Meremanoid and I have a curious relationship. Night after night, I’d spend time plugging away at this arcane PlayStation RPG, slowly losing interest as I proceed through the game. It felt like I was going through the motions, probably because I saw the game going through the motions as well. But I don’t want to reduce Meremanoid to sweeping genre cliches, since so much of what it does lies outside them. While the heady messages about finding an authentic self in an inauthentic world had been explored in previous games, the exaggerated gestures and flowery language the game uses to explore those ideas are entirely its own.
Unfortunately, so are its failures. As much as I want to congratulate Meremanoid for its accomplishments, I have to the same thing I did with Dream Drop Distance: step back, evaluate things as a whole, and ask myself how much credit the game actually deserves. The answer: not as much as I’ve given it. For all the small flashes of brilliance the game produces every now and then, the mistakes the game commits are large enough to tell me that this brilliance only arises from an accidental understanding on how to create a game. What we’re left with is a half-realized project; too unreliable to fit my own tastes.
In a way, that might explain the game’s reliance on generic convention. At first, the game appears more interested in enacting a stable of well-trodden tropes than it is in forging its own path. The narrative premise should make that clear: after some basic exposition about the mythos driving the world, we begin on Adien, a green-haired amnesiac mermaid whom everyone treats like an exile. He’s chased out of his home town by imperial soldiers, thrusting him on the path to make an impromptu group of friends, fight an oppressive theocratic government, and solve the mystery behind his own existence. Essentially, this is Xenogears as seen through the eyes of The Little Mermaid. That feeling only grows stronger the more the narrative advances, as all the familiar motifs and archetypes make their presence known. Although this in itself isn’t a slight against the game, I have to admit that at least at first, it was hard to read any intention behind their use.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any. In fact, they might be necessary to the game’s true purpose. For when you strip away all the grand mythology and all the political intrigue, what you find is a game that’s more interested in the psychological conflicts that drive each character. These aren’t the result of some traumatic experience, mind you. More often, it’s some inherent conflict between the social selves the characters present the world and the personal selves they desperately want to communicate. Meremanoid has a unique fascination with this divide, probing into it with these elegant appellations (Adien the Wild Haired, Tiara the Anointed One) and lengthy monologues that are removed from social context.
It’s that last point – the shifting between social and personal – that allows Meremanoid to elevate its tropes up to something meaningful. The game doesn’t deny that the characters are rehearsing a role; it just accepts that and asks what that rehearsal entails. Social context is stripped away, if only for a little bit, so we can see whatever insecurities arise from adhering to those roles. The priestess who betrays her sister for power. The evil scientist who regrets using her daughters as tools for her own ends. The hero who finds out he was born to destroy a world he’s come to value. Not only does revealing this information to the player lend the characters an existence and psychological depth beyond their roles (and the story some gravitas), but it also fosters a strong emotional bond between them and the player. They’ve become pathetic creatures, aware of their weakness but only able to communicate it to themselves. It’s these moments that make the game as fulfilling as it is. This is an intimate, personal experience above all else; the kind of experience that a focus on the broader ideals might not be able to capture.
Moreover, these expressive qualities aren’t limited to the story alone, but extend into how the game presents that story. Most notable are the animations: characters often punctuate their statements with some wild gesture or dance, even if it doesn’t relate to anything they were discussing. So at first, it’s easy to dismiss them as a tactic the developers use to compensate for the game’s low graphical quality. You’re a little less likely to notice that blank-faced, banana-haired Barbie dolls are driving the story when they’re always distracting you with showy animations. However, the flowery language suggests otherwise. It can be just as ornate as the animations, yet it doesn’t face the technological restraints they do. This tells me that the animations were, in part, an artistic choice, meaning the developers had something in mind when they made their characters so active.
What could that be? The answer I came to was this: the game uses this type of presentation to reinforce a theatrical spirit; to portray its characters as actors on the stage. Perhaps a strange conclusion to reach, but one that fits with what the game does nonetheless. Even though actors perform from a script (IE a set of instructions), they can still assert their individuality through how they perform that script. They can stress certain elements, ignore others, and interpret the play through their own vision. Basically, the actor can use something that’s outside them to express something personal, which is exactly what the characters in Meremanoid are searching for. A lot of their gestures are religious or social in meaning, like a bow or spinning in place while looking up to the heavens. While it’s debatable how much the characters actually utilize any of this for personal expression, they have distinct enough personalities and use them in specific enough contexts that we can assume they’re putting at least a little spin on the ritual. In any case, we know that these elaborate dances can provide the characters the answers they seek.
Unfortunately, the game starts to fall apart the moment you’re handed control. Not because the game plays poorly or anything like that, mind you. It’s an average RPG where you explore a vast world, fight aquatic monsters, buy increasingly powerful equipment, etc. Not particularly engrossing, but not unpleasant on these terms alone. Instead, the game’s problems stem from an inability to relate any of these systems to its larger themes. For example, for a game that’s so concerned with beauty, none of the environments are particularly pleasing to look at. The world is permanently drenched in a dreary black fog, complemented by flat expanses of nothing colored a dull blue. The only hints of life are tall stone buildings and the strange underwater forests you only ever see in backgrounds. This is less the grand, majestic underwater world Meremanoid envisions, and more a cold lunar surface that was submerged underwater.
As great as that world might be at invoking a surreal dread in the player, the game doesn’t have a place for that kind of dread. This tells me that Meremanoid’s environments weren’t designed with the narrative in mind. What were they designed for, then? For this, I haven’t found an answer, or at least a satisfactory one. I can’t apply previous answers here and say the environments strengthen the theatrical tone. The player is the actor now, and the game offers them very little to work with. Not only are flat expanses of nothing unpleasant to look at; not only do they fail to stimulate the player’s imagination; but they also fail to offer the player interesting ways to act upon the world. The closest equivalent I can think of is swimming, which is more a novelty than anything else. Again, I feel the need to ask: What was the game hoping to achieve with all this?
As far as I can tell, Meremanoid is trying to be a traditional video game, where you navigate challenges for the sake of navigating them. That would explain why the game draws so much attention to its own artifice, whether that’s placing inns in holy places where none are allowed, or the narrators who would sound right at home in an arcade. Yet Meremanoid hails from a tradition of games known more for delivering narrative than for delivering challenges. This doesn’t preclude the game from introducing challenge into the formula. In fact, I can name many a JRPG that does just that.
It’s just that this game isn’t one of them. The gameplay is just too reliant on formulae, IE a specific series of steps you perform to complete the game’s obstacles. Use this set of attacks on the enemy, or go to this area and speak to that person to advance the plot. As helpful as formulae are for advancing a narrative, they lay too much of the challenge bare to engage the player. Because they don’t present any difficulty either in finding out how to execute a task (like an adventure game) or in executing the task itself (like an action game), most of the gameplay feels like busy work that anybody could do. And by that same notion, the gameplay doesn’t allow for the kind of performative play that would fit well with the rest of the game. So both on its own terms and in a larger context, Meremanoid’s gameplay falls flat.
What upsets me the most about this is that the game does have the potential to fit these systems alongside everything else. Consider the battle system, for example. What initially looks like the standard turn-based affair JRPGs have known since their inception finds new meaning by changing how you perform your attacks. Rather than gaining new moves by leveling up, characters expand their repertoire of attacks by chaining together different button inputs, a la blitzes from Final Fantasy VI. So what was once a static system now opens up, offering you room to experiment and play with the boundaries; to make each battle your own. It’s an intriguing way to add an expressive quality to pre-determined situations, and it definitely feels in line with what the game has been doing until now.
Yet for as badly as I wanted that reading to be true, Meremanoid isn’t made to support it. Firstly, input probably doesn’t have anything to do with how characters learn skills. It’s more likely a randomly determined element. This doesn’t kill the theatrical motifs in battle, though, as you can still persist in thinking your button presses have some effect on the game. What ends up killing the those motifs is the reliance on magic that shows up in later battles. There’s no room to experiment here. You just choose an option from a menu and watch the spell unfold. No room to influence the on-screen action, no room to pretend that you can, not even any spectacle to line your button presses up to so you can pretend you’re a part of the experience. It just becomes a boring, overly functional battle.
Meremanoid strikes me as a game that got lucky once, which is what makes it all the more painful to experience. Seeing what the game is already able to achieve speaks to what the game could have been in better hands. And these achievements aren’t worth dismissing, either.The game shows a lot of potential regarding what it does with social conventions and storytelling techniques. Yet given the accidental impression the game leaves, it only ever remains potential. In the end, my feelings on this game are complicated, as they are with everything else.