Shooters have become drab, dusty, old, lifeless. Where once was hypnotic color and lightning fast movement, today live slow trotting grunts that move, act and talk with the elegance of a world war II tank, framed in military fantasies as daft as the worst of Michael Bay films, all nitty gritty serious in the utter ridicule of their pretend violence with overblown gore and show-off pyrotechnics that express only the most basic and hollow forms of jubilation. Even from a strict mechanicist point of view, these are dead pieces, inert and bound by such tight wraps of genre chains that you can hardly fathom how the word new still manages to get tossed around when adjectivizing them. Such harshness is, we believe, the best way to describe “PN03”: by contrasting it to what today goes by the name shooter.
Rooted in classic shoot’em up tradition, Shinji Mikami (“Resident Evil”, “Killer7”) chose to conjure the clinical rigor of arcade variants inside the subjective perspective of 3rd person shooters and then arranging everything in a tempo-driven gameplay that evokes the music rhythm genre. The trick starts with Mikami breaking the dogmatic laws of usability by stripping players from controlling movements in their entirety; in a twist of design genius, the main character movement on the x, y and z planes is swift and agile, whilst any diagonal which cuts across these is hindered with resistance. From a player’s point of view, this friction results in a design inscription that forces spatial dislocations to be made only across the planes, basically turning play into a game of strict Cartesian vector movement, not unlike a 3D version of “Space Invaders”. Gameplay has you move according to specific lines as if they were instructor steps for a futuristic dance, dictated by movement limitations and placement of obstacles and enemies. The fictional framing for this choice is that the main character, Schneider (a voluptuous Samus-Aran-meets-Ulala mercenary) enjoys listening to techno while dispatching her enemies. As you play she looks like a refined elegant refrain on Neo’s shooting, as she sways and spins and jumps and wheels almost faster than the eye can see, dodging attacks with feline grace, her waist seductively swinging whilst her arms flicker in and in such flicker rain laser death upon her robotic foes.
The game’s essence is minimalist. Control is simple and because of it, playing becomes a matter of pattern acquisition – which enemies come from where, which geographical features can you use to your advantage – in the end leading to a methodical learning of the dance you must perform to end each level with success. Performance art is actually the closest notion to what you feel while playing “PN03”: somewhere between playing a classic shooter, with its frantic pace and need for quick-reflexes, and the psychological enthrallment of a contemporary dancer tuned to electronic music, moving so as to achieve perfection in every stride of beat and emotion. Shneider’s bodily animation is, in itself, a thing of aesthetic expression, her sexuality never falling to the point of vulgarity, her characterization molded by strokes of classical beauty made futurist, all lines smooth, symmetrical, balanced, god-like. The surrounding scenarios are equally grounded on minimalist ideals with the least possible amount of detail employed, either in stark contrast with Schneider – the exterior scenarios, dirty in dead brown earth, the sky acidic green – or in perfect harmony, – the interior scenarios all white clean sci-fi corridors, all brisk lines and curves (evocative of locations in “Space Channel 5” and the overall ambiance of “Breakout” reinvention “Cosmic Smash”). The soundtrack mostly consists of the diegetic music which Schneider indulges herself in, with competent but uninspired dance music dominating the landscape. Narrative also follows the minimalist ensemble in an ersatz of “Blade Runner’s” Dickian identity theme, conveyed through a couple of cutscenes and some inter-level written dialogues. If any strong criticism can be made to the videogame’s shiny exterior, it lies in the unfortunate repetition of the same models for different levels, a clear sign of the production issues which aroused from a convoluted development period.
“PN03’s” unrecognized relevance cannot be missed. The focus on dodging bullets by dancing your way through them, sliding to cover as necessary and shooting only in small windows of opportunity has become a mainstay in contemporary 3rd person shooters. “Gears of War” is the poster child of such a current, accompanied by a myriad of copy-cat followers all hailing to “Kill-Switch” as their defining forefather, but “PN03” not only implemented that gameplay loop much before, as it did it with a style and eloquence which none has acknowledged nor come close to reprise. Even Mikami’s spiritual sequel for the West, “Vanquish”, has nothing on his despised little masterpiece, for it traded women’s beauty for men’s brute strength, in an overt concession of authorship to dominant trends of the market. Make no mistake, “PN03” is so much more than what goes by the category “shooter” that even placing it in the lineage of the genre seems like an insult. For it is not an over-indulgent piece of discardable entertainment. It is sheer kinesthetic bliss, a ballet of sights and sounds and bodily movement that has a life of its own. It is videogame expression distilled to its pure form.