Wot I Think: My Friend Pedro
Fails to attain Equilibrium
My Friend Pedro looks incredible in animated GIFs. That's how I first encountered it, via a short clip which showed a man in a mask, hanging upside down from a zipline while he fired twin pistols in opposite directions. Now that I've played this run-and-gun platformer for myself I can confirm that this is one of many spectacular moves it allows you to smoothly and frequently execute. I can also confirm that these moves don't feel as good to perform as they look in motion, and that the game fails to support or develop its moveset in interesting ways.
The GIFs are incredible because they seem to realise a particular fantasy, one shared by anyone who spent their teenage years watching The Matrix over and over again. The fantasy is that you can combine the bombast and messiness of guns with the grace of a martial art, and somehow be the choreographer of this murder ballet. Max Payne allowed you to experience this in fleeting moments, and SUPERHOT probably gets closest to capturing it consistently.
My Friend Pedro, meanwhile, is a grown-up version of browser Flash games I played as a teen, in which a stickman or perhaps a paper cut-out Keanu takes on warehouses filled with identical goons. Pedro contains warehouses (and many other grey locations), and hundreds of goons, but also has 3D animation blending. This turns out to be enough to get excited about.
A typical area in My Friend Pedro will place you on the ledge above a room containing three enemies. If you're holding twin pistols or Uzis, you can right-click on one of those enemies to lock-on with one of your guns and separate your aim by left clicking elsewhere with your reticule. At the game's most straightforward, you'll then press a button to slip into slow motion, dive forwards over that ledge and blow those enemies away before they can return fire. The game quickly layers on new abilities via its level design however: hooks, hoists and ziplines to suspend yourself from; metal objects to ricochet bullets off; barrels to run on top of like in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.
It's always prescriptive, in that you do the thing the level designer has built for you to do, but this is the game at its best. There are areas where you'll find a frying pan, for example, which you can kick into the air, slow time, and bounce bullets against in order to take out enemies around corners. There's no challenge to this, but it is fun simply because it is novel and looks great. There are whole levels based around skateboarding, in which you can momentarily string together jumps, kicks, and gunfire, and it's gleefully silly.
After you've done these things a couple of times and recreated that GIF for yourself, however, their appeal fades. The game then spends the remainder of its duration trying and mostly failing to find ways to liven it up again.
Soon, the enemies are strong or numerous enough that simple slow-mo dive-shooting won't allow you to avoid being shot. The game offers an answer to this in the form of a spinning-dodge maneuver during which no bullet will touch you. You'll quickly realise that your enemies fire in bursts, and so there's an intended rhythm in which you're meant to alternate spins with returning fire. It's still rarely satisfying. You can't aim accurately while spinning, understandably, and the spin move is limited by some unclear cooldown and duration such that it feels inevitable, or at least partially determined by luck, whether you still get hit by a few bullets.
You can get shot a lot and your partially depleted health segments will re-charge afterwards, and checkpoints are frequent so there's no real inconvenience when you die, but in a game about performing marvelous acrobatic feats, being clumsy is a kind of death of its own. It's the death of the fantasy its GIFs seemed to be promising, in which your every action looked precise.
In lieu of a more robust moveset for your character, it falls to the level design to create interesting scenarios. Early levels do a great job of teaching you skills and giving you places that combine them, but the later stages don't open up to allow you to be creative. Instead, the game does two things. One, it becomes increasingly irreverent, another way in which it feels like the product of Newgrounds (where 2014's My Friend Pedro, which this game re-imagines, is hosted). You fight through Pedro's colourful world, which has become infested by 'haters', whose speech bubbles relay insults as you approach; then an interminable series of sewers filled with 'gamers', who dress in Dark Souls cosplay and say things like "lag" and "n00b"; then you reach the internet, which is really just another grey industrial location filled with tubes, as a reference to a meme from over ten years ago. There's also Pedro himself, of course, a talking banana who directs you on your murder spree.
The other attempt at sustaining its ideas is to lean away from its cinematic combat and into puzzle-platforming challenges. This involves running through every design cliché from the past thirty years: rotating platforms, disappearing platforms, jump pads, doors on timed switches, spinning lasers, boss fights with glowing weak spots...
As I flicked switch after switch and roly-polyed through each generic challenge, the game's early levels and that glorious GIF felt like a distant memory. My Friend Pedro does let you realise the fantasy of conducting a bullet symphony while hanging upside down from a zipline, but like most fantasies, it doesn't survive past the initial rush of blood to the head.