Coming from developers Perfectly Paranormal, and publisher Curve Digital, Manual Samuel is a “dexterity adventure”… which means it’s the videogame equivalent of rubbing your tummy and patting your head whilst moonwalking and trying to cook an omelette. You see, Sam is dead, and that means it’s time to go all Weekend At Bernies with you controlling all his movements and trying to convince people he’s still alive. Breathing, blinking, walking and getting dressed become significant challenges, and that’s just getting out of his house – wait until combat gets in the mix.
Sam is a douche. It’s alright, the game starts out telling you that, so we can keep calling him it. He’s rich, lazy, feckless and getting dumped by his girlfriend when we first meet him. Clearly it’s a doomed relationship because she’s the cause of his cadaverous existence, but then it’s very likely he deserves it. Douche. Anyway, after getting unceremoniously belted with a bottle, Sam ends up under your control and it’s time to put your hand/eye coordination skills to the test with walking. Left trigger, right trigger, left trigger, right trigger. Easy. Use a shoulder button to interact with the environment, tapping or holding as necessary, it’s all straightforward and quite enjoyable. Then you end up in Hell, make a deal with a kickflip obsessed Death to give him your soul shreds (the currency of the Underworld, obviously), and get to return to the world as a living being again… provided you make it through 24 hours of manual control. Though Death might be a skateboarding punk, he’s not lost any of the cruel gamesmanship you’d expect from the Grim Reaper.
If there ever was a game that should be called a walking simulator, this would be it. Though you’d need to add breathing, blinking and grabbing simulator too. Manual Samuel’s main premise is twisted, the story told through an unsympathetic and wry narrator, but the actual game is very simple – use the controls to move along a 2D plane and get Sam through a day at work. Each chapter of the game puts you in a different scenario, whether it’s getting showered and changed or putting batteries in robots (his dad owns the premier robotics company in the world, hence spoiled little rich boy Sam); and all have a logical control setup with legs and arms mapped to shoulder buttons. On its own this probably wouldn’t be much of a challenge, but there are persistent elements to deal with in the form of breathing, blinking and stopping your spine from snapping. Keeping Sam’s body operating requires you to pick up on visual clues like him turning blue, or the screen washing out, or even the controller vibrating to indicate loss of vertebrae control. It gets quite hectic.
There’s a driving section in the third chapter that has you manually operating the clutch, accelerator and brake pedals of the car, as well as gears and steering. It’s monstrously confusing for the first couple of minutes as you wrap your mind around what you need to do and when, but it’s also very logical. By the end of the section you’re whipping from left to right to avoid grannies in the road, and flying through the gears. It’s very satisfying. Sadly, after this highlight things get a bit mundane and it’s all about moving along the static 2D world, getting frustrated with the lack of controller reaction to walking, and dealing with repetitive, slow combat. Alternating the triggers will have you walking, but every now and then you collapse in a heap for no apparent reason, throwing your rhythm off and making you think about what you’re doing. If your hands are flying across the controls because you’ve mentally zoned into how Manual Samuel works, that subconscious activity frees you up to deal with the variety of other elements needed. Pulling you out of that state seems to take away from what the game is ultimately aiming for.
Combat is added in a couple of different forms, whether that’s shooting or sword fighting, and whilst it’s competent it’s far from perfect. Just as you’ve mastered moving, you’re asked to concentrate on shooting, blocking and swiping. At least with Death on your back shouting encouragement you don’t have to worry about breathing as well, just don’t forget to blink. It gets a bit tedious, and culminates in a couple of boss fights, the first of which is OK, the second and final is a lesson in frustration and you’re ability to control the urge to rage quit – I nearly did several times. It’s fine if the lack of coordination is down to your own button presses, but the response issues mentioned earlier really do get in the way at the end. It’s a shame because the first half of Manual Samuel is really interestingly put together, and I love the idea of executing every day tasks by controlling each limb. The game didn’t need to dive into a fighting model, the ingenuity on display could have found another way to finish the story off.
If you’re looking for something different, then this certainly is. There are some flashes of inspired controller use and innovative gameplay throughout, if only it didn’t get so frustrating and (honestly) a bit boring towards the end. With the option of a co-op campaign and time attacks to do after the main event, you can go back and play more, though that might lend itself more to those who are intent on mastering the movements than the casual crowd. What saves a lot of Manual Samuel is the humour and style it gives you all the way through, even to the end of the credits. It lifts the game and makes you smile, even when you’re getting pain in your hands as you’re tying them in knots to hit all the right buttons. It’s worth a punt for playing something that’s tried to be different… it just isn’t different enough in all the gameplay concepts to really make the most of its ideas.
A review copy of Manual Samuel for PS4 was provided by the Curve Digital PR team, and the game is available now on PC, Xbox One and PS4.