Developer: NapNok Games
Platform: PS4 (smartphone required)
Review code provided
I don’t think people will appreciate PlayLink for what it’s been trying to do until after it’s gone. Being able to play a PS4 game with your grandmother on a smartphone is, admittedly, a gimmick, but a gimmick that should be embraced more than it has been so far — you just need to browse through app stores and see the download data to know that PlayLink hasn’t exactly taken over.
Frantics is the last game on the slate from E3 2017 when the unique idea was first introduced, and then rather unanimously discredited. We’ve had some hits and a couple of drab but acceptable affairs so far, so can Frantics finally prove the cynics wrong and provide the shot in the arm PlayLink needs?
Yes, in the sense that it’s possibly the most satisfying and deep of all the PlayLink party games, and no because there’s only so far a collection of mini-games can take you unless Mario’s face is plastered all over them.
Your host for Frantics is a sardonic fox — think Basil Brush if he lived exclusively on opiates. Across three different modes, he constantly pops up and berates you, cracking wise at your expense. He’s a good anchor for all of the weird, voiceless animals you can play as, even if his speech is rather tragically out of sync.
Playing Frantics is as easy as downloading the app to your smartphone and taking it from there; I was thankfully spared any connection issues that have previously been a hindrance when playing PlayLink games. Compared to other games in the series, Frantics is mainly motion-based with your phone’s movement acting as the controller to move your animal. It doesn’t vary it up all that much, sometimes asking you to just hold down a button or slingshot a chair, but instead retains a satisfying simplicity that means even non-gamers shouldn’t have any issues.
The mini-games themselves run the usual gamut of fun and mundane; you will rarely ever find a party game that is killer and no filler all the way through. A few definitely stood out more than others, but my highlight had to be the wonderfully inventive Hot-Rod Heroes. The basic gist is that it’s a drag racer to see who can reach the finishing line first, but with a unique twist: your opponents can choose upgrades/downgrades for your car. For instance, my wonderful girlfriend elected to have me bounce along the track instead of actually driving along it, so my only solution was to “gift” her with square wheels. There was plenty of swearing, which I guess is the intention when it was designed.
There are a couple of others that I would always be happy to rotate into during the main mode of the game, in which the fox randomly selects different mini-games before the grand finale. Chair Riots sees you trying to reach the bullseye on a target of what looks like a mini-golf course, though it’s more akin to curling — you can imagine the conflict whenever one player would nudge another out of those sweet, sweet points. Elsewhere, Big-Top Hoppity Hop is pretty much exactly how it sounds: hop around and try not to get eliminated, or at least put up with the annoying alien noises that come out of your deformed clay animals. There are plenty more that are at least enjoyable in the short-term, but I just couldn’t get along with Heavy Metal (Hungry Hippos, basically), Friendless Runner, or Trappy Fields, to name a few.
It’s hard to sustain interest in mini-games if there’s no ultimate goal, which Frantics luckily has. Each time you win a mini-game, you are given a crown, which can then be converted into extra hearts for the Grand Finale. So, if you’ve been playing poorly or have just been unlucky up to that point, you have far less of a chance when it comes to being the last one standing. My girlfriend and I would face-off against two AI opponents (because we don’t really like other people that much) and came out on top a couple of times, but the AI is no slouch. Frantics is best played with up to three friends, but it’s almost as challenging and exciting to take on whichever challengers the game makes the numbers up with. The girlfriend and I would regularly go, erm, ham on an AI-controlled pig and gang up on them whenever we could. He still won, the swine.
An interesting introduction to Frantics are its coins. These can be collected during mini-games through either just picking them up, hitting objectives, or for completing secret missions, à la Hidden Agenda. This typically favours the losing player so that they can work their way back into proceedings by using them at auctions, which is a neat little way of getting special items. These power-ups are useful for a particular mini-game for the final round, or right at the end in the climactic face-off. There’s clearly been a lot of time and effort poured into making Frantics a more creative game than some of its PlayLink peers.
However, some simple design flaws ultimately let Frantics down. While the fox having the same dub as English localisations of Asian movies from the sixties is harmless and almost endearing, the lack of real, noticeable variation in the animals themselves can make everything rather confusing. They are different colours and shapes, but their intentionally “flat” and muted design means that it’s really hard to keep track of where you are, leading to a whole lot of confusion when things get hectic.
The game’s pacing also really seems at odds with the mayhem of its mini-games. The interim tends to sort of just plod along, like it’s loading something in the background discreetly. The fox will talk in a slow, methodical manner with long pauses between sequences — not great when you just want to dive right back in and get your revenge on the girl you love for beating you at Chair Riots for the nineteenth time in a row.
Much like the rest of the games in the PlayLink library, Frantics is serious fun while it lasts. By bringing enough of its own innovative ideas to the table and a sincere sense of competitiveness at the same time, it’s arguably the best PlayLink title to date.