This article was originally published at Another-Castle.com
Step, Pause, Turn, Pause, Pivot, Step, Pause
I first came across P.N.03, through the largely middling reviews it received on launch. These reviews and the general lack of interest in the community put me off trying it out during the life of the GameCube. P.N.03 was the first released of the GameCube’s Capcom Five which included Viewtiful Joe, Killer7, Resident Evil 4 and the cancelled Dead Phoenix. Of all the released games, P.N.03 was the least well received and the only game to actually remain exclusive to the GameCube. Shinji Mikami was involved in all of these projects and that fact along with it being the black sheep of the group, made me finally give P.N03 a look.
To get the plot details out of the way, you play as a mercenary Vanessa Z. Schneider, who has to fight a rogue robotic system known as the Computerized Armament Management System (CAMS). The limited story is told through semi-regular communications between Vanessa and her contractor and a few very brief voiced cutscenes throughout the game. This is all just enough to keep the action going. Even though I usually enjoy getting immersed in the narrative, I found myself skipping through all the dialogue. There are bad robots and the bad robots must be destroyed.
P.N.03 goes right against where the industry was heading at the time and is currently stuck. It is best to think of the game as an arcade style third-person shooter only instead of a spaceship, you control a cybernetically enhanced mercenary who dances to destruction. This is not an exaggeration as Vanessa can be seen keeping a beat even when idle and her attack animations are all stylised as she strikes poses and even grinds while blasting robots with laser fire. When avoiding attacks, she spins cartwheels or flips out of the way before resuming attacks. When crouching she moves with feline grace and when she gets hit, you not only lose health but feel bad for breaking her rhythm.
Most of the environments are in enclosed spaces but most have somewhere to take cover which is necessary for avoiding enemy fire. Enemies are either immediately present as you enter a room or warp in as you progress through. The occasional open spaces often have clusters of enemies to destroy but even these are imaginable with quick movements, knowledge of their weaknesses and good timing. Learning how best to eliminate each enemy time and being quick to avoid their fire through taking cover and quick movements is necessary to not only progression but your overall enjoyment. This makes the game initially more challenging, especially if beginning on higher difficulties.
Vanessa uses a laser for a standard attack but her most powerful attacks are the ‘Energy Drives’ of which there are a variety unique to the suit you use. The earliest ‘Energy Drive’ you have access to the Swan sends out a cluster of missiles which can destroy multiple enemies or cause a lot of damage to one. There are also high powered laser blasts, a shield granting temporary invincibility and room clearing blasts. These are pulled off with simple button combos and are as stylish as they are destructive. Naturally, you have an energy bar that limits how often you use these attacks but there are regular power-ups to replenish them throughout each mission.
As mentioned there are a variety of suits with different strengths and weaknesses that can be purchased with the points you earn throughout each stage. This gives a lot of incentive to earning high scores as destroying multiple enemies in quick time adds to a combo multiplying your score and clearing a room without taking damage also gives you a bonus. The suits can all be upgraded with more power and extra ‘Energy Drives’.
Scanning some of the criticism of the game from its release, I notice many complaints about the mechanics. It is certainly hard to get used to some aspects like the inability to fire while moving but the controls themselves are perfectly competent. There are certainly some irritating enemies that made me wrestle with the controls at first but once I’d learned the cues, I found it easy to avoid attacks while following up with my own. You’re also free to progress at your own pace most of the time. The boss battles are challenging and the real test of how well you’ve mastered the mechanics – as they should be.
The main issue with P.N.03 is not the gameplay but the content. There is very little variety in the environments and most of them are bland. Most of the game is spent in futuristic, sterile areas with very little detail. The areas are also often repeated despite the game being only 11 missions long. Most missions can be completed in little more than ten minutes and each mission is segmented into anywhere from five to seventeen rooms, not all of which have enemies. In its defence, the game is not supposed to be played once but many times and there are certainly bonuses worth earning if you enjoy the game. The main reason for the lack of content seems to be to do with the time frame it was developed in. The developers have focused chiefly on getting the gameplay and character design right and this has helped the games legacy.
P.N.03 remains exclusive to GameCube to this day and due to its sales it may just stay that way. I’d say that if you can find it for anywhere from $20 to $30 (unless money is no object) and you enjoy arcade shooters then it is definitely worth trying. I can’t say for sure that you’ll like it but is a game that deserves praise for attempting something different, even if this wasn’t fully realised.
To end on a positive the Shinji Mikami directed 2010 title, Vanquish apprently did use ideas from P.N.03‘s development. It isn’t a sequel but it gives you some idea of his ambition for the project. I didn’t know this when I started playing but made the connection naturally. If P.N.03 doesn’t appeal, I absolutely recommend checking out Vanquish.