Game director Hidetaka “SWERY” Suehiro has a knack for elevating an average game experience in a way that makes a formal review challenging. Much like his previous titles Deadly Premonition and D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die, The MISSING: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories tells a powerful story, but it forces players to endure some tedious gameplay to see it through.
At the outset, the game introduces a mystical island with “the power to awaken the formative memories of all its visitors.” From there, we are introduced to J.J. and Emily. The game shows the pair sharing a warm moment together, camping out on the island and staring up at the stars. After a quick fade to black, the tone goes from heartfelt to twisted. Emily goes missing, calling out to J.J. in a warped voice similar to the red room denizens of Twin Peaks. Much like Deadly Premonition and D4, The MISSING does not shy away from these sorts of Lynchian stylings.
In the search for Emily, J.J. is struck by lightning and burned alive in a field (it’s pretty normal for The MISSING to go THAT dark at the drop of a hat). From there we are introduced to the game’s central mechanic — as long as she keeps her head alive, J.J. can bring herself back to life again and again. With this power, the search for Emily continues, but not without dozens of puzzles to solve along the way.
J.J.’s regenerative power combines with deadly hazards to create a game about intentionally mutilating yourself to navigate obstacles. The effect is violent and gruesome, but exaggerated enough that it doesn’t become upsetting during extensive puzzle sequences. Imagine the death scenes of Playdead’s INSIDE or Limbo as solutions to a puzzle and you’ve got The MISSING in a nutshell.
Examples of this mechanic at play include things like intentionally running J.J. into a spinning saw blade to dismember her arm, then picking up the arm and throwing it into some rotating gears to jam them. Enemies in the environment are often just a means to switch between two states. Creepy spider-babies descend from trees to grab J.J. and chop her up to just a head, which you can then use to navigate small tunnels.
As you move from puzzle to puzzle, you’ll receive text messages from Emily, J.J.’s mom, and her favorite, suddenly-talkative stuffed animal. These conversations seem nonsensical at first, filled with the game’s own hilarious emojis and some out-of-date internet lingo. But as the game goes on these conversations take on a much deeper meaning.
In addition to those core characters, you can unlock more conversations with J.J.’s friends and acquaintances by collecting hidden donuts in the environment. The problem here is that they’re absolutely worth pursuing for the extra story, but they’re often hidden within the actual puzzles. Finding all of them constitutes engaging in an extra difficulty level that can be a real chore. The problem isn’t that it makes the puzzles harder so much as it adds a lot more running back and forth through the environments.
J.J.’s controls are decent enough for the basics, but when the game starts throwing challenging platforming sections into the mix — sometimes placing collectibles in a way that you have to do them twice — it can get very frustrating. This would all be fine if J.J. were truly immortal, but when she is down to just her head she can be killed. Again, this could have been fine, but every time I died in The MISSING I was knocked back to the beginning of a puzzle and forced to do it all over again.
There is a critical path through The MISSING that lets you enjoy some fun puzzles and a truly great, powerful, and important story. Then there is a more complete version of The MISSING with an even more fulfilling story, but a gameplay experience that pushed me to the edges of my patience. It’s hard for me to say which one is better.
This is often an issue with SWERY’s games, but rarely in this specific way. Deadly Premonition is best enjoyed on the easiest difficulty because the combat isn’t very fun, but you don’t lose any of the story by playing that way. Here, I think you miss out on some very good characters by not engaging with the hidden collectibles.
In all of SWERY’s games he starts from a seemingly derivative foundation (Resident Evil + Twin Peaks for Deadly Premonition, Telltale + Twin Peaks for D4, and Limbo + Twin Peaks for this), but builds out from that foundation with more lovable and well-rounded characters than we usually see in game storytelling. That’s why the rough edges always feel worth the trouble in the end. His games review across the entire spectrum, and I suspect this one won’t be any different. That said, if you already loved his games, wrinkles and all, or you’re willing to endure some gameplay issues to experience an excellent story, The MISSING is a must-play.