Meremanoid - Staff Retroview  

No Boys Allowed
by Michael Baker

20-40 Hours
+ Story is interesting...
- ... but doesn't go far enough.
+ Good plot twists, though.
- Bland dungeon design.
- Poor controls.
- No camera control.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Meremanoid is one of those games I'd seen mentioned from time to time, mostly as a name on a list. When I found it in the bargain bin for five dollars, the combination of price, vague name recognition, and sexy mermaid cover art was enough to pique my interest.

   It's impossible to talk about this game without going into detail over the setting. As might be suggested by the title, Mermanoid is set completely underwater. For all that, certain staples of RPG topography still manage to make themselves seen. There are underwater mountains, caverns, and broad expanses of sand that for lack of a better term are referred to as the desert. One cave has a large field of high-density muck that passes for a swamp. There's a region of underwater volcanoes, and another one set beneath an ice cap.

   All of this terrain is explored in three dimensions. Mermaids are natural born swimmers, so instead of just walking around the hero has to take all directions into account. It feels a bit like a flight-simulator — a poorly adapted flight simulator with non-existent camera control, no joystick compatibility (D-pad only), and a tendency to get the main character stuck on the edge of objects which may not actually exist.

   To make navigation more of a headache, the graphics are about what one would expect of 3D in an old, first generation PlayStation title — which is not what one wants to hear of a game that was published concurrently with Final Fantasy VIII. Dungeons are long series of rectangular panels with little variation in scenery. Characters appear as blocky, faceless dolls distinguishable largely by hair and tail coloration, which is a shame considering how nice the character art is. The game's two videos (both part of the intro sequence) are such a drastic jump in quality from the actual gameplay graphics that they only underscore how pathetic most of the game looks.

I wish more parts of the game looked like this... I wish more parts of the game looked like this...

   The game's premise and story have a lot more going for them. Based on an anime series from the mid-90s, the plot goes something like this: ages ago the goddess Aphrodite created the world, but the jealous Merdam, also known as the Destroyer, contested her control. After a great battle, the Destroyer was locked away forever, and the denizens of Meremanoia flourished, building a civilization in their Creatrice's image — peaceful, compassionate, and very female. This is how the Church and the royal family choose to interpret things, at least. What the priestly Mer-Lion caste doesn't like to talk about is the sacred text that foretells the coming of a new Destroyer, one who looks like a Meremanoid but is not. Words cannot describe this being — but only because the language of the mermaids contains no masculine adjectives.

   In other words, the Y chromosome is believed to be the Harbinger of the Apocalypse.

   All of this is slowly revealed over the course of the game, but the main character's true identity is obvious early on to anyone with any concept of gender. Unfortunately, despite having a plot and premise worthy of discussion in a college gender studies course, the game's writers failed to capitalize on it. The story rarely deviates from the main plot, and while some attempt is made to add depth to the characters, it isn't enough. More interaction and banter would have been appreciated, as well as some better build-up to major events and reveals. As it is, most of the important parts of the plot are revealed in long dramatic sequences in which the main characters usually are not present. It's hard to say how much the original anime influenced this title, as the two appear to have very different plotlines.

   On the other hand, its anime origins helped to provide Meremanoid with a decent soundtrack. It's not particularly groundbreaking, but it's easy on the ears, and good enough on its own to let the music run while doing other things around the house.

   The other item that ran up the game-clock was the skills leveling system. Meremanoid did some interesting things here. Physical hits have a damage cap of 99, so strings of hits are required to succeed. Each character must learn new hit combinations as the game progresses, starting with two or three simple one-hit attacks for her weapon of choice. Whenever a critical hit is landed, the character gets another hit in. If the combination of first and extra hits matches a hit combo for that character's current weapon, a new attack skill is learned. This "add one more" system continues through the game until the character has skills that hit five times or more with ease. Also, using a particular skill with a particular weapon can unlock powerful finishing moves.

   What can make this system a headache is that the skills are usually tied to specific weapons, and different weapon types have different skills. Skipping a weapon in a sequence or switching between weapon types too frequently can lead to the player accidentally missing out on better attacks. It's possible to cover for this by making the most of the magic-using characters, but it's far from optimal. If left for too long, it can take hours to catch up on skills, making the game's handful of sidequests (especially the rare monsters quest) more useful.

Instead of like this. Instead of like this.

   The last thing that needs to be said about combat in Meremanoid is that it's strangely semi-automatic. The player can set the characters' attack skills at the beginning and let them continue for the rest of the battle, if that's what works. More often than not, that method will get everyone killed in the long run, so the player will have to stop the action regularly with the X button in order to set commands for spells, items, or finishing moves.

   Animation load times in Meremanoid were noticeable and annoying. Upon entering a town the background music usually loads well before the town does, but with an obvious lag that makes the tune sound like it's in slow-motion. A similar effect occurs every time a spell is cast in battle, as the combat music and animations visibly slow down a few seconds before the spell happens.

   Meremanoid presents an odd set of contrasts and missed opportunities. It possesses one of the most unique settings and plot premises seen in the role-playing genre, but doesn't take it as far as it could. It has beautiful opening videos and character art, but lackluster graphics everywhere else. Its battle and skills systems are like nothing I've ever seen, but they're haphazardly documented, slightly random, and easy to miss out on. With all the material that went into it, this could have been an excellent title in every way. Were it to be remade on a recent system with better graphics, I might even consider picking it up again. As it is, I have to conclude that Meremanoid was largely a missed opportunity in every sense.

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