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Review: Simulacra

3 Dec 2019

An increasing interest in alternate reality games, or ARGs, has led to a surge in titles focused on using items such as our own phones to uncover secrets. A Normal Lost Phone is a great example of storytelling through the use of a mobile phone to uncover more information about the fictional phone’s missing owner. Laying down breadcrumbs in the form of emails, text messages, or even photos can come together to create a great combination of environmental storytelling and puzzle-solving.

This is something that Kaigan Games’ Simulacra had done well in the mobile version of this game, originally released in 2017. Now that it is available on the Nintendo Switch, though, the port is leaving much to be desired. 

Don’t Look For Me

Simulacra begins with a simple phone screen, the mode of viewing and playing you’ll experience for the entire game. Upon starting it up, Simulacra shows its creepier side through a video made by a character named Anna. Quickly, players will realize that this “phone” they are looking at belongs to Anna, and there are quite a few people trying to find her after she has seemingly vanished into thin air.

Throughout the story you’ll meet the friends and enemies Anna has made, while learning more about the missing girl herself. The fictional phone screen becomes your portal into Anna’s life as you unfold the mystery. At times the game will switch things up and give more of a fourth-wall-breaking effect where you access your own “phone.” Small details in the design lead to a few hair-raising moments in a story that will keep you on your toes. If late-night horror stories or creepy-pasta are your thing then this story is definitely for you. 

While the plot twists and general story-telling can border on cheesy at times, the game as a whole has some strong writing. The overall story itself plays into interesting ideas and conspiracy theories about technology that I think gives the game some strength. There’s also a lot to be said for the character development that Simulacra provides for Anna and a few of the other characters, something that can be hard to do with a game in this format. It’s safe to say that the writing and storytelling are the highlights of this game.

Discover the Truth

For fans of similar games, such as Bury Me, My Love or A Normal Lost Phone, you may be familiar with storytelling through exploring a character’s phone or texts. In Simulacra you will unravel the truth of Anna’s life, what happened to her, and work with others to discover what comes next. A variety of apps are used to piece together the story such as a fictional Tinder (Spark), Twitter (Jabbr), and even a video platform called Vloggr. These apps, coupled with emails and text messages, help you understand who Anna really was and what larger forces are at work. The phone itself even becomes a character through the not-so-friendly AI called Iris. 

Puzzles are abundant in Simulacra as you decipher passwords, fix “broken” messages, and unlock more information. None of the puzzles are particularly challenging, but if you aren’t paying attention, or taking notes, you may miss out on a few of the tougher ones. You’ll also be able to select the responses you prefer throughout the story when texting other in-game characters or messaging strangers on Spark. The game even has a level of replayability, as you’ll be able to choose different endings, whether you realize it or not.

A Frustrating User Experience

When it comes to this release of Simulacra, I think it presents a perfect example of a port that never should have been. In other “mobile-first” titles such as A Normal Lost Phone, the port to Switch has been fairly straightforward. The screen is titled vertically and the touchscreen capabilities of the Switch are used to interact with the game, much like an actual phone. As a big fan of both mobile and Switch games, I had yet to experience a port that forced me to play horizontally, without the touchscreen, and yet the phone screen was still the same. This display decision creates a myriad of issues, not the least of which include breaking of immersion and lack of vision accessibility. 

The text in Simulacra is relatively small. This isn’t as much of an issue in the mobile version, as phone screens are vertical and therefore the text can actually appear larger than when it appears on the Switch. I found myself breaking out my glasses, squinting, and sometimes inducing a headache just to read much of the text on Simulacra on Switch. While I will give the team props for adding subtitles, they’re still not up to par for anyone without perfect vision. As an advocate for vision accessibility in games, I cannot, in good faith, give any praise for this poor design decision. Additionally, viewing a phone screen in such an odd way feels unnatural and breaks any immersion the game is trying to achieve. A lack of responsiveness from the touchscreen, when interacting with the phone, also adds to this issue.

In the mobile version of Simulacra, Anna’s phone feels real, exploring her messages and life feels immersive, and I truly feel that that version provides the intended experience. Based on the general mechanics of the Switch port, I cannot understand why it was necessary when the original version feels so much more complete. 

Missed Connection

As someone that originally played the mobile version when it was released, I can assure you that the story has remained the same. You won’t be missing out on anything by experiencing the mobile game and not the Switch version, which I would highly suggest you do. The story of this game is what made me excited to review the Switch port, and is why my scoring is ultimately higher than it would have been, but the mechanics of this game are what keep me from recommending it. 

For all of its faults in the Switch port, Simulacra is still a fun experience. If you love ARGs, can get past the UI issues, and really can’t be bothered to play it on mobile, then you might just find a fun and hair-raising experience. The characters are interesting, the twist is fun if not a bit out-there, and the general gameplay mechanics allow for some great immersion. I’ve recommended Simulacra to a lot of friends over the years and still swear that is a game right in my wheelhouse. But this particular port just falls flat for me. 

If the story of finding a girl that’s missing under some very suspicious circumstances, while learning about who she really was, sounds interesting then you will definitely want to pick up Simulacra. But if you want a clean, simple experience that won’t tarnish your feelings on the story, then I cannot recommend playing the Switch port, especially if you have any vision issues that may prevent your ability to read the screen properly. Do yourself a favor and download this mysterious story on your phone instead.  

~ Final Score: 4/10 ~

Review copy provided by Kaigan Gamesfor Nintendo Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Kaigan Games.