old school (óld skóól) adj. a video game inspired by those of antiquated origin that forgoes current technological advancements and focuses on straightforward, yet demanding gameplay mechanics.
When it comes to video games, every once in a while you just have to go old school. Sure, the Morrowinds, GTA3s and Halos are all fantastic and worth every moment you spend with them, but sometimes you need to switch gears a play something less complicated. You need something that harkens back to the games of yesteryear; games like Streets of Rage, Bionic Commando, Strider and Battletoads that embrace their simplicity of gameplay and force you to create an unshakable three-way bond between yourself, the controller and the on-screen action. Thankfully, when these inevitable cravings do come we aren’t forced to fire up decade old systems, but can instead turn to current titles like Capcom’s P.N.03 to satiate our old school gaming needs.
Openly choosing to neglect story and focus on its unique action-packed gameplay, P.N.03 will not draw you in with a captivating narrative or gut-wrenching plot twists. You take the role of Vanessa Z. Schneider, a German mercenary with a mysterious past and a penchant for kicking some serious robotic buttocks. When a group of machines go haywire and begin terrorizing a local colony, you are sent to take care of business. Unlike lesser mercenaries, Vanessa doesn’t bother with crude weapons like machine guns or blades, but instead opts to use a skintight bionic outfit that bestows her with superior agility and the ability to fire energy blasts from the palms of her hands. The over-the-top premise and lack of story aside, P.N.03 succeeds in the area where it matters most: the gameplay.
What P.N.03 boils down to is you controlling Vanessa through a series of partitioned areas, blasting every machine that stands in your path. That’s it. Many of the areas that you will traverse are very similar in nature, and you will see the same enemies, albeit with bigger health bars on later levels, over and over again. Not only that, but Vanessa herself cannot strafe from side-to-side or shoot while moving. If you play the game and expect it to control like the average 3rd or 1st person shooter, it will just feel limited and clunky, which would explain why the game has been maligned by a number of game reviewing publications and websites. P.N.03 can only transcend the repetitive nature of its environments and enemies if you open up to the game’s unique gameplay mechanics.
Instead of running and gunning like in most 3rd person action tiles, P.N.03 forces you to adopt a dodge-and-react strategy. Because you have to be stationary when attacking, you must rapidly pound the fire button to maximize damage to the enemy, but always be prepared to quickly dodge when return fire is encountered. All of the machines you face in the game have patterns, so as soon as you see an opening, you maneuver back into attack position, fire off a number of shots and dodge back out of harm’s way. Dodging can be as simple as a quick duck as a robot sprays the area with chest-level laser fire or a last moment spinning sidestep to evade a pair of homing missiles. Each area you enter will have different robotic enemies in different locations, so the game often forces you to perform a stunning dance of death throughout the vicinity, nimbly dodging attacks from all sides while eliminating each threat one after another.
It might seem that this dodge-and-shoot gameplay would encourage the player to remain hidden behind objects in the environment, popping out from behind cover only to deliver quick attacks in short bursts. While this is a reasonable solution to a few situations in the game, you are largely discouraged to do so because of the combo system. Every time you destroy an enemy, a timer begins counting down in the upper right corner of the screen. If you blow up another machine before it reaches zero, the timer resets and you are brought up to a level two combo. The number of enemies you include in a combo will significantly boost the amount of points you earn, and because points can be used to purchase new Aegis suits, upgrades, special Energy Drive attacks, etc, it becomes very rewarding to rack up large combos whenever possible.
That’s not to say P.N.03 doesn’t have its fair share of problems. First off, the game is a smidgen on the short side. Your initial run through the story mode can be as quick as six to eight hours, but in all fairness the game does feature some nifty unlockables to warrant subsequent completions. The other nitpick I have comes in the manner in which you unleash Vanessa’s Energy Drive specials. You are forced to push Street Fighter-esque combinations on the GameCube’s miniscule d-pad to initiate these attacks, and oftentimes your commands will not register, thus leading to unwanted damage or untimely deaths. It’s very frustrating to be standing in front of a huge turret that is moments away from unleashing white-hot death, only have to your commands not register as your thumb frantically fumbles around on the poorly conceived d-pad. I suppose this is more of a “shame on Nintendo for creating such a worthless d-pad” then a “shame on Capcom for such poor implementation” complaint, however.
Though Vanessa is not given much in the way of character development or back story, she is bursting at the seams with personality because of the hip way she conducts herself in the game. No matter what she is doing, be it blasting enemies with her palm shot or just standing idle, Vanessa is always snapping her fingers, tapping her foot or finding some other way to groove to the game’s techno soundtrack. Even when an 80-foot tall mechanical monstrosity, that would make Optimus Prime look like a kid’s toy, detaches itself from the wall and begins lumbering in her direction, she just stands there unaffected, a small grin tugging at the corner of her mouth and her body gyrating to the music. This confidence and grace Vanessa exudes makes her one of the most intriguing game protagonists in recent memory, and one who I would absolutely love to see an anime based on.
It also helps that Vanessa is incredibly modeled, with nary a rough polygonal edge to found along her reflective, curve-hugging suit. Even subtle imperfections have been added to her face, giving her a genuine human look and placing her in stark contrast with her cold, mechanical aggressors. The dozen or so main robotic enemies in the game range from colossal four-legged beasts to small laser-spewing arachnids, and whether driven by jet propulsion or mechanized limbs, each machine is animated in a very convincing manner. The various sterile, metallic rooms and barren, wind-swept outdoor regions Vanessa travels through are plain, to be sure, but they do feature fantastic lighting and some nice graphical effects like reflective texturing and blowing sand storms. Though bare, the environments in general manage to convey a certain allure in their simplicity. Some noticeable aliasing and minor framerate drops are slight black marks against the game’s overall visual presentation, but they are hardly serious detractions.
P.N.03’s soundtrack consists mainly of unobtrusive techno songs that are just upbeat enough to keep you energized during battle, but not so aggressive as to seem out of place during mundane corridor exploration. The tunes probably won’t compel you to rush out and order the soundtrack from Japan, but they are good enough for prolonged listening without forcing you to reach for the mute button. Except for at the very end of the game, all of Vanessa’s dialogue is handled via Metal Gear Solid-style codec screens, so voice acting is virtually non-existent. The various explosions, laser blasts and mechanical sounds issued by the robots do an admirable job in enhancing the overall value of the game.
Really, P.N.03 is keenly polished in every aspect. As the number of games that offer blockbuster graphics, non-linear gameplay elements and other “next gen” features grow and grow, the niche for high-quality old school titles like P.N.03 will become increasingly important to many gamers. If you’ve been getting that craving lately to bust out an older console to experience some retro gaming, I recommend giving Capcom’s gem a try instead. Just be sure to leave all your preconceived notions of how a modern 3rd person shooter should play at the door, and you’ll find that it is a more than worthy addition to your GameCube library.