With the release of Massira, developer Frost Monkey has taken an opportunity to highlight the plight of the millions who have been displaced by the Syrian Civil War. Despite these good intentions, the game suffers from a lack of meaningful commentary across its three-hour plot, whilst the crudely assembled gameplay quickly unmoors itself from a recognisable human reality.
Massira is the story of Numi, a young Syrian girl, and her grandmother Yara. When the bombing of her city leaves her home in ruins and her parents dead, Numi’s journey to escape the militia and find safe passage out of the warzone begins. The dogged sensibility of early stages spent dragging debris and mattresses in order to clear barbed wire fences is largely forgotten by the end of the first hour, when your progression is dictated by your ability to solve simple environmental puzzles to make force fields disappear. Your loading screen between chapters shows on a map your flight through the Middle East and into Europe, but outside of a detainment camp halfway through, the level settings are shallow and empty — to say nothing of the bizarre scenarios you’re forced through. One moment you’ll be reflecting on a pile of washed up lifejackets on the Greek coastline, and the next bouncing on mushrooms or jumping onto floating rocks.
Both the camera and your character (normally Numi, but occasionally Yara as well) control poorly, and they force a constant struggle to maintain movement in a set direction. This is acceptable in larger unpopulated areas, but when hiding from guards or hopping across pillars it presents a bigger obstacle than the ones designed in the gameplay. We enjoyed the use of both characters simultaneously to solve some of the puzzles, as holding L1 will order Yara to move to a different switch or position to help Numi along. However, when expected to control both together in real time using dual analogue sticks you’re set back by varying responsiveness, and a camera which won’t zoom out to allow you to see both characters. In fairness, there are a number of attempts at different game styles across Massira (puzzle, stealth, platforming) — and although they can be a bit anaemic, the variety is appreciated.
‘Low poly’ art styles are very popular nowadays, with games like Superhot or Ashen gaining praise for their visual styles — it’s encouraging to see that tastes have broadened to allow for smaller game studios and processing powers to get a look in, amongst AAA titles with their faces pressed up against the glass of photorealism. Massira is trading on stripped-down graphics, but the whole thing feels off, unfinished almost. Some NPCs are just a plain white bowling pin, and others are inscrutable dollops of faces and clothing. Visual appeal is certainly a subjective quality, but when objects and backgrounds constantly pop in and out of view, and the environments lack any flair to make you want to engage with the experience, it reminded us of a rudimentary Flash game.
It would be fair to assert that Massira is designed for a younger audience, with its straightforward text dialogue presenting Numi’s reactions to events in the broadest of terms, akin to a child’s storybook. With the majority of exposition taking place through brief, misspelt exchanges between Numi and Yara, you lose a greater sense of the ordeal they are supposed to be facing. Collectible newspaper clippings scattered across each chapter are the only source of more meaningful information, with each containing a short paragraph about living conditions or the wars from which they are escaping. If this is meant to be an opportunity to learn more about the lives of refugees, we’d argue this content shouldn’t be squirreled away for only the eagle-eyed to find.
We applaud Frost Monkey’s decision to produce a game raising awareness of the plight of refugees, but Massira simply won’t be the experience to gain enough exposure or provide enough insight to further the cause. It’s not enjoyable enough to draw in the player, and even if you do stick around until the end there’s no emotional or factual pay-off to reward your visit. No matter your age, if this is a subject unknown to you then your time would be better spent with your search engine, and in the space of half an hour you’ll achieve more than Massira manages in three. The soundtrack is very nice though (and available to listen to on Bandcamp courtesy of composer Christian Bliss) so you can always put it on in the background while you do so.
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