Reviewed: June 30, 2006
Released: June 13, 2006
Digital delivery of books is not a new technology and it won’t be long before you will likely be able to download your daily paper to some digital tablet each morning as you drink your cup of coffee. While recreating text content is relatively simply, Konami has taken the next logical step and created a graphical novel (or comic book) for the PSP. And rather than just delivering a straightforward literally experience, they’ve made the comic interactive and based it on what is arguably one of the most famous video game heroes in the Konami stable of characters.
The Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel is the first in what I personally hope to be a long string of interactive comics. It takes one of my favorite franchises and targets one of my favorite PS One games (Metal Gear Solid), and explores the events of that timeline in infinitely more detail than the original game (or even the GameCube remake) could go into.
Gamers should probably be warned right up front – there isn’t much of a “game” here, at least by our expected definition of gaming. The Digital Graphic Novel is basically a comic book that you keep on your PSP instead of rolled up in your back pocket. The UMD loads right into the VR Simulation mode of the Metal Gear experience. This is the core component of the game and is basically a page-by-page comic book you can either automate as a slideshow or page through manually.
There are two other modes you can explore; the Mental Search and Memory Building Simulation. All three modes cleverly intertwine to create a rich and engaging experience, both as a reader and an interactive puzzle-solver.
With virtually no conventional gameplay to be found I’ll use this section to explain how the Digital Graphic Novel works. As previously mentioned, you can read the comic manually or as a slideshow. It’s about a two-hour read to get through the hundreds of pages of static and animated panels. I when I say “read” I mean read. Other than a few verbal sound effects like laughing and groans there is no speech in the presentation.
While “gamers” will likely want to dive right into the Mental Search mode and start exploring each panel for hidden content I strongly encourage you to just read the book through the first time and enjoy the story. While performing meticulous pixel hunts is a great way to extend the value of this title, it really hurts the flow of the story if you try to play and read at the same time.
Hopefully, after you have finished the story the first time you can then go back and re-read it on manual page-flip mode. Now you can hit the square button on any page and zoom and pan around each panel, sometimes even going “into” the pages to reveal hidden images and previous panels beneath the surface art. It reminded me very much of the photo analysis scene in Blade Runner, only you get to do it a few hundred times.
This engaging scavenger hunt for icons and items (known as Memory Elements) has a clever interface that starts with a targeting cursor that spins faster as you get close to hidden elements. Part of this interface also includes a graph that shows you where hidden elements are located within the sequence of pages. This is handy for detecting objects on the current page as well as picking up on ones you may have missed or ones to expect in upcoming pages.
Finding all of these memory elements can be a daunting task, especially when you look as the massive grid of blocks that indicate the current status of elements for the entire book. I’ve logged at least 5-6 additional hours after the initial read just to find memory elements and I still have about 50-60 left to go, but there is a reason for this; the third game mode.
Using the Memory Building Simulation you take previously discovered elements and construct an expanding matrix of events in an interface that looks like a DNA sequencer. As you combine the necessary elements you will unlock new branches in the matrix and the story giving you new material to explore in the VR mode. This mode can get quite complicated and even a bit frustrating at times since combining incorrect elements can break the matrix and force you to explore previous matches to find your error.
Art is a very subjective experience so it is hard for me to make blanket statements regarding the quality of Ashley Wood’s artwork. At times the visuals approach near-CG quality while some panels look like hastily drawn charcoal storyboards for a movie production. There is a lot of monochromatic work given some parts of the story a Frank Miller feel, and then you have some really good animation effects with sliding panels and multi-layered artwork that does this cool animation effect.
As the old saying goes, “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like” and I really like the visuals in Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel. It’s certainly not a colorful as what most comic book readers would expect, but the color pallets and eclectic blend of art styles really fit with the theme of the story material, and when colors are used (rarely) they really pop off the page.
Kudos to the design team for not only using the traditional comic font but also making sure it was highly legible, often punching it up with shaded boxes and positioning it on the screen to indicate who is talking. I was also pleased that even when on slideshow mode there was ample time to read everything. If you do read fast you can push on through the dialogue bubbles and the pages with the X button.
There is some great Metal Gear music here that revisits many of the popular themes most MGS fans will instantly recognize. There is also plenty of original score to accompany much of the story with plenty of cues that accent the on-screen “action”.
The rest of the sound package mostly consists of professional quality sound effects used to enhance key moments of the story. There isn’t any dialogue although a few grunts, groans, and evil laughter make it into the mix.
You can get through the book in 2-3 hours and spend at least three times that finding all of the Memory Elements and reconstruction the memory matrix to uncover new plot threads and flashbacks. It’s probably a bit too daunting for all but the most diehard of Metal Gear fans, but at least you have options beyond the initial read.
Thankfully, this title is only $20. Anything more would have been a hard sale, but given the rising cost of conventional books (that aren’t animated and have a soundtrack) this is a fair price for what is a totally unique product.
Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel is not only a cool concept for digital delivery of interactive fiction, it will hopefully pioneer a complete new product line and give the PSP a greater edge in the handheld marketplace. I know I certainly wouldn’t mind experiencing more adventures of Snake or even other characters like Sam Fisher or Lara Croft in graphic novel form.
If you love the Metal Gear franchise and want to delve even deeper into the events of Shadow Moses, then this is one PSP disc you can’t live without. It’s likely to become one of those rare titles that pioneered a new genre and will be greatly in demand someday. For me, it was a fresh and inventive way to experience a stunning graphic novel.