Review: Lost in Blue 3 (Nintendo DS)

Lost in Blue 3
Genre: Adventure
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Release Date: 03/18/08

The DS has become something of a home for oddball titles with quirky mechanics, and the Lost in Blue series exemplifies that well. Essentially, the franchise is an extension of the Gameboy title Survival Kids (which the series is known as in Japan), and each title is based around a relatively simple premise: you and a partner are stranded on a “deserted” island, and you must survive and find a way to escape.

And… that’s it.

This is apparently a successful concept in Japan, as there are five of the titles there, but in the US, not so much. The original SK title can best be described as “obscure”, the second didn’t even come to the US, and the two prior Lost in Blue titles are generally considered niche games due to their pacing. Basically, the games wholly encourage you to wander about and explore, but your characters have meters (hunger, thirst, stamina) that deplete more or less realistically, thus leaving you to spend multiple in-game days gathering materials because your character will tire out or dehydrate or starve before they can complete all of the needed tasks at any given time. The first few days of the two prior LIB titles can be described, essentially, as your characters complaining that they’re hungry/thirsty/tired/dying while you try to find them the essentials needed to survive to the next day. Now, if you actually sat down and learned how the game worked and micro-managed the situation appropriately, the experience becomes a lot more workable, but the games in general require a lot of managing of resources and, frankly, give off a hideous first impression; they’re certainly realistic, but realism isn’t fun most of the time.

Lost in Blue 3 (or Survival Kids 5 if you’d rather) attempts to change the formula up a bit, partly by offering a larger cast of characters, and partly by making the core experience somewhat more manageable for new players. While this does make the game more readily accessible to new players (partly because it’s less unforgiving, and partly because hey, it’s like a kiddie version of LOST, so woo), the game is still something of a niche title, though for different reasons.

The story of LIB3 is simple to begin with, but becomes increasingly more complex as time goes on. The initial story sees two characters wash up on a deserted island; Sam, an amnesiatic boy with strong survival skills who has no idea why he’s on the island, and Claire, Sam’s girlfriend who he abandoned some time ago for reasons she doesn’t know and he can’t remember. The two immediately seek shelter in a nearby cave on the beach, and from that point onward they seek to survive/escape as the situation merits. As the story progresses, new characters are encountered, secrets and oddities are discovered, and more and more, the island becomes stranger and stranger…

So, yeah, it’s really a lot like LOST Kids. And that’s coming from someone who doesn’t even watch LOST, so, y’know… damn.

Overall, the story is really no better or worse than the stories in the prior titles; the characters are generally decently written, the story is about as “initially feasible but ultimately absurd” as its ever been, and the writing is neither epic nor offensive. The story simply “is”. It exists to give you a reason to survive the challenges of the island, but otherwise it fades into the background, only deigning to pop up again in small doses to remind you of the overall goal and such. Generally speaking, smaller stories tend to be better than larger ones purely because they don’t spend hours and hours inundating you with text when all you want to do is play, so we’ll say that the overall story here is pretty decent.

Visually, LIB3 looks very similar to its predecessors, which is to say, not great, but not terrible either. The character models animate well, and the environments look acceptable, though they’re rather blocky in a lot of cases. The character portraits and inventory items are done in a 2D style that generally looks quite nice, though I’m not a fan of the artist change from LIB2 to LIB3; the characters in the first two LIB titles looked vaguely human with anime flourishes; the characters here look cartoony and aren’t as well designed as they were in the prior titles. Aurally, LIB3 is pretty good overall. The music is composed mostly of tropical tunes (for jungle and beach areas) and some more mystery-flavored tracks (for swamps and such), and the tunes keep the theme going well… though they sound suspiciously like the tracks from the prior titles. There are few sound effects and voice acting is limited to certain circumstances (“Hi! Welcome Home!, for instance), but in both cases they’re generally well done and sound pretty good overall.

The major make-or-break element of the various LIB titles is generally the gameplay, and while LIB3 has made some significant changes, it’s still somewhat of a polarizing product. The basic idea behind each of the games, as noted, is that you’re wandering around an island trying to survive and escape, by gathering up various things needed to do so. This is accomplished simply enough by, well, running around in the game world, which is presented from an overhead 3/4ths angle. Your character (by default, you can choose either Sam or Claire) is capable of running about the environment, climbing up and down various cliffs and such, and collecting the various doo-dads that line the environment. Since the vast majority of the game is spent doing this, it’s generally good to note that maneuvering around the game it reasonably easy and works well enough that one can do so without too much trouble. You can spend most of the game wandering about by yourself most of the time, but in several sections of the game you will NEED to bring one of your partners if you hope to progress forward, either because you will need the help of a second person in general (to move large rocks and logs, for instance) or because the person specifically has some type of talent you require (James can shatter rocks with his bare hands, for example… no, really… and Claire can talk to the dolphin you meet). You can also use the second person’s backpack as storage space for the various items you collect while you’re out foraging.

There are also a whole ton of other things to do aside from exploring and foraging, however, and it is with these things that LIB3 introduces its (say it with me now) TOUCH-SCREEN MINI-GAMES. There are a whole bunch of different things which require touch-screen interaction to some extent or another, some more so than others. You can shake trees with the stylus to collect the fruits in them simply by “shaking” the tree with the stylus, then poking whatever falls out. You can dig up veggies and clams that are buried simply by scribbling the stylus over their location until they’re uncovered. Speak fishing is as simple as poking the fish with the stylus when it’s in sight. These events are semi-frequent and not at all disruptive, whether you’re playing the game with the Pad or the stylus (hint: use the pad). Other activities, such as cooking, fighting aggressive animals, building furniture and starting fires require a little more effort, by following various rhythms or by pressing buttons at the right time, and these games are generally also not very complex or disruptive. Overall, by and large, the metric ton of mini-games in LIB3 are well-designed, well-implemented, and pretty fun when played sporadically.

LIB3 also does a few things to make the product more accessible than its predecessors. First, food products are FAR more prevalent than they were in prior games, which when combined with the fact that both of you characters can cook together means that there will be less periods where your characters won’t have eaten well for days (which was, shall we say, more likely in prior titles). Resources also seem to be sufficiently prevalent across the island (in most cases), which is helpful later on when one is trying to build furniture and such. Tools seem to be a bit hardier and less likely to break as well. And best of all, you’ll find multiple characters to aid you as you play the game, which means you can assign each character multiple jobs to do as you go off and explore, thus reducing the actual amount of work you have to do.

It’s also worthwhile to note that LIB3 feels like a significantly larger game than the previous two titles. Part of this, obviously, has to do with the multiple characters on your team and the large variety of activities you have available to you. And part of this is also because there are multiple characters to play AS, so once you’ve beaten the game as Sam or Claire, for instance, you could unlock an option to play as the other characters, each with their own different restrictions places upon them to make for a different experience overall. But it’s also worth mentioning that the actual island itself is, well, pretty freakin’ huge in comparison to the islands in LIB and LIB2. Fans of the original titles will rejoice at having such a large area to explore, and newcomers, well, there’s a ton of stuff to do here, need I say more?

Well, I supposed I need to, actually, because there is one small thing I’d like to point out: LIB3 is really only fun if you play as Sam, the boy. See, Sam and Claire have different abilities and skills they can and cannot work with, which makes them different insofar as how their play experiences go. Rather than explain what they CAN do, I think it’s easier to explain what they CAN’T do:

SAM CANNOT: talk to animals on his own or crawl into small holes.

CLAIRE CANNOT: Fish with a rod (spear fishing is okay), hunt, build furniture alone, climb up cliffs that are higher than her waist.

So, um, okay, look. I’m all for giving the player reasons to play as different characters, and I’m all for making the characters different from one to the other, but understand this: the two things that Sam cannot do are, at best, mildly inconvenient; the multiple things Claire cannot do make her game into something of a lame experience in comparison. Can you get by in her game? Sure; spear fishing is plentiful enough to be worthwhile, and you can send Sam and James out to hunt for food as needed. Would you want to? Probably not. I’m not even going to get into the implications here; the LIB franchise has generally been focused on the male protagonists, so it’s not like this is surprising… but it’s not terribly fun and it’s limiting for no adequately explained reason; one can’t even argue “to make the game more challenging” as there are other characters to unlock who could be nerfed adequately if need be to make this happen. And while those characters do have restrictions placed upon them so as to make the game a different experience, there’s no reason to nerf one of the two starting characters, especially since it just means that any ladies who play the game are going to be unpleasantly surprised by the distinct lack of things their avatar can do.

That aside, even though the difficulty of the first two games has been reduced slightly, the tedium has not; you will still spend days at a time hunting for food and materials simply because that is the nature of the game. You will either love or hate that sort of mechanic; if you love the simulation nature of the concept and the stark reality of having to hunt for food and materials, then this is the game for you… if not, you’ll find the experience bland and boring. Even if you do love the earlier games, LIB3 isn’t a dramatic move forward for the series; aside from having multiple characters in your group of survivors and being presented a larger island with a more interesting twist, there’s really nothing that’s fresh and exciting this time around. For fans of the series, that’s perfectly acceptable and even desirable, but if you played and loathed earlier games in the series, well, some flowers and garden gnomes in the yard aren’t going to convince you that this isn’t the same crappy house you didn’t want to buy the first time.

Beyond that, certain elements of the product are simply not friendly to the player. The island is huge, and more often than not you will have NO FREAKING IDEA where you’re to go next. It’s nice that the game doesn’t hold your hand through every little event, but the fact that you could spend days navigating a location before you eventually figure out where it is you’re supposed to go is not very friendly. The game also occasionally has collision detection issues, most notably when you’re trying to pick up items only to find you have to adjust your character because they’re not standing in a place where they could grab the item, and when you’re trying to interact with the environment (climb a cliff/bridge, shake a tree, etc) only to find that you’re not lined up properly and you end up either doing nothing or looking upward futilely. Neither of these elements are terribly game-breaking, but they’re certainly annoying.

In the end, Lost in Blue 3 is a game that is technically sound, but designed in such a way that it’s really somewhat polarizing from the word go. A decent story, graphics, sounds and gameplay aren’t going to make up for the fact that you have to repeat a lot of the same activities over and over again across multiple in-game days to succeed. Some gamers may fall in love with the simulation aspects of the product, but others will find the game tedious and time consuming with no great reward forthcoming. If you’re a fan of the franchise or curious about the game, you might want to give it a whirl, and those who were turned off by the difficulty of the prior products will find more to love her, but anyone who thought the prior titles became boring quickly will not be dissuaded of that notion by LIB3.

The Scores:
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: BAD
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: ABOVE AVERAGE

Final Score: DECENT.

Short Attention Span Summary:

Lost in Blue 3 ends up being more or less identical to its predecessors: nice to look at and listen to, simple to play, and only appealing to certain gamers. A reduced difficulty has led to an increased amount of tedium, and while the additional characters and larger game world will be fantastic to fans of the series, many people will be turned off by the constant repetition of activities needed to survive. If you’re a fan you’ll love the game all the same, and if you’ve never played it or hated the oppressive challenge of the earlier titles you might want to give this one a look; otherwise, unless you have a good amount of patience, LIB3 probably isn’t for you, and probably never will be.



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