If you’re still keeping up with RPG Maker horror games in 2016 (I know I am!), then first of all the two of us need a new hobby, and second of all you’ve probably heard that the twinkly lolita spectacle Pocket Mirror has finally been released, three years after its initial demo, and clocking in at around 6 hours, it’s an artistic behemoth. How does Pocket Mirror compare to games like Ib and The Witch’s House, which it credits as sources of inspiration? Well, since the good stuff about this game should be immediately obvious (spoiler alert: it’s the artwork), in this review I’ll do what I do best and focus on the bad stuff!
I am fun at parties.
Pocket Mirror is about a girl who wakes up in some sort of abandoned castle without a single memory of who she is or how she got there. Her journey throughout the strange dimension introduces her to a handful of entities who claim to be her friends but all seem to be hiding something. Determined to discover and stay true to herself, ???? Girl endures countless encounters with death, pumpkins, and a guy in a hat in order to solve the mystery of her lost identity.
It’s evident a great deal of effort was put into making this game, but unfortunately what holds it back from standing among the genre giants is an even greater deal of game design hiccups. While it’s usually clear what you’re supposed to be doing, how you’re supposed to go about it — and I mean this in a very basic, how-to-use-items-from-inventory sense — is rarely intuitive. I peeked at the quasi-official walkthrough fairly often. Especially when the wrong answer meant instant death and starting from a savepoint several puzzle rooms back, I quite simply didn’t have the patience.
I know Pocket Mirror had beta testers, but I think they were either too close of friends with the developers or didn’t know what they were supposed to be looking for. Yes, everything presentation-wise looks very polished, but the player consensus seems to be the game’s art assets are apparently way too ambitious for RPG Maker VX Ace (my game crashed five times. Yaaay :>), and seriously a few simple suggestions from a fresh set of eyes would have done this game a lot of good.
Too many of Pocket Mirror’s penalties are like your annoying 6-year-old cousin claiming you’ve lost when you weren’t even aware there was a game you were playing. “Haha, gotcha! GAME OVER!” it cries, like an invisible pop quiz. (No really though, that looping BGS track of girls laughing gets annoying fast.) But how I can lose if I’m never told the rules? Some puzzles are outright dirty tricks, like not being able to use a plank to cover up a gap in your path until you start a chase scene and can die while doing it. Why? At least include some kind of prompt like, “I can’t use the plank now. Where’s the drama in that?” so the idiots among us who thought it might have been a good idea earlier get the memo.
Living in the post-Undertale era (and I am really sorry for saying that like it’s a legitimate academic phrase), it’s really weird to be presented with Big Moral Choices™® where your only option is to either do the “bad” thing and expect the consequences or simply abstain from playing, because boy are you not getting anywhere if you don’t gouge a woman’s eye out.
I really, honestly don’t think anyone on this planet not involved in Pocket Mirror’s production could beat this game in one go. This is purely a test of lucky guessing, because there is literally no room for error.
Even during puzzle segments, correct choices rely on all sorts of sucker punch logic. If I’m expected to betray Mrs. Fox in the red world because she’s a murder fugitive (cuz otherwise gameover, lels!), why am I surprised when I bring her back to life that she is still a murder fugitive ten minutes later?
Why am I supposed to assume all shadow people are liars and do the exact opposite of what is said when one of them gives me a hint?
And then even if you survive the chases, solve the puzzles, and pick all the nice person choices, you can still wind up with your first Bad Ending two hours into the game, and if you’ve been saving every few rooms like the game tells you to, it’s back to the start you go. Bad End!! Had I not been peeking at a walkthrough throughout, I wouldn’t have even known I had done something wrong. And there were still two thirds of the story left to play.
I want to like Pocket Mirror so much, and it times I do, but when the creators ruin good ideas with bad execution, like when they include a minute of unmemorable walking between the last save point and an otherwise awesome mirror chase scene, it just makes me frustrated and unhappy, especially with all the inconsistent game-crashing RGSS3 bugs. Given the high ratio of tedium to genuine logical puzzles and fun, you would think this game was written before we had three decades’ worth of cultural experience with adventure puzzle games, not after.
I hate not being able to trust my intuiton. I hate knowing I will always be wrong and having it confirmed every time. I can solve riddles and logic puzzles, but when it comes to the character endings I never know what the right choices are, nor do I even know how to know what they are. They have no pattern that is discernable to me. It’s so satisfying to be able to trust an indie game to play nicely. I trust this isn’t a glitch. I trust that has a purpose. I trust I’m not being tricked. Not getting to do that, and I don’t get to very often, really sucks.
Can you understand how that feels? I don’t expect all the answers from a story told entirely in pictographs which cites Alice in Wonderland as one of its main reference point, but I can’t make life or death moral choices without any context of what the fuck is actually happening.
I don’t know these characters’ nuanced likes and dislikes just from witnessing them for five minutes in some state of violent mental illness. I made every wrong choice at every turn (alright, maybe except Lisette’s “good end” choices). I was always surprised by the right answer.
The worst part is that by act three our protagonist answers to everyone’s incredibly vague accusations like she’s finally caught on. It somewhat defeats the point of an amnesiac protagonist to have them suddenly privy to things before anything is explained to the audience.
The art and music keep up throughout; you might say by Lisette’s world they even start getting better. However, as Pocket Mirror inches towards the finish line its story and gameplay start to unravel. First there are some cutscenes, then a montage of small, linear and, granted, beautiful areas where some short event occurs before moving on to the next one, each scene never quite deciding if it wants to accomplish something or not. I like the characters, excepting for Len Kagamine, the demon who finds just about every line anyone else says hil-arrrious, but found myself skipping through the dialogue towards the end. It gets so padded out and repetitive that sentences lose their meaning and, also, surprise this is all just another allegory for stylized dissociative identity disorder, Hollywood’s favorite mental illness where the rules are made up and the points don’t matter.
Still, if you’ve even considered a game like this would be up your alley, you might as well play it. It’s not as tight as The Witch’s House, and there are no purple-haired bachelors to ship with the 9-year-olds, but there are some really cool moments, great music and scenery, a few nice puzzles, and 90% of the NPCs are giggling pumpkins. Since Pocket Mirror is a free game, you don’t have much to lose; if you get bored of it ManlyBadassHero already has up a comprehensive let’s play, and I’m sure he has many ManlyBadassBaby mouths to feed.
Returning to my Len Kagamine comment earlier — you will seriously dig this game’s aesthetic if you’re into the darker side of Vocaloid. Trick or Treat, Alice of Human Sacrifice, whatever that circus one was, it’s all there down to the last button. Rozen Maiden lovers and fans of Touhou 6-9.5 are also welcome. There are even an entire one and a half Touhou jokes.
You can download Pocket Mirror for free on the official tumblr from one of their many mirrors (GET IT?!!?) or you could sit quietly in the dark and think about your day instead.