Wednesday, 3 July 2013

One Piece Mansion

Why do we play stressful games? I find this sort of question is both easy to answer and still a bit puzzling. Of course stress can help to give a sense of accomplishment to completing a game's challenges - giving the player adrenaline enough to feel as if they've just made it, just managed to get through and time everything perfectly. But it still seems strange to me to fill  one's past-time with, not just adrenaline, but irritation, frustration, and sometimes breathless moments of panic. One Piece Mansion, a PS1 oddity I recently found in a 2nd hand games shop, seems to courts this type of stress like it were the essence of life. One Piece Mansion (which strangely has no affiliation with the Manga and anime series One Piece) is a puzzle/management game which, to all intents and purposes, is driving me mad.

The game centres around the blindingly original concept of managing a block of flats in which the tenants' happiness must be maintained in order to gain more rent. In this respect the game reminds me quite a bit of the Theme games - Theme Park, Hospital, Aquarium - but with a much more rudimentary, puzzle based mechanic. When a level starts the player character, Polpo - a kind of devilish looking child landlord -, has several tenants already living there. When more tenants become available the player has to build more rooms and gain more money by introducing more tenants. There are however two issues to obstruct Polpo's success.

The first and most understandable one is also that which gives the game it's most interesting dynamic, that is: not all tenants are good cohabiters. Tenants can either radiate good energy - such as the character Al-Chan whose "smile makes everyone happy" - which is represented by green arrows, or they can radiate bad energy - such as Garchanko: "the rumble of his gigantic body stresses out the people around him" - which is represented by red arrows. Some of the tenants change depending on their stress levels, as with Drimmi, a character whose stress level determines whether he radiates good or bad energy. The role of the player is to make sure that the tenants don't get too stressed out. This has to be achieved through management of where each resident lives and constantly moving people around is key to making sure that they don't get too stressed out and leave (or, in fact, blow up).

The great thing about this idea is that, for a puzzle game, it really communicates a sense of community spirit. While of course the player wants all their tenants to be like Al-Chan, "the sweat-heart", the game forces you to accommodate for all their different personalities; each one just as important as the others. So when you find Garchanko getting pissed off at some other noisy housemate you can't simply let them move out, you have to look out for their interests too. Even if they might be unpopular within the block as a whole. It's all actually rather beautiful....

The second obstruction to Polpo's  financial and societal success are (as you've probably guessed) an evil race of alien criminals known as Sector 5. They turn up every now and then and it's up to Polpo to evict them. But how does one evict an evil race of criminal aliens? Cleverly the game reverses the one thing you're been trying to avoid all along: you must piss the aliens off so much that they can take it no more and have to move out/blow up. It's a great idea - that a game's central mechanic is used for both good and bad. This is also where those annoying, loud, obnoxious flatmates really come in handy. Surround the aliens with them - while keeping them happy - and you easily flush out the smaller alien invaders.
However the game quickly piles on the tension and multitasking becomes mandatory to stay on top of all your tenants' needs and anxieties. The invading aliens also have the annoying habit of leaving their rooms to pester/set fire to the other occupants' rooms. When this happens the player has to switch to 'Security' mode and actually control Polpo around the block in order to scare the aliens back to their rooms and put out any fires they may have started. This therefore requires the player to keep an eye out for these dramatic moments while also keeping eye on the macro level of the entire flat.

A couple of levels in and it becomes one of the most hectic puzzles games I've ever played. Strangely however there are also moments of quietness to the gameplay. If you've dealt with all the current aliens and everyone's doing fine you can sit back and enjoy the cute - if somewhat low-res (even for the PS1) - animations of each of the game's numerous characters. But soon enough the aliens are back and Polpo's world becomes a stressful mixture of shifting residents and running frantically to send the aliens back to their rooms! It's all pretty comical really. But at the centre of the game is a really intuitive look at communities through the mechanics of a puzzle game. The idea is to keep everyone happy - even if they're wildly annoying. Because of course, as it is in real communities, these are the guys you need when aliens invade.

 This game is therefore stressful but not un-thoughtful. It delivers the kind of multitasking which you can feel making your brain stronger. There are moments where, amidst the chaos, you just have to take a second and think - right, what do I have to do here. The more I think about the game the more it reminds me of Theme Hospital. This also comes across in the way the game balances these management puzzles with idiosyncratic characters and animations. The game also includes an 'Endless Mode', which, while it can seriously eat your evenings, seems to lack the stress/release structure of the main campaign and generally always ends in a tornado of exploding tenants. One Piece Mansion is a brilliant and pretty unique little puzzle game which, if we lived in a perfect world of peace, love and serenity, would be re-released on tablets - it would suit it so well! But as we don't, if you've got a PS1 or 2, and a couple of pounds to spare, I would definitely recommend it. 

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