12th Dec 2019 | 288 views
Game: Michigan: Report from Hell.
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Voice acting in videogames has been a staple since the late 90s. While there were examples of voice acting before that, the release of improved hardware in the form of the N64, the Sega Saturn and the PS1 allowed developers more horse power (and more importantly, memory space) to add this element to their projects. And, just like the transition from silent cinema to sound cinema, the addition of this element was not without friction. To be fair, voice acting was not as big of a leap as it was for cinema: many games could tell a long and compelling story without the need of voice acting, something that continues to this day. As such, not that many companies put that much effort into this uncharted feature. And when voice acting doesn’t get enough attention, you get… mixed results. Bad voice acting in videogames has been a staple of this period of time, and quite many games affected by this even managed to become hits despite this. Series like Resident Evil and Dynasty Warriors have been quite successful despite all the time it took for them to get decent voice acting, and even in more modern times, games like TES IV Oblivion are well regarded despite of (and in occasions because) the bad acting. Because of the charm of this kinds of games, some games are known at all just because of their voice acting. That’s how I first heard about Michigan: Report from Hell.
I thought it would be a fun distraction for a while, beating a relatively short game whilst playing bigger games. It should be a bit of fun, right?
Little did I know it would become one of the most frustrating, boring and maddening videogames I’ve ever played. And yet it was captivating enough to get me to beat it to the very end…
But let’s start from the beginning. Michigan: Report from Hell is a first person simulator/horror game created by Grasshopper Manufacture, released for the PS2 and published by Spike Co. in 2004 in Japan and by 505 Game Street in 2005 in EU. It’s odd that it was never released in the US, considering it is fully translated to English. Also, for this review I’ve played the game on an emulator, since the game is ridiculously rare at this point. To be fair, I’ve not found any errors during my playthrough that could be caused by the emulation process, but it’s still fair to point it out. Also, I’m going to spoil a lot of things, so be aware.
The premise of the game is simple enough. You are an unnamed reporter working for ZaKa T.V., part of a conglomerate called ZaKa Group. You and your team were sent to investigate a strange phenomenon, a heavy fog has set in in the city of Chicago. And yes, Michigan: Report from Hell takes place in Chicago. Even though Chicago is located in the State of Illinois, not Michigan. To be fair, they could be referencing the Michigan Lake, but you never get close to the lake, you’re always in the city, or around the city, but never go to the lake. So why call it that? Anyway, once there you discover that people seem to have disappeared, and the ones left are turning into horrible, flesh eating monsters. Now your job is to report what’s happening there, try to get in contact with other co-workers who were sent there before you, and try to piece together the mystery of what’s really going on.
The gameplay is even simpler. You have a 1st person camera view, and you record everything that happens. You have little interaction with anything, only able to push things, sort-of open doors (another reporter must help you to open doors, for some reason) and focus on important elements in the background, just like in a point and click game, only with less interactivity. You can also focus on the enemies the reporter will shoot at, though why don’t they just shoot by themselves is a mystery to me. If you don’t show them where the monsters are, even when they are right in front of them, they will just let themselves be killed by the equivalent of small fleshy cockroaches. You can crouch, but it only affects the type of score you get, otherwise it’s pointless. Sometimes you’ll get a cutscene warning you of incoming danger to your reporters, and you can choose to help or not, all by just pushing a button. And that’s it. The game is consistently on rails during the entire playthrough, with other small things appearing here and there to try to break the monotone, which rarely work. This is pretty much an early walking simulator, which would be fine if it had enough meat around the limited gameplay, but it never has.
The game scores all of your actions with three kinds of points: suspense points, which are the basic points you get from just regular recording, erotic points, which you get from getting “risqué” shots and find random porn magazines and computers showing internet porn, and immoral points, when you hurt or record your reporters getting attacked instead of helping them. These only really matter for the ending, which there are four (the back of the box promises five, but there are only four, so I guess this is a mistake of the box?). I’ll talk about the endings later, but suffice to say, the points system is pretty much inconsequential for anything else. The other element that might change the story is the choice of news reporter. You’ll find different news reporters, and if one of them dies, another one takes her place. Again, this only affects dialogue and certain, very specific points, in the end the story doesn’t change.
And that’s where the game nosedives. Because the writing is utter nonsense. The story is pretty much a discount version of a Resident Evil game, with all of the mutant monsters and the talks of viruses. It is rather obvious from the beginning the game wants to be just like those games, but while those games usually have a decent story to string you along, this has… nothing. Seriously, it’s amazing the amount of nothing this game has. You’ll find entire levels that tell you absolutely nothing of relevance about the story or the characters, you’ll just wait for them to start talking to you or to each other, say utter nonsense, and move on. The dialogue is fascinating. Never mind the terrible acting, that’s charming after a while (Brisco’s “Oh my GoOoOoOoD!” is pretty much the quote that embodies this whole game), but the character’s dialogue, and what they do with it, it’s to be seen to be believed. Their behavior is so far from any normal human behavior it goes right into the uncanny valley. And this will happen in the middle of a long period of nothing happening. You’ll be bored out of your mind, they’ll say or do something ridiculous out of nowhere (saving a fellow co-worker from a monster? Fuck that, let’s talk about how much Brisco wanted a big fridge when he was a child!), make you question what the fuck’s going on, and then right back to nothing happening. Then they’ll also start rambling about why are all this is happening, pulling facts out of their asses and reaching conclusions that make you question whether you’ve missed something before. But this isn’t limited to your crew. Other characters will act like they aren’t human, even those who aren’t infected with the virus. In particular the chief of ZaKa T.V. is a rather sinister character due to how manipulative she’s portrayed as, but due to how voice acting works in this game, she sounds as the most obliviously evil woman ever. The dialogue between Brisco, the news reporter and the chief is amazing, because you know what they were going for, a manipulative woman that speaks her way into sending the main characters into danger, despite the fact they were pretty adamant on leaving the city. But because the dialogue is a mess, it feels utterly unnatural, and by just saying a couple of small things, she gets them to risk their lives again. Not sure what’s worse, her obliviously evil acting, or the fact that it works on the main characters. Other highlights include the typical infected doctor who talks about how inferior all humans are to him, yet he’s defeated by alcohol and rave music (not making this up), and the characters take wayyyy longer than they should have to realize this guy was evil, with all of the “what are you talking about?” questions to pad out the dialogue. My favorite what the fuck character is the last infected running around in the airport. Not only he has some of the most amazing bad voice acting in the game that has quite terrible voice acting, not only he acts like a child maniac, but when he inevitably dies, it turns out he was the source of the fog this whole time! What?? How does that work?? And also, that technically counts as the final boss, so it basically dies by itself, without having to do a thing. Great finale.
The game will constantly try to misdirect you, as if the story here was so deep and intricate that in needs some red herrings to keep the shocks of discovery fresh. They will constantly tease you with things like ghosts or aliens, which to be honest managed the only real scare of the game for me, and I’m sure the way it happened wasn’t intentional. Yet the characters will barely react to this, focusing on so many other insignificant details it’s maddening.
The library level in particular deserves a mention in this: they receive a tip that an old employee is trapped within the old library, so they go rescue him. And instead of just going to him, the characters decide to make a live report on how libraries work! So much time is spent describing how do libraries work, how sad this old place is abandoned, and other kinds of dramatic fluff that, while part of drama TV, doesn’t distract from the fact you’re there to save someone, possibly starving and/or in danger by the monsters! By the time the drama of the library ends, you find the most inept puzzle attempt to a puzzle ever. Finally, some gameplay that doesn’t revolve around just watching stuff, right? Well, not exactly. See, you have to crack a four digit code to open the door where he’s in, and you also find a note detailing a number of things. Easy enough, find those things, figure out the number equivalent for each of them, and punch it in. But because of the low quality graphics and font choice, one of the clues you have can easily be misinterpreted. A low case “e=3” can easily be interpreted as low case “c=3” if the game’s detail isn’t good enough, so I had that number wrong. But it ended up not mattering at all, since, if you fail the code twice in a row, Brisco will tell you the exact code! If you knew the code why didn’t just say it from the beginning!? The one puzzle this game has, and it gives the answer away immediately. And once you finally open the door, the guy is dead, killed by a monster! And it’s not like he was dead before they arrived, he was seen alive in the security cameras right before! Jeez, if only they hadn’t taken so much time with the VT drama and making me figure out the code you already knew, we could’ve rescued him! It’s probably the worst designed level for this kind of game I’ve played. It would’ve probably been better to let the reporter be killed by the flesh cockroaches. That’s because, if one of the reporters dies, the level immediately ends, jumping to the next level with a new reporter, and thus missing out on all of the “information” that could be obtained in the lost levels. This means that the game can be quickly beaten if you just let the team die, but on the other hand, it would mean actually refusing to act in an already quite passive game, so why would you do that? To finish the game faster? I wouldn’t blame you if that was the reason, though. If you don’t get the plot, you’d better make sure you protect your reporters, but all of the possible knowledge you might get is nonsense anyway, so...
And then, after all of the shenanigans, we get to the ending/s, right after patient zero goes kaboom. And they are… disappointing. They game will end with practically all plot points unresolved. Why is ZaKa Co. making the virus? Where is everyone in the city? Were they killed or evacuated? What does the ZaKa TV chief know? Why does she send so many reporters to the city? How does the fog work? How are you able to report live without any major broadcasting equipment? Was there really a military rescue plane to come to our aid? Does a vaccine really exist? All of this questions are left unanswered, and the ending only causes some more. And while I’ve had no qualms on making spoilers, you really should see the endings for yourself. I think this follows a similar logic to J.J. Abrams’ “mystery box”, basically leaving details unanswered to make the viewers fill the gaps with their imagination. And that’s just… quackery, in my honest opinion. Sure, no one can know 100% of the elements of a story, but when you leave so many plot points unanswered, it doesn’t feel like a deep and complicated mystery, it feels like no one bothered to write them right, or they just wanted to get people to think everything’s mysterious to increase the fear factor. It feels style over substance, but in this case, there’s not that much style and even less substance to go around, so it all just crashes down.
But let’s leave the story aside in a game that’s pretty much all story, how’s the rest of the game? Not good. Graphics are ugly and low quality even for a budget PS2 title, with uninteresting location designs. The color palette is also rather dull, with either all shades of grey or puke brown. There’s not a single level that stands out for its design, it looks like any other generic city, office building, house… Some of the levels are too big for their own good, the train station being the worst example of this, so big and full of fog you get easily lost in there. The whole game has a high amount of fog, even within buildings, which in other games has been used to great effect. But in this, the fog pretty much amounts to nothing, considering most of the time we’re indoors and we still have to deal with it. Not to mention your FOV is rather short once the fog gets really dense, which makes sense, but if the reporter starts running into the fog, you might just lose sight of her, since you can’t run, only walk. And because the enemies are so rare in the game, and when they appear you usually can see them rather well, the fog doesn’t add tension or any sense of danger. They saw that Silent Hill used fog to great effect and just replicated it wholesale, without really understanding how or why it worked. The monster design could be described as low quality Resident Evil or Parasite Eve. Like they were going for those designs, but they just stopped mid design and just made blobs of flesh or tentacles coming out of people for the most part. The animation is pathetic. Their movement is so static and their faces barely move or show emotion. Talking breaks down to a small movement loop, and considering you need to focus on the characters while they talk to get the points, it becomes grating. Fast. Music? Forget about it, there is barely any track in the game, most of it is silent, which helps to enhance the awful sound design. Remember those sound cues that most horror media has, like the sudden violin? Yeah, those are in the game, and they are used in completely inappropriate moments, making you expect something that never comes, deflating the “tension” entirely.
Finally, we arrive at the extras. Throughout the levels, you will find scattered videotapes, and, once you’ve finished the story, you can watch them. In theory, they add more elements to help you piece together the story, which should be a great incentive. In reality, they only show one of the news reporters doing a sexy dance. Wait, what? Both the “secret” and the “movie theater” show the exact same sexy dances, so why have two options? Turns out that there’s a glitch in the EU version that blocks the actual story relevant secrets, and you can’t see them without using emulator exploits! How was this allowed? Did this pass any basic quality control? This is not a glitch from a rare and improbable combination of player action and location, this is a basic feature of the game! And even those videos tell you squat about the story, only giving you more questions and teasing that one of the reporters might not be innocent in all of this! And what’s the point of the sexy dance? What did it add to the game? Why is it there? WHY??
Also, there are extra costumes for the characters to replay the game with them. But why would you do that after all of the above?
Michigan: Report from Hell is amazing. It’s a failure in every sense of the word. Nonsense story, absurd dialogues, awful world design, nonexistent horror, basic mechanics that fail to make a mark, an atmosphere that’s ruined by nothing happening for long periods of time, little to no music, half-assed animation, pointless and broken extras… I’m trying to think what this game makes right, because the concept was good, it was just completely unutilized. It feels like no one cared about it. Considering I learned about it due to its bad voice acting, I understand why this game was buried and forgotten. Its silly voice acting is the only redeemable quality it has, and that’s only by accident. Otherwise, this game has no value.
At the very least I can appreciate that Grasshopper Manufacture, the makers of this game, got much, much better making games, which is the idea I decide to close this with.