Animal Leader hands-on impressions

[03.30.02] » Animals want to change your life.

 I want to X you like an animal
Cute animal friends :>

   Though Nintendo is largely known for their all-ages titles in both Japan and America, the concept of "all-ages" has very different boundaries on each side of the ocean. As if designed specifically to prove this point, the Marigul-developed, Nintendo-published Animal Leader is a cute, simple game about bloodshed, gluttony, and sleeping your way to the top.

   Animal Leader is set in a lush, feral wilderness, where you control a strange, cubic, pig-like creature. Though your movement is slow with only one awkwardly used limb to your person, and you don't have very much offensive power, you can slowly evolve into a multi-limbed powerhouse. The process of doing this is the entirety of Animal Leader's gameplay, and is based on a number of factors.

Vandal Hearts reimagined by Piet Mondrian
When Animals Attack!

   The bulk of the gameplay is based on attacking and eating other wandering animals. You do this by coming within pouncing range of the animal, holding the L button down to charge an attack, and hiting the A button when you're ready to spring. Successful contact will knock off some of the opponent animal's hit points, depending on how much you charged the attack; once its HP has been drained completely, another pounce will take one of the animal's limb into your mouth. Rotating the analog stick quickly in a circle will tug at the animal's limb with your teeth until finally it snaps off and is absorbed into your body.

   The result of this absorption is a change in the color and shading of one of your limbs. When all limbs have the same color and shading, you'll undergo a mutation into a different kind of animal; your new movement type is determined by the color, and your new statistics (attack power, movement speed, pouncing range, and so on) are determined by the strength of the shading. Lightly shaded coloring leads to a weaker animal, and heavily shaded coloring will make your animal the strongest it can be. It's easy to achieve consistent coloring and shading when you only have one limb to worry about, but as you acquire more, you'll have to be careful about what you eat. Fortunately, if you should happen to make a mistake, it can be corrected: using the Z button to defecate will clear the color from the limb that was changed last, leaving it free to be colored once more by the next animal you consume.

 Little orphan ani-mal
The circle square of life

   Though eating other animals is important to your evolution, most will only contribute new colors and shading. Only by defeating stage bosses can you gain the coveted extra limbs, although devouring them only begins the process. Once you defeat a stage boss, you may proceed to the next area, and it's here that you actually gain the new limb in a rather twisted process. Every area after the second one features a "tunnel of love" that you can enter. Inside, you'll be courted by several female animals and given the option to mate with them. Choosing yes shows the entire group moving off-camera, followed by the birth of a new generation. The mating process is lethal to your current animal, but the offspring will be blessed with the extra limb you earned in the battle against the last stage boss. As you grow in prestige, you'll attract more and more females; mate with enough of them at once and you'll have the ability to choose which of the offspring you'd like to resume play as.

The antithesis of ICO water
Wave of mutilation

   If all of the above sounds like a more or less realistic version of the animalistic life cycle, the graphics and "plot" will immediately dissuade you from that view. Animal Leader was originally a N64 project, and it shows in the bizarre visual style that's tailor-made for a less powerful texture-pushing machine. The dominant polygon in Animal Leader is the square: animals are formed from a cubic head with square wedges for limbs; the clouds and sun are nothing more than incongruous textures pasted onto solid blocks in the sky; splashing through shallow water leaves a trail of square ripples behind you; and rectangular gouts of blood spray whenever you score a solid hit on another animal. The graphics are simple, but unique, and make the game feel even quirkier than it really is.

   As for the game's story, it's a strange one. Evil animals have stolen all the color from the land, and you must overthrow them while returning the world's color. Each area has several bugs in addition to the larger animals, and restoration of color is somehow accomplished by eating the right bug. Doing this has gameplay repercussions as well; sections of the stages that lack color are impassable, and to reach the area exit you'll need to find and eat all the bugs. Eventually, by going through 100 or more mutations, you'll earn the title of Animal Leader yourself, and usher in a new age of ... well, not peace, but at least natural order.

 It's a crime against nature
The birds in your garden

   The sound is as off-kilter as the story or graphics. Although the sound effects are about what you'd expect from something with this premise, covering all the usual shrieks and chirps of a jungle setting, the music feels like a transplant from a much more peaceful, placid game. Strangely enough, however, the almost entirely piano-driven and low-key score feels like a natural fit for the game. If the game's visuals weren't so stark, the music would be excellent accompaniment to simply wandering around and admiring the jungle.

   Though the game is certainly creative and unique, it might be a stretch to call Animal Leader "good." The combat engine is extremely limited, and since roughly 90% of the gameplay is simply wandering around and attacking other animals, the novelty wears off pretty quickly. In spite of this, the game remains oddly compelling, and the challenge of acquiring all 150 mutations is a diverting way to spend a few days. Whether Nintendo will risk putting out such a strange game in the U.S. remains to be seen, so those looking to go feral for a little will have to track down the import for now.

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