Project Minerva

Conventional wisdom states that you need to spend some time with a videogame, really dig in there, in order to review it. Most days I’m with conventional wisdom on that one: just not today. Lately, I played Project Minerva for a few hours, and it committed so many unpardonable sins out of the gate that I was already writing the review in a corner of my mind from the first moments of the game. I couldn’t help it. My brain needed some kind of other stimulus to make the time go by faster, as the heroine plodded, hunched over, across an endless grassy plain.

Before the game has even properly started, an uncanny valley effect hits: in the opening video you’ll notice that the heroine looks much more human than everybody around her. This is a D3 Publisher joint from 2001, early in the PS2’s life. Though D3 had not yet figured out the whole “Simple Series” business that would bring them to success, the production values are certainly on the same level as that series. Bare-minimum character models dance the robot through every animation and cutscene.

The standout exception to this is the M-16-packing girl in fatigues, of whom the camera is very fond: the opening video consists mostly of closeups of her unusually detailed face between quick cuts back to the other, much uglier characters jerking back and forth. It’s jarring, and it’s something you’ll be seeing a lot of. As it turns out, this game was actually a promotional vehicle for a Japanese celebrity. Here, I’ll even send you to Wikipedia: her name is Norika Fujiwara. There were probably better ways to reach the masses.

When you start up the game proper, there’s an opening credits sequence that can’t be skipped. There are only two names, though: Ms. Fujiwara as “planner and star”, and that of the director, Akinobu ABe (yes, spelled like the otaku-favorite artist Yoshitoshi ABe: relation or just style-biting?). This is not a game I would brag about having made, and it’s a little baffling– though perhaps understandable with an celeb-related project– that the game is so proud of itself.

After this tiniest dash of hubris, the game tutorial begins, and it’s a doozy. Project Minerva is a defective squad-based shooter. The box promises realism, and the game delivers a bunch of AI-controlled robots running in random directions (everybody has the same hunched-over SWAT-style run animation) across a barren plain.

All the maps I played were typical search-and-destroy missions, and to this end your squad is completely useless as they scramble in straight lines on the battlefield, making regular 45-degree turns and often running in squares. There’s no such luxury as a simple map in this game, and combined with the desolate environments you’re left nearly as clueless and desperate as your stupid machine compatriots.

The user interface is actually designed with the uselessness of the AI in mind, as the player is forced to “mark” every enemy as a red dot on the radar so that the squad members– who apparently have eyes but cannot see independently– know where they are. Only two squad commands exist: “fight” and “search”, and there appears to be little difference between them.

The only enemy I saw in my few hours of play was the “android”, whose robotic appearance is supposed to cover for the fact that he moves and acts in exactly the same manner as your own squad mates. Actually firing at anything requires you to stop and aim, so the only strategy is to make sure you deal with them one at a time and run away if you suddenly find a lot of laser sights suddenly converging on your character.

There’s only slightly more variation in the maps themselves than in the enemies. Upon finding a stage that took place inside of an industrial building full of narrow balconies and stairways, I was nearly excited… until, of course, I realized that most of the maps are flat and empty (with invisible walls at the edges) for a reason.

This game’s squad AI cannot deal with obstacles of any kind. In one stage, I found my squad-mates gathered at the bottom of a tall hill, firing intently at it. Of course, the enemy really was on the other side, just staring at the hill. When I got to the building level, my squad-mates helpfully ran underneath the balcony snipers and fired away at the impenetrable metal that separated them. This was about the point at which I put the game down altogether.

What awaited me? Well, killing androids gets the player money and experience points: the latter make her rifle do more damage (RPG logic, you know) and the former can be used to buy new outfits– of course there’s an “ogle heroine” mode!– and guns. After five or six missions, the game had only made one of its many guns available for purchase, and the price was ludicrous. This game expects you to spend quite a lot of time farming android corpses in the wastes.

There is a story somewhere in here– I saw a cutscene or two after finishing certain levels– but after a few stages of this I just didn’t care at all. This pseudo-action-movie bullshit in the cutscenes couldn’t be taking place further from where this gimped game of hide and seek actually was.

D3 would eventually make this kind of thing work, when they realized they needed to bring the game’s quality up to C-grade and bring the price down by $40. A somewhat fixed version of this game, Project Minerva Professional, would later appear in the Simple series itself. Even as a $5 used title at Book-Off, though, Project Minerva is an unmitigated disaster. Project Minerva Professional came out in English in the UK, but I suspect there’s no hidden gem waiting past the language barrier and underneath the bugs here: just a shitty game.

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