation title, Heart of Darkness, one of the forefathers of the Limbo scene. Truthfully, having gone back and looked at Heart of Darkness, it was clearly just my memory of that game because it doesn’t have a whole lot in common. But there’s a wider point here. Heart of Darkness, for whatever reason (given the Disney vibes), freaked me out as a 12ish-year-old. This game also reached into that part of my unsettled mind and gave it a little jiggle. While not a particularly scary game, The MISSING does not want you to feel at ease. It wants you to care for J.J. and if you fall into its trap, until the effect of her slowly unravelling dilemma ensnares you.
Overall Score: 3.8/5
You’re getting a slow-moving puzzle platformer with some serious weird biz gameplay mechanics. If you can deal with the pace and look beyond some of the mildly cringy bits, you’re getting a tightly designed, atmospheric, hard-hitting narrative-focused gem. One you won’t want to miss. Hold ‘Y’ to sew your sides.
Formats: PC (reviewed), PS4, Switch, Xbox One
PC Rig used for Review: i5-8400, GTX1070ti, 16GB RAM, Win10
Price: £23.99 (Steam)
Publisher: Arc System Works
Developer: White Owls Inc.
Release Date: 11/10/2018 (Steam)
Review copy provided by publisher