The Missing Review – Lost And Found. The games of Hidetaka Suehiro (better known as Swery) impart a distinctly identifiable creative vision. He revels in grounding you in the mundane before throwing you off balance with a moment of absurd humor or plunging you into a sequence of fantastical horror. Before you know it, that ground has opened up and swallowed you whole. The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories feels smaller and less ambitious than his most recent works, Deadly Premonition or D4, but it could not be mistaken for anything other than a Swery game. At heart, it is a 2D platformer akin to Limbo or Inside that alternates between ambiguous narrative beats with frequently macabre puzzles, wrapped in a creeping sense of dread. As a puzzle-platformer, it succeeds in testing your timing and your wits despite a couple of overly finicky sections. As a story, it deftly explores themes of teen sexuality and identity with a rare tenderness, though it would ultimately be better served by a guiding hand that wasn’t quite so determined to have a big late-game reveal.
You play as J.J. Macfield, a first-year college student living away from both home and the prying eyes of a loving yet conservative mother. On a holiday break, J.J. goes on a camping trip with best friend Emily, who goes missing during the night, spurring J.J. to set off and find her. J.J.’s search takes place on the small Memoria Island off the coast of Maine, whose indigenous name translates, appropriately enough, as “the place to find the lost.” Even though it is set on the opposite side of the continent to Deadly Premonition, The Missing sees Swery return to quaint, semi-rural American landscapes where J.J. will travel through fields dotted with windmills, a sawmill, a lonely diner in the middle of nowhere, a bowling alley on a small-town strip mall, a dilapidated church, a highly exaggerated clock tower, and so on.
Progress is made through navigating simple platforming obstacles, solving not-so-simple physics and environmental puzzles, and occasionally running the gauntlet of dramatic action sequences. An early puzzle sees you using rocks to counterweight a see-saw so J.J. can use it to reach a higher passageway, and indeed, there’s a real weight and physicality to J.J.’s movement that helps support core narrative concerns gradually revealed across the course of the game. Control isn’t instantly responsive, and when performing basic actions like jumping or turning around you have to wait for animations to complete before continuing. J.J. can also transition between standing upright, crouching on all fours, and lying prone in order to traverse, and it understandably takes longer to reorient yourself when flat on your belly than when standing on two feet. This weight makes you feel like you’re controlling an actual human body that doesn’t necessarily behave in the manner you would like it to–again reinforcing those narrative themes–but also comes into play with how you go about solving various puzzles.
Early on, J.J. inherits the ability to survive incidents that would otherwise kill you. Fall too far, for example, and you’ll land with a sickening crunch. But you won’t die–you’ll get back up and continue on as a dark, shadow version of J.J., only with, say, a broken neck leaving you dazed and staggering. Lose a leg and J.J. resorts to hopping around and inevitably falling over, severely restricting your movement. Lose your arms and J.J. can no longer pick up objects or climb.
This grotesque mechanic informs a number of the game’s puzzles–fail to crouch under a spinning buzzsaw and J.J. might be decapitated. You’ll control J.J.’s head, rolling along the ground, and now able to squeeze into otherwise inaccessible crevices. Certain high impact “deaths” result not only in such injuries but flip the entire world upside down, sending J.J. tumbling to the ceiling along with any other objects affected by gravity. At any time, though, you can return this shadow version of J.J. back to original human form–limbs fully re-attached, neck un-snapped, world no longer upside down–thus ending the thematic body horror show and, more prosaically, allowing you to quickly retry that jump you missed or puzzle you mishandled. It is possible to actually die–hurling your decapitated head onto yet another spike trap will do it. But this simply resets you back to the last checkpoint, typically only a few minutes away at the start of the current puzzle section.
The Missing extracts a lot of mileage from this not-really-death mechanic. Together with the physicality of the platforming and the introduction of fire-, electricity- and water-based environmental interactions, puzzles are rarely too obvious and mostly satisfying to piece together. There were only two occasions when progress was halted by what felt like unfair means, where seemingly feasible puzzle solutions were overlooked by pedantic design, but these only make up a small number of the game’s challenges overall.