As much as I love anticipation, with its building crescendo of kid-on-Christmas-Eve jitters, sometimes it's the unexpected surprises that excite me more. Sure, it's cool to hear Aeris' robotic voice calling from GameStop to say that X title will be available tomorrow, but nothing compares to having something genuinely great just dropped in your lap.
Enter Lux-Pain, a "youth fantasy action adventure" from Ignition Entertainment for the Nintendo DS that shipped to me in a padded envelope along with a box of Cheddar Cheese Larvets. I had no preconceived notions, no feverish hype, nothing. Just a simply labeled developer's cart and a box of mealworms covered in orange cheese powder.
Lux-Pain (which means "perfect pain") is basically an interactive novel. Much more popular in Japan than over here in the States, the main meat of the gameplay is visiting different locales, hunting for clues, engaging in conversations, and ultimately pushing the narrative forward. However, developer Killaware has added a new wrinkle to the formula by introducing a sort of puzzle/action element with the Silent and Shinen.
The main story revolves around your character, Atsuki, as he hunts down Silent, a sort of psychological brain parasite that induces psychosis in its host. To do so, he needs to track them through shinen, a worm (now the Larvets make sense) representative of strong emotional feelings that are present both in the hosts and the environments in which they experienced these feelings. You do so by "erasing" the screen, trying to chisel away at a person's psyche, until the shinen, a tiny string of glowing particles, is revealed. Removing the shinen then reveals the emotions within through a series of ethereal phrases that phase in and out of existence. The effect is rather eerie, especially when dealing with some of the game's less savory characters (the animal killer, the right-wing gun nut teacher) and their damaged minds.
It all sounds pretty mundane on the gameplay front, and by design it is, but there was something just so utterly engrossing about Kisaragi City and its inhabitants that kept me coming back. The city is full of characters, and they're all developed and unique enough that you truly become interested in their lives. Kisaragi City at times almost seems alive, with so many tiny details in the game that hint at events going on outside of your microcosm: news broadcasts on your cell phone report the rapid deterioration of the world, a constantly-updating internet message board is full of conversations about events past and present, and the characters all share a fairly complex network of histories and relationships. There are some great twists and turns in the plot (the first person who was a host for Silent was kind of a shock), and the dialogue itself is very well translated, and often times it was fully voiced by talented actors.
What's odd enough that it warrants mention, however, is the discrepancy between subtitles and voiceover. While both are translated perfectly (no obvious "Engrish" to be found here), oftentimes the two completely clash with one another, ranging in severity from simple word contractions to complete phrase changes. Again, both of these translations are perfectly handled, so why the breakdown?
Lux-Pain, it saddens me to say, will be a victim of its own uniqueness. No matter how positive the reviews are, or how enthusiastic the word-of-mouth gets, it's the sort of game that's destined to remain practically hidden in its peculiar niche because it's too Japanese for mainstream mass consumption. While other titles with similar gameplay styles have been quite successful (the Ace Attorney series is the closest comparison point I could come to), Lux-Pain's oddly engrossing mixture of interactive novel, crime scene investigation, bleak horror, and stylus-tapping action is simply too far out there for the average American gamer (let alone the average DS owner) to get involved in. The more adventurous among you, however, should give it a shot.