The Missing: J.J. Macfield and The Island of Memories is the debut return of Japanese auteur Hidetaka “Swery65” Suehiro and his brand new studio, White Owls. Infamously known for his strange and bizarre experiences such as the notorious murder-mystery Deadly Premonition, and the (unfortunately) cancelled time-hopping adventure thriller D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die, Swery has made a name for himself with off-the-wall gameplay ideas, Twin Peaks-inspired weirdness, and a paradoxically prevailing aura of warmth and comfort in spite of flat and dated production values.
And that is still the case here with The Missing. What appears to be a straightforward puzzle-platformer with an admittedly ghastly gimmick slowly unravels into a tale about anxiety, fear, and working through pain to attain happiness.
Also a moose-headed guy in a doctor’s coat.
What Doesn’t Kill Me….
The Missing opens with lead character JJ Macfield and her close friend Emily traveling to a mysterious island for a camping trip. After a few sweet scenes together, JJ wakes up in the night to see that Emily has gone missing. During her looking for Emily however, things get strange fast. The weather becomes more chaotic, the sky a churning storm of dark reds and swirling clouds. It finally ends with JJ being struck by lightning and dying.
Then the aforementioned mooseheaded doctor guy shows up, does some weird magic stuff, and brings JJ back to life.
Yes, this is The Missing’s first ten minutes. The set-up alone is not exactly original when it comes to platformer plots – move to the right, jump over stuff and save the damsel in distress has been a thing for decades now – but then the game throws a curveball with its radical unique selling point of dying and regeneration.
As you play through the game, JJ will come across obstacles that will damage or even kill her, and while normally these are things to be avoided, getting hurt is a key part of solving many of the game’s puzzles. For example, there are some spikes nearby and a big ditch in your way. Getting over the spikes is no problem, but the ditch is too wide to jump. But there happens to be a box hanging in a tree above you that can shorten that gap. So you run into the spikes, causing JJ to lose her arm. You then pick up the severed arm with your free one and throw it at the box to knock it lose, then hold down a button so JJ can regrow her limb and continue on.
It’s an idea that isn’t exactly new in videogames, the godawful zombie action game Neverdead took a crack strategically dismembering yourself with abysmal results, but The Missing makes it work thanks to clever puzzle design and blunting the gruesomeness with savvy stylistic decisions. The challenges become more sophisticated as you progress, which makes each new location and puzzle more brainteasing than just lopping off an arm here and there.
There’s a particular sequence early on in a construction yard that is notably surreal. By throwing JJ into some swinging wrecking balls, and therefore breaking her neck, the entire level gets turned upside down. At first it seems like a visual shorthand for JJ having her head messed up, except objects in the environment react to the changing physics and shift in gravity, making the otherwise daunting puzzles tantalizing. There are also sequences where you have to strategically light yourself on fire, but they’re not as dynamically interesting as the above-mentioned perspective shifting cranial trauma.
This doesn’t mean nothing can permanently put you down however. There are obstacles that will complete reduce JJ to a fine mist if you’re not careful, and there are sequences you have to roll around as a severed head. If that gets destroyed, game over.
If this reads at all like the game would be hard to stomach, watching the main heroine go through so much pain over and over again, the developers agree. Any time JJ gets seriously hurt in The Missing, any blood splatter is colored white, and her character model fades to a black silhouette. There is still some nasty sound effects and screams of anguish from the protagonist, but there’s enough visual distance from things unfolding that it doesn’t feel exploitative or mean-spirited.
Yap Yap Yap
Thankfully, The Missing has a bit more going under the hood than just body horror puzzle-platforming and surreal imagery. Every single chapter of the game is broken up by mysterious text messages sent to JJ’s cellphone. In addition to “real-time” messages being sent to her by her stuffed animal toy, F. K. (it’s a magical island just roll with it), there are also archived messages you can read. It’s mostly backstory stuffed in the margins, but it paints a fascinating picture of JJ as a brilliant but still young college student with a few skeletons in her closet.
It’s the closest thing to a side plot or B-story that The Missing has, but it uses the format of smart phone messages, using custom sprites and emojis to great effect.
It’s also tied to the game’s collectible Sleepy Donuts. These sugary doodads are scattered throughout the game, and collecting them unlocks additional archived messages as well as unlockable outfits for JJ to wear. I’m not usually one for locking character or world details behind optional side activities in games, but The Missing manages to keep everything at a steady dripfeed of reasonable challenge and reward.
Not Fully There
Sadly, as much as I enjoy a lot in The Missing, it doesn’t fully come together as an unusual but beloved cult classic like Swery’s other projects. The most pedantic issue that comes to mind is how the game treats checkpoints and loading prior saves. While you are never too far away from where you last died, sometimes key items you need will just vanish or the game will just glitch out.
I remember having to get through a dark cavern area while on fire, avoiding water in order to use my flaming body to burn down the wooden barrier at the exit. Then I put the game down and came back some time later, reloading my save. Except now my fire source was gone and JJ had somehow melded into the wall. I had to completely restart the entire chapter from scratch. There are other moments where this happened for me and they never failed to take the wind out of my sails.
Also, a lot of Swery’s trademark off-beat oddity is here, but it feels thinly spread. Clearly there are supernatural elements on the island, a recurring set piece is you running away from a long-haired ghost woman brandishing a giant knife for example, but they are introduced in small crucial moments throughout the game. Otherwise, the whole thing is just you going from location to location with barely any semblance of continuity. It hurts twice as much considering artistic puzzle-platformer has become the bread and butter of smaller indie devs for the past decade or so, and this game does barely enough to stand out from the crowd.
I couldn’t help but shake the idea that if the game was shorter, with a tighter focus, and a reduced price point – as much as I love this guy’s work thirty bucks is a bit much – The Missing could have been a shot in the arm of an experience. This isn’t to mean that the game is a complete waste of time, the ending alone is surprisingly powerful and is sure to resonate with certain players out there. But a few levels cut here, a bit more focus on JJ and Emily’s chemistry there, and the whole thing could have really worked as an alternative take on a well-worn formula.
If you’ve been waiting for a return to glory for Swery65, The Missing is definitely worth your time. It might be the most conventional experience carrying his name in recent memory, but even then it will stick in your head. Whether it will be from the audacity of figuring out how to chop yourself in half to avoid some twirling death machine, or from the surreal nature of the unraveling narrative, it’s a truly unique experience worth your time.