What do a polar bear, a Japanese firefighter, a karaoke booth, and a dancing frog made of umbrellas have in common? They all take centre stage in Bandai Namco's latest Eastern offering, Short Peace: Ranko Tsukigime's Longest Day.
Rather than one specific game, this is a compilation of four excellent short animated movies from the creative talents of celebrated Japanese directors who brought us cult anime classics such as Akira and the Gundam series, and a fifth part which takes the shape of a 2D side-scrolling game. While none of the short films are overtly thematically linked, each one takes you on a journey through different eras of Eastern history and its possible future, from the honourable origins of the Tokugawa Shogunate right through to post-apocalypticism, robots, and lasers. Two of the films – Gambo and Possessions – are also linked by their evocative use of Japanese mythology, synonymous with classic works by anime powerhouse Studio Ghibli.
Special mention must be given to the powerful and masterfully created Possessions, which stands apart from the crowd with its clever blend of CGI character modelling and 2D animated backgrounds. Taking place in the 18th-century, it tells the story of a man lost in the mountains, who takes refuge inside a shrine to shelter from a violent storm. Once inside, the man is trapped by the shrine itself, its contents seemingly possessed, and the man must calmly find a way to bring peace to the tormented spirits. It looks absolutely spectacular, and evokes the strong feelings of wonder, fear, amusement, and charm that you would expect from an Academy Award nominee.
Alas, for the purposes of this review, we will concentrate solely on the gaming element of the package produced by the equally eccentric minds of Grasshopper Manufacture's Suda51 – who recently brought us Killer Is Dead – and Crispy's! Inc's Yohei Kataoka of Tokyo Jungle fame. If you want to read more about the included movies – particularly Combustile and A Farewell to Weapons – you can check out more of our impressions by clicking right here.
Once you've finished sampling each intriguing slice of anime delight on offer in the video section, it's time to delve head-first into the aforementioned weird and wonderful 2D side-scroller. The story follows 17-year-old high school student Ranko Tsukigime, who leads a double life as an assassin, taking down targets with her sniper-rifle violin. The protagonist is joined by a small host of other characters, such as her best friend Moeko, the clumsy pink-haired Kirara, and Moeko's cool biker brother Ren, whose dialogue adds some light comedy relief to the otherwise bewildering storyline. While we know little about the surrounding circumstances, the heroine does make one thing clear: she must kill her father to avenge her mother's death, and that is just what she sets out to do.
In order to reach dear daddy, Ranko must first traverse a few subways, locate a vault, fight some tattooed men, take down a dragon, and out-run a giant Pomeranian – and this is where the gameplay elements begin. From the first few stages, the game appears to be a standard 2D side-scroller with psychedelic lights. You must guide young Ranko through each stage, maintaining a good speed in order to keep out of reach from the demonic presence of the 'Legion', which constantly snap at your heels and promise a swift death if you come into contact with them. You gain ammo by slashing at enemies as you speed through every urban landscape, and can use the bullets that you acquire to fire at the evil monsters pursuing you. As there is no health bar, instead of taking damage, you simply slow down when an enemy hits you, which – as this game is centred on speed and kills – lowers your overall score at the end of the level. Chain combos can be earned if you slash enough monsters in your way, as their colourful debris can also rebound and destroy oncoming enemies for you. Handy.
Without warning, after the first five stages, the gameplay suddenly takes a dramatic twist, serving up boss battles and new levels in the style of bullet-hell shooters, vertical speed climbers, and even transforming the final stage into NES-style graphics. One of the best stages sees you jumping onto the back of Ren's motorbike in order to escape from the Legion in pursuit, yet instead of firing Ranko's weapon, you instead mow down the enemies in front of you.
After playing each side-scrolling stage a few times, you soon realise that there's more than one way to reach your goal at the end of every level, with a number of different passages, platforms, and short-cuts to try, hidden gifts to discover, and special golden enemies to defeat. Yet, despite the simple and addictive mechanics, the title is let down by its lack of content, with only nine stages in total. It may have been Ranko's Longest Day, but it certainly wasn't ours, with the whole game, including cut-scenes, taking merely an hour to complete. Still, while the game may be short, it's definitely sweet, with the premise of short levels encouraging you to replay every arena until you perfect it, finding the fastest route, while also killing the most enemies.
Still, the game is a treat for the eyes – especially during the Pomeranian chase scene against the quintessential Japanese backdrop of Mount Fuji. The explosion of bright colours caused by combo attacks prevents the urban settings from looking drab; however, we do feel that the changes between terrain in the first five stages are almost too subtle, with little to differentiate them and thus rendering them unmemorable.
The cut-scenes on the other hand are certainly memorable, and we dare say that you'll be heading over to the Extras menu to replay a few just to fully comprehend what you just witnessed. The art style changes with each cinematic, keeping each sequence fresh and exciting as you wonder what's coming up next, the styles shifting between the cute, detailed anime cut-scenes that we are usually accustomed to right through to the downright grotesque. The fluctuations in art style seemingly reflect the heroine's changing emotions, as see can clearly see her desperation, fear, and anguish illustrated by the increasingly strange animations and bizarre symbolism, which seem to climax by the 'Enter the Ultimate' scene. This particular cut-scene has to be one of the weirdest things our eyes have ever been forced to endure – trust us, you will reel back in horror at the absurdity of it, and it will probably haunt you for the rest of your days.
Despite the intriguing storyline and interesting host of characters, the game sadly never divulges enough information, and while for the most part the mystery tantalizes your imagination, by the time that the credits roll it merely leaves you clueless with more questions than you can count. What's the story behind Moeko and her brother? Why does Ranko's sister have a third eye? What happened to the heroine's mum? Who's this weird dude on the roof? Why are Ranko's legs suddenly turning into Wolverine? Although all of the unexpected sequences do help to keep hold of your fascination with the game, it frustratingly leaves you feeling like you're being left out on a really funny inside joke. The cut-scenes before the final stage also teases you with a huge final battle, yet this promise is sadly never fulfilled and leaves you feeling cheated by the time that the game jumps back to the title screen.
Whatever your preconceptions, Short Peace: Ranko Tsukigime's Longest Day will surprise you, and continue to surprise you even after the credits begin to roll. However, while often humorous and delightful, the game portion of this package is a very short experience, consisting of only nine stages and taking roughly just over an hour to complete. Don't let that put you off entirely, though, as the inclusion of the Short Peace animation anthology is a treat for any Japanophile, and makes up for the shortfalls of an otherwise super – albeit absolutely bizarre – game.