Samuel is a douchebag.
Perhaps not enough of a douchebag to endure the cavalcade of bizarre horrors he’s put through as he flops his way through this wacky adventure game, but definitely a douchebag. After coasting through life with rich parents and never really having to work for anything, his long-suffering girlfriend finally snaps and… breaks his jawbone. Some might consider that a disproportionate response, those people have clearly never met Samuel. Staggering out into the street after his girlfriend, Samuel gets crushed by a speeding truck, declared eight kinds of dead, and sent straight to hell.
This is where he meets Death, who is, for some reason, an amalgamation of every white kid who listened to Eminem ever and the shitty guy at the skatepark who can’t skate but carries a board around with him everywhere anyway. Death cuts Samuel a deal – if he can survive controlling his entire body manually for a single day, he can get back to his comfortable spoiled life. And that’s where the game’s core concept comes into play.
Samuel can’t do anything without player input. He can’t breathe or blink or co-ordinate his walking. Forget to breathe in and you’ll pass out, try to walk forward with the same leg twice and you’ll collapse into a bug-eyed heap. Doing even the simplest tasks can resort in painful injury for our noodle-limbed friend. It’s easy to see parallels with Octodad, but Manual Samuel is different. Yeah, both games feature a main character sprawling all over the scenery, making mountains out of everyday chores, but where Octodad is a happy-go-lucky Disney cartoon of a game, Samuel’s misadventure is decidedly more of an exercise in schadenfreude. You will laugh the first few times you try to scale some stairs and ragdoll back down because you didn’t time your steps right. There’s a certain joy in seeing Samuel’s face slowly turn blue as he waits on your button press to suck down air, the simple animation somehow brilliantly capturing his bemused frustration.
As the game ticks by it begins to feel as though the clever mechanic is not going to be used to maximum potential, and later stages that have you piloting a giant mech through the city blowing up robots or executing super-friendly demons in Hell just don’t feel as inspired as the level that simply has you driving to work in a manual car. Too often levels and static, repetitive boss battles go on for far too long, like someone telling you a mildly amusing joke and then repeating it until you rip their teeth out to burst your own eardrums. Which, coincidentally, pretty much sums up the Death character perfectly. I like that Perfectly Paranormal took a few chances here, steering well away from all the established stereotypes for Hell and the Four Horsemen, but Death’s jokes and flat persona are a swing and a miss 90% of the time. I recall one reluctant chuckle amongst what feels like hundreds of lines of generic gangster-wannabe white kid slang and that was more to do with his fruitless crush on fellow Horseman of the Apocalypse, War.
The characters are more or less all setups for jokes, though, and while many of them take a backseat to Samuel’s tragic antics, they’re all full of visual quirks and voiced excellently. Death will certainly grate on you but the voice actor does a blindingly good job of acting like a total wanker throughout. Controls mostly work as intended but given the game’s focus on slapstick comedy minor missteps are constantly punished with failure animations as Samuel passes out or slumps to the ground in a lumpy heap. It’s a perfect example of a joke getting less and less funny the more you hear it. In one particular fight your adversary repeats the same short line every time you make a mistake and it turns an already frustrating experience into something that made me put my controller down before I used the charging cable to hang myself.
That might be something of an exaggeration. Manual Samuel has charm and goofy humour in spades, and somehow manages to amuse and infuriate in such perfectly balanced measures that I left the game entirely unsure whether I hated or adored it. I imagine for a lot of people there will be no middle ground – this won’t appeal at any level, or it’ll be something you’ve been waiting for all your life. If Samuel’s awkward charm lures you in, you’ll find something wonderfully new, brave and strange amongst the odd forced joke and painfully unwieldy combat sequences. If you’re still unsure the best way to make up your mind is to watch the trailer below our score and see for yourself.
- Goofy slapstick humour and dexterity challenges combine for a fresh new type of adventure game.
- Can frustrate as much as it entertains depending on your temperament. Repetitive character lines and running jokes grate – there are time attack modes available after completion but I can’t think of anything less appealing than hearing Death talk about feces again.
- The greatest moments in the game are the mundane tasks – driving a car, taking a leak, drinking coffee – and as the game progresses it leaves these little marvels behind to focus on robots, the Devil, and exploding orphanages, which somehow aren’t as entertaining.
- Clever and amusing in small doses and definitely worth the price of admission.
Manual Samuel was developed by Perfectly Paranormal and distributed by Curve Digital. You can purchase it on Steam, Xbox One, and PS4 – we reviewed the Xbox One version!