You know when you think about breathing, and then you realise now you have to think to breathe, and then you think, “Shit, what if I never start automatically breathing again?!” and then you realise you already are? Sorry about that. Anyway, Manual Samuel [official site] is a very silly game about a man who has to do such things very deliberately. As well as outdo Death. Here’s wot I think.
At first I thought this was going to be one of those awkward times when everyone’s saying how funny something is, and I just find it irritating. In fact, so familiar was the sensation during its wildly over-confident and frustrating opening moments, that I checked to see if it was a German translation. Been there so many times before. But no, Norwegian. Then the game got started proper and I realised what the fuss was about. The writing in Manual Samuel might not be that hilarious, but the concept surely is.
Samuel is a rich douchebag (the game’s favourite word), living a ludicrously opulent life, when all of a sudden a lot of things go wrong at once. So wrong that he ends up dying, and finds himself at the gates of Hell. There, he meats Death, who seems to have a peculiar interest in the chap, and a self-interested desire to send him back up the Earth – but with a catch. Samuel is now entirely manual. Well, manual in as many ways as can fit onto a game controller.
Samuel’s bits and bobs are mapped all over the controller (there are keyboard options, but this is far better with buttons), with either leg on either trigger, either arm on either shoulder button, maintaining spine integrity on d-pad-up, blinking on A, and indeed breathing in and out on X and B. He’s a lot to manage, especially when taking a step out of order sees him collapsed on the ground in the splits. And then with these basics mastered, you have to actually do stuff.
I mentioned it starts badly – before it introduces this core game, it spends an awful lot of time indulging itself so it can laugh at its own jokes, with you having barely anything to do between cutscenes. I thought I was going to absolutely hate it, but mercifully it soon moves away from this. Once you’re trying to drink a cup of coffee (blow on it to cool it down, but remember to breathe in again soon after to avoid turning blue, but then don’t breathe in when drinking…), or drive a car, it becomes entertainingly silly.
It’s odd to celebrate overly complicated clumsy controls, especially in a game that doesn’t embrace unwieldy physics, but for the most part, they’re handled well. It’s not about flailing and crashing about into things – it’s about trying to remember all the right buttons and then pressing them at the right moments. Driving, for instance, deliberately puts veering left on the same shoulder button as changing gear – it depends where your hand is, moved by the d-pad – while you (obviously) use the same foot for the break and accelerator, and move between the two with the analogue stick. Then of course there’s blinking and breathing to do. And old ladies in the street!
The game plays out in a series of vignettes, each with their own unique controls, with a few boss fights interspersed. And this all goes swimmingly, until right near the end. A big ending boss fight is a tedious mess of unexplained controls and agonising repetitiveness that confirmed a suspicion I’d had throughout: the controls aren’t quite good enough. It’s often too slow to recognise button presses, and when that means repeating a sequence, it’s a real pain in the arse. This mostly manifests throughout as Samuel falling down when you’re sure you’d alternated leg buttons correctly. In this final extensive fight, it becomes very apparent that you had been. And then, when I’d finally beaten the sodding thing, the game crashed – restarting the section took me back absolutely miles, way before the final fight even started. Sigh.
So it’s clumsy, no doubt, and not always in the ways it’s supposed to be. But it’s also good fun for the most part. And a completely unique idea. (Cue commenter who explains how the same idea was done on the Amiga in Russia only.) I didn’t find the writing funny, but you may well find it hilarious. (Death’s attempts to be a skater is a joke that didn’t quite last until the end of its introduction for me, so it’s pretty grueling that it lasts throughout – I would have love to have seen it crack and Death admit his real persona, really. And saying “feces” instead of “shit” and “fuck” isn’t quite the joke the game appears to believe, what with using it over eight hundred thousand times.) But the concept itself is extremely funny, and it’s most entertaining to realise you’ve forgotten to blink for so long that the screen’s gone all blurry and pink.
Better responding controls would do a lot of good, but for £6.40 you’ve got a lovely idea, often delivered very well.
Manual Samuel is out now on Steam for £6.40/$8/€8.