Along with zombies, ninjas, Nazis, and robots, alien invaders are one of the more perfect archetypal video game foils--they're aggressive, they're plentiful, and they're easy for everyone to want to hate. Under the Skin turns the tables on you, putting you in the role of an antagonistic alien named Cosmi who has arrived on Earth, not so much in search of world domination or to kill all humans, but just to really annoy everyone. It's an interesting idea to play the part of the invading alien, and there's a very colorful, bizarre visual style at work here, but the single-player game is short, the gameplay is simple, and the game just doesn't seem to go anywhere.
Cosmi is from Planet Mischief. The rules on Planet Mischief dictate that, once a mischiefian turns three, he or she is packed up and sent off to another planet to prove that he or she can cause trouble, as a sort of a right of passage. Cosmi has bigger plans, though, and chooses to be sent to Earth for his prank-filled vision quest. It's well known throughout the universe that Earth is populated by the most cunningly vicious and barbaric creatures in the cosmos--humans. If Cosmi can cause enough trouble on Earth, not only will he have completed his right of passage, but he'll also return to Planet Mischief a hero.
So, as Cosmi, a short, blue, bigheaded alien with a squeaky voice and a pair of diapers, you head out into the world to irritate all the earthlings you can find. Your natural appearance makes it impossible for you to go about unnoticed, so you'll have to steal the identity of an actual human with your handy ray gun. Once you've sucked them up with your alien technology, you'll have to find one of the low-flying UFOs that are scattered throughout all the levels before you can transmogrify. When you're wearing the human disguise, the other people milling about the level won't give you any trouble--that is, until you start messing with them. For whatever reason, every person has five "prank slots," and assuming the form of a person you've zapped will also give you access to whatever they had in their prank slots. These pranks run from basic schoolyard stuff--tacks on the ground, some especially pungent flatulence--to some seriously over-the-top stuff like land-shark attacks, a stampede of elephants, and giant hamburgers that fall from the sky.
Pulling a prank on someone will cause him or her to spout out a handful of coins. Each level presents you with a time limit and some sort of coin-based objective, which usually involves hording as many as you possibly can. Anyone you pull a prank on will instantly become steaming mad, and will start chasing you and trying to give you the beating that you so richly deserve. Getting hit once will knock you down to your skivvies, Ghosts 'N Goblins style, which tends to get you some weird looks from other people on the street, but a second hit will cause you to lose a significant number of coins, and it will also cause you to revert to your natural alien appearance, which really freaks people out. The only way to get people you've pranked to leave you alone is to steal another person's appearance and head to one of those transmogrifying UFOs.
A pattern is pretty quickly established: Use up all your pranks, zap an earthling, find a UFO, repeat. The game tries to mix things up with panic time, a quick 15 or 20 seconds during which you have some additional challenge to deal with--usually an additional enemy coming after you. You'll also have to contend with another prankster from Planet Mischief in several of the levels, one who is intent on freaking out the earthlings but also wants to trip up your mischief-making. Sure, most of the gameplay mechanics feel really contrived, but the whole setup is so outlandish that it's hard to complain about a lack of realism. The problem is that there really isn't much depth to the action. Some of the visuals for the pranks are pretty amusing--the bad karaoke singing is our personal favorite--but when that novelty wears off, all you have left are some repetitive gameplay mechanics. The single-player game is made up of eight fairly small levels, most of which have 10-minute time limits at the most, and even at their hardest they take only a handful of tries to beat. You can revisit these levels in either a two-player versus or a two-player co-op mode. Like virtually any multiplayer mode, these are at least a little fun, but they don't really elevate the experience that much, and their inclusion adds only a marginal amount of replay value to the game.
Though the levels aren't especially large, and there isn't a particularly striking level of detail, the game uses a well-executed cel-shading effect to produce a nice, clean look. There's an inherent charm to cel-shaded graphics, and Under the Skin builds on this with its own goofy character designs. The people are all extreme caricatures--the fat house wives are really fat, the little kids are really little, and the sexy young ladies are really sexy--and this sort of design ethic matches the cel-shaded style pretty well. The people also react to the pranks in a pretty severe manner, and when their heads get all huge and red, it's pretty easy to discern that they're a bit miffed. Each of the rather small levels has a unique theme--there's a Wild West town, an ancient-Egypt town, and even a little berg called Raccoon City, where there's a really nasty cold going around. It can make the game feel a little schizophrenic at times, but it also helps keep things fresh.
The mildly oddball look of the game contrasts pretty severely with the drab sound design. Each of the themed levels is accompanied by an appropriate style of music, but none of it is particularly interesting or catchy, and it tends to just fall into the background. The rest of the sound design is equally uninspired, and the effects for picking up coins and using one of the transmogrifying UFOs sound like they could have been pulled from a Capcom arcade game from the mid-'90s. The screams of the people you pull pranks on or who see you in your alien form are pretty well done, and are one of the few little glints of the game's subversive core that you'll find in the game's otherwise pedestrian sound.
Under the Skin is built mostly on novelty, but all its quirky pieces don't really add up to a particularly compelling title. It has style, attitude, and even some interesting concepts, but rather than putting some work into making a gameplay experience that has variety and lasting appeal, its developers apparently tried to get by on weird charm alone. This weird charm may be enough to keep a person amused for the duration of a rental, but the game certainly won't hold up any longer than that.