At this point, hearing about an exclusive game for the PlayStation Vita has become something of a long-lost myth. It’s a system that, while having all of the bells and whistles any gamer could want in a gaming device, has underperformed after its launch rush. So many games have been released on the system, but how many have been released for the system? By “for”, I mean games that are built around Vita specifically, games that take advantage of whatever obscure control schemes Sony packed into the thing, while also expanding upon the system’s graphical power with a slick, original aesthetic design. It’s been a while since the Vita has had something to truly brag about, but then comes Murasaki Baby, the new project from Ovosonico, the indie studio formed by Grasshopper Manufacture alumnus Massimo Guarini (director of Shadows of the Damned).
Murasaki Baby is a weird game. It’s a game that challenges every norm you could think of, from the control scheme to the art design. But the biggest norm it challenges is the Vita stigma itself, that the handheld doesn’t have worthwhile exclusives. Murasaki Baby is the anti-thesis of that mindset.
Murasaki Baby is a twisted jaunt through a nightmarish, Edward Gorey-esque world, where the goal is to help a little girl named Baby find her mother. Along the way, Baby encounters other characters, whose troubles Baby must overcome. Despite its dark-fantasy aesthetic, Murasaki Baby has a powerful and relatable story. The characters are all likable and believable, suffering from problems that any human being can understand. Every pivotal moment during the game has a personal touch to it, making it a heartfelt story that’s well worth experiencing to its expertly crafted conclusion.
Murasaki Baby’s art style is straight out of a Roman Dirge or Jhonen Vasquez comic. Thick, sketchy contrast between character models and twisted designs give the game an aesthetic unlike anything else on the platform. Baby herself is both grotesque and adorable; her frightened expressions juxtapose well with her toothy mouth-on-the-forehead design. Other characters are also bizarrely designed as well, with deep attention into how their appearances coordinate with their narrative roles. The game’s art design continues innovating with strong color distinctions between environments, always surprising the player. The audio is equally stellar, mixing solemn piano performances and thunderous metal guitars at all the right times. The voice acting is reserved to sound bites (aside from Baby’s “mommy” call), but the lack of spoken language gives the game a universal appeal. Characters emote through their actions and this stripped-down approach to storytelling only amplifies an already incredible amount of narrative resonance.
Murasaki Baby is one of the oddest games to appear this year, but not just because of its art design. It’s a Vita exclusive and it doesn’t waste that status; not since Tearaway has a game on Vita used the system’s hardware this intelligently and this creatively. You don’t control Baby directly. Instead, you use the Vita’s touch screen to “hold her hand” and “lead” her across each stage. By touching the screen near Baby, you grab her arm and moving your finger slowly across the screen leads her down whatever path you wish. You can also hold Baby’s balloon and guide it around obstacles as well, because if the balloon pops, it’s back to the last checkpoint. In addition to the basic leading mechanics, the player can use the rear touch pad to swap out “backdrops”, colored landscapes in the background. By tapping the rear touch pad while a backdrop is available, different environmental effects can be used. These effects can range from a gust of wind from a windmill to charging up electricity from a wall of batteries. The effects are easy to manage and use with quick swipes of the rear touch pad, and despite a few issues with finding a comfortable position to hold the system, they define the game’s role on Vita.
But the game’s biggest strength is how these features are used in the puzzles. Each environment requires different backdrop effects to progress. A windmill gust can blow out a fire. A loud roar can scare off attackers. But once the game starts becoming abstract, things get really interesting. Every hardware feature on Vita has a place in Murasaki Baby. Tap the touch screen to take out dangerous safety pins (yes, dangerous safety pins). Use the analog sticks to move and spring jump as a carriage. Use the gyroscope to invert the world by turning the Vita upside down. The puzzles use every single feature the Vita has in its guts, and in the same vein as Tearaway, the well of creativity never runs dry. Some puzzles are real brain-teasers, while also requiring multiple backdrop powers to complete. But the game’s intuitive design and full accommodation of the hardware make Murasaki Baby a creative success from start to finish. It’s a game that simply could not work anywhere else but Vita.
Murasaki Baby is a brief experience, lasting only a couple hours. With a default price point at a steep $15, it may not sound like a deal. But Murasaki Baby tells so much in those few hours, all while delivering the most imaginative and meaningful use of everything the Vita has under the hood. Without any extraneous content beyond the main story, Murasaki Baby is self-contained, an atmospheric and beautiful story wrapped in ingeniously designed gameplay and an aesthetic that you’ll remember long after 2014 is over.
Every Vita owner needs to experience Murasaki Baby. By creating a personal and engaging story, all while wrapping it in a hypnotically original art design, Ovosonico have gone where most other developers fear to tread. Its aesthetic is stylized at every opportunity, capitalizing on its characters and their own warped psyches. Even better is the integral use of the Vita hardware, built around puzzles that reward thinking outside of the box. There’s a gold mine of creativity in every chapter of Murasaki Baby and you’ll be floored by how inventive each puzzle is. Murasaki Baby confidently challenges every possible norm in its way and delivers an unforgettable story in the process. Ruthlessly original and triumphantly heartfelt, Murasaki Baby is one of the best games to ever grace the Vita system and should not be missed.
Platform: PS Vita