Contact review: Ground Control to Major Terry

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My personal experience with RPGs isn’t a particularly complicated history. It started when I played Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for the Game Boy Color in elementary school. At the time, I was pretty clueless about how exactly the game worked, which unintentionally made the game harder as a result, but I wasn’t deterred away from the genre. I’ve indulged in many different RPG titles since then and I’ve found it interesting how certain games manage to keep their mechanics distinctive. For example, both Dragon Quest VI and Final Fantasy VI have the core of turn-based RPGs, but manage to play out in completely different ways. Final Fantasy VI emphasizes using magic and characters’ special abilities in fights while Dragon Quest VI encourages players to keep a balanced party with the usage of job classes. On this topic of game mechanics, I took a look at Contact, a lesser-known RPG awash in its own variety of mechanics.

Contact was developed by Grasshopper Manufactures, best known for their action titles such as No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned and Killer is Dead, for the Nintendo DS in 2006.  However, Contact was not directed by Grasshopper Manufacture’s iconic CEO Goichi Suda (aka Suda51) but instead directed by Akira Ueda, who had previously worked on games such as Secret of Mana and Shining Soul.

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Not like you’re gonna give me another choice…

Contact starts off with the Professor, a mysterious scientist, greeting the player and asking them to tell him about themselves, such as their name and favorite food, in a method similar to EarthBound‘s character naming screen. Following the little discussion, the Professor ominously mentions that enemies are after him, and he is shown fleeing through space from antagonistic captors who call themselves the CosmoNOTS. During the chase, the Professor crash-lands on a random planet and runs into a young boy named Terry. Before he can explain himself, the attacks continue and the Professor pulls Terry aboard his ship for protection and tries to flee. Unfortunately, the Professor’s ship is damaged in the attack, forcing him to land on a deserted island. In order to repair his ship, the Professor recruits Terry to find fuel cells that are scattered on a variety of islands, while offering Terry shelter with the promise of returning him home in exchange. The Professor asks the player to watch over Terry and take care of him throughout his adventures.

The most striking aspect of Contact is its art style. According to Ueda, his team moved development of the game from the GBA to the DS because they wanted to take advantage of the DS’s screens for the game’s unique art direction. For most of the game, the top screen is used to display the Professor’s shenanigans in his lab using an isometric pixel style. As you progress through the story, the Professor will periodically make various comments on the top screen, sometimes concerning himself or his dog Mochi and sometimes commenting on Terry’s surroundings or status in fights. The bottom screen has a different art style, looking more like a classic SNES-era RPG with vibrant colors and a sort of “painted” art style. The unique art direction gives Contact a sense of distinctiveness amongst other RPG titles.

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Not pictured: enemies following you through multiple screens

Another aspect that surprised me about Contact was how varied the game’s mechanics were. For starters, the game’s level up/stat system is an uncommon departure from most RPGs. Instead of leveling up and having certain stats increase, each of Terry’s stats level up individually based on actions he takes in combat. For example, Terry’s defense stat increases as he is attacked by enemies, and his strength increases when he successfully hits on enemies. Terry’s stats also include a karma bar, which increases as you defeat enemies and decreases if you attack neutral NPC’s or animals, as well as his proficiencies with thievery, fishing, and cooking. The game provides a job class system through costumes Terry can obtain on his adventures that provide him with different powers; for instance, a ninja-themed outfit can let him shoot magic water projectiles or a racecar driver getup let’s him use ranged fire attacks (no, really). After saving the game (which involves letting Terry sleep in a bed on a literal pirate ship) you’ll be able to interact with the professor and his pet dog Mochi for a few minutes, and you can play with Mochi with the touchscreen which can make him stronger as a support character you can call on in battles. In general, Contact seems to take a mix of game mechanics from many other RPG’s and managed to blend it into one big game smoothie.

Unfortunately Contact‘s many mechanics sometimes come off as excessive and seem to appeal primarily to completionist players. For instance, the game gives you a lot of potential recipes that you can cook for healing items but at the end of the day it is more practical to stick to cooking potions for easy recovery. The dating sim-esque sidequests Contact provides are easily missable if you don’t backtrack to areas you’ve finished and requires a good deal of extraneous item farming to woo your potential bachelorettes. Even the job class-changing costumes seem a bit too much; I’m assuming the intent was to experiment with different costumes to find something that sorts your play style but the “knuckle mole” monk outfit you receive early in the game is arguably the most effective out of any of the costumes. Based on interviews I’ve read regarding the game’s development, Ueda intended for the game to be a long and huge adventure but the dearth of mechanics feels unfocused when other aspects of the game needed better polish…such as the battle system.

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Only about a third of this is really relevant.

Contact‘s battle system leaves a little to be desired. Combat with enemies is initiated in real time by hitting a button to enter battle mode and Terry can sneak up on certain enemies for a pre-emptive strike. In combat, Terry and his foe will exchange blows automatically and the status menu can be opened to cast magic, utilize special attacks or consume healing items. Unfortunately, the game’s battle system is prone to occasional glitchiness and design imbalances. Early on in the game, I found myself getting stuck in odd corners of the environment, completely unable to move while getting attacked by weak enemies. Additionally, it’s annoyingly easy for enemies to stunlock Terry to death if multiple enemies manage to attack him at once. There’s little you can do to get around the general clunkyness of the game’s battle mechanics, and it practically mandates stat grinding at certain points.

Pros: Unique artistic style that takes advantage of both DS screens. Varied and colorful designs for many in-game locations that break away from many design norms typical of a lot of RPG’s. Masafumi Takada’s soundtrack work is catchy and compliments the game’s environments. The game encourages experimentation with its job class equivalents and other gameplay aspects.

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All games need to have a cute pet sim while your character rests.

Cons: Game’s battle mechanics are unintuitive and prone to frustrating glitches and difficulty imbalances. Although the game tries to utilize many different mechanics to encourage players to experiment, many of them come off as excessive and unfocused.

Contact was published by Atlus in North America. Contact is a very unique hidden gem in Grasshopper Manufacture’s repertoire, but it is still very much a diamond in the rough that needs polishing. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the game, mainly because the game is shorter than your typical JRPG (it clocks in at about 15 hours if you aren’t attempting to collect every inventory item) and the game has a surprisingly heartwarming ending. People more adjusted to Grasshopper Manufacture’s quirky and violent action/beat-em-up faire might not get much out of Contact, but RPG fans who want something more experimental and unique might find  enjoyment in this odd little title.

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