Ever since playing an Xbox One demo of Manual Samuel at GDC earlier this year, I've been looking forward to getting my hands on it. The short gameplay experience was a lot of fun, with a really strange sense of humor that had me laughing hard as I worked my way through it.
The game stars the eponymous Samuel, a fabulously wealthy fellow who apparently has it all. However, he's a particularly selfish and thoughtless individual who's never had to do an honest day's work in his life. We catch up with him at the start of the game while he's sitting in a coffee shop with his girlfriend. She's not very happy: He's forgotten her birthday – for the third year in a row. Fed up, she smacks him around the chops and storms out of the café and across the road. Samuel follows her, but forgets to look both ways and gets hit and killed by a septic tank truck.
This is an unfortunate business for Samuel, who is immediately sent straight to the gates of hell. He's greeted by a streetwise version of Death, who stands resplendent in a baseball cap and hoodie combo. As luck would have it, Samuel has something that the Grim Reaper wants, and Death has a little proposition for him: If Samuel can prove his worth by living "manually" for 24 hours, he will be returned to life. Of course, Samuel agrees to this, and this is where you, the player comes in – as the person responsible for helping Samuel live through his "manual" day.
Turns out that Samuel is utterly incapable of doing anything himself. Even breathing. This you learn fairly quickly after catching up with Samuel, who's now lying naked in a crumpled heap on the floor back at his home. He starts turning blue until you press X on the joypad to breathe in, and hit B to breathe out. Remember those buttons, because you'll be pressing them a lot while playing. If you don't, Samuel will turn blue and keel over.
While you're learning the basics of breathing, the game's graphics start to wash out. That’s because Samuel hasn't blinked yet. Like breathing, this is another aspect of Samuel's life where he needs your help. Pressing the A button at regular intervals keeps the screen sharp and clear. Failure to do so sees it blur and fade into whiteness.
If that isn't enough to keep you busy, Samuel also needs help with his posture. Every so often, you need to press up on the D-pad to maintain Samuel's upright position. If you forget to do that, he slumps over and can't walk properly. Oh yes. I nearly forgot about that. To make Samuel walk, you have to use the trigger buttons, with left moving the left leg, and right moving the right. Timing is particularly critical to make Samuel trudge forwards, otherwise he loses his footing and does the splits.
These are the fundamental moves of the game, and it only gets more complex from here. Once you've picked Samuel up from the floor, it's time to walk to his bedroom so he can take care of his ablutions. This involves brushing Samuel's teeth (using a combination of button presses and an oscillating power meter), emptying his bladder (using the bumper buttons to aim), taking a shower (using the bumper buttons to coordinate his hands to scrub his body correctly), and putting on some clothes (you know how it works by now). All this, while continuing to breathe, blink, and stay upright of course.
It's complicated, fiddly, but fun. At least it is so far. Helping make the proceedings even more entertaining is some sarcastic narration that essentially tells the story, while giving you prompts as to what Samuel needs to do next. Once he's eaten some breakfast and sipped some coffee without doing himself a mischief, the action moves to the second level, where Samuel and Death hit the road in Samuel's car.
Unfortunately, it's here where the game starts to transition from fiddly, but fun to fiddly and frustrating. Driving correctly involves remembering a series of unintuitive button inputs, which is challenging for all the wrong reasons. Especially while you're trying to ensure that Samuel continues to breathe and blink. The game continues along these lines as you progress through the driving section and reach Samuel's father's robot-manufacturing factory. There's one particular challenge where you have to open an automatic door, walk across a room, grab an item, and then walk back through the door before it closes. It sounds easy, but the timing is particularly tight and it took me multiple tries before I finally managed to succeed – and the whole time I felt like I was fighting with the game's controls.
And just when you think things can't get any more awkward, they do. Samuel ends up controlling a combat mech, and has to fight other robots that have gone on the rampage. The timing for attacking and blocking feels slightly off, and the general controls continue to be unintuitive, making the action an increasingly frustrating exercise in arbitrary button pressing that sucks the fun out of the game.
That's a shame, because Manual Samuel starts off so well: The first level keeps things fairly simple, making the action genuinely funny and enjoyable. The art style is great, and I really liked the game's narration, dialog, and offbeat sense of humor. However, in an attempt to dial up the challenge as the game progresses, developer Perfectly Paranormal has simply overdone things, and ended up with a title that feels fussy and complicated.
Had it stuck to the design principles of the first level or two, I think Manual Samuel would have been a short – the game clocks in at a two-or-so hour running time – but enjoyable experience. As it stands, I think it'll only really appeal to those who enjoy challenging button-pressing games like QWOP.
Manual Samuel is a good-looking, genuinely funny button-pressing test of dexterity that starts out well, but unfortunately becomes increasingly complicated and frustrating as the game wears on. It's a nice idea, but one that will probably only appeal to those who enjoy games like QWOP.