The games of Hidetaka Suehiro (better known as Swery) impart a distinctly identifiable creative vision. He revels in grounding you in the mundane before throwing you off balance with a moment of absurd humor or plunging you into a sequence of fantastical horror. Before you know it, that ground has opened up and swallowed you whole. The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories feels smaller and less ambitious than his most recent works, Deadly Premonition or D4, but it could not be mistaken for anything other than a Swery game. At heart, it is a 2D platformer akin to Limbo or Inside that alternates between ambiguous narrative beats with frequently macabre puzzles, wrapped in a creeping sense of dread. As a puzzle-platformer, it succeeds in testing your timing and your wits despite a couple of overly finicky sections. As a story, it deftly explores themes of teen sexuality and identity with a rare tenderness, though it would ultimately be better served by a guiding hand that wasn't quite so determined to have a big late-game reveal.
You play as J.J. Macfield, a first-year college student living away from both home and the prying eyes of a loving yet conservative mother. On a holiday break, J.J. goes on a camping trip with best friend Emily, who goes missing during the night, spurring J.J. to set off and find her. J.J.'s search takes place on the small Memoria Island off the coast of Maine, whose indigenous name translates, appropriately enough, as "the place to find the lost." Even though it is set on the opposite side of the continent to Deadly Premonition, The Missing sees Swery return to quaint, semi-rural American landscapes where J.J. will travel through fields dotted with windmills, a sawmill, a lonely diner in the middle of nowhere, a bowling alley on a small-town strip mall, a dilapidated church, a highly exaggerated clock tower, and so on.
Progress is made through navigating simple platforming obstacles, solving not-so-simple physics and environmental puzzles, and occasionally running the gauntlet of dramatic action sequences. An early puzzle sees you using rocks to counterweight a see-saw so J.J. can use it to reach a higher passageway, and indeed, there's a real weight and physicality to J.J.'s movement that helps support core narrative concerns gradually revealed across the course of the game. Control isn't instantly responsive, and when performing basic actions like jumping or turning around you have to wait for animations to complete before continuing. J.J. can also transition between standing upright, crouching on all fours, and lying prone in order to traverse, and it understandably takes longer to reorient yourself when flat on your belly than when standing on two feet. This weight makes you feel like you're controlling an actual human body that doesn't necessarily behave in the manner you would like it to--again reinforcing those narrative themes--but also comes into play with how you go about solving various puzzles.
Early on, J.J. inherits the ability to survive incidents that would otherwise kill you. Fall too far, for example, and you'll land with a sickening crunch. But you won't die--you'll get back up and continue on as a dark, shadow version of J.J., only with, say, a broken neck leaving you dazed and staggering. Lose a leg and J.J. resorts to hopping around and inevitably falling over, severely restricting your movement. Lose your arms and J.J. can no longer pick up objects or climb.
This grotesque mechanic informs a number of the game's puzzles--fail to crouch under a spinning buzzsaw and J.J. might be decapitated. You'll control J.J.'s head, rolling along the ground, and now able to squeeze into otherwise inaccessible crevices. Certain high impact "deaths" result not only in such injuries but flip the entire world upside down, sending J.J. tumbling to the ceiling along with any other objects affected by gravity. At any time, though, you can return this shadow version of J.J. back to original human form--limbs fully re-attached, neck un-snapped, world no longer upside down--thus ending the thematic body horror show and, more prosaically, allowing you to quickly retry that jump you missed or puzzle you mishandled. It is possible to actually die--hurling your decapitated head onto yet another spike trap will do it. But this simply resets you back to the last checkpoint, typically only a few minutes away at the start of the current puzzle section.
The Missing extracts a lot of mileage from this not-really-death mechanic. Together with the physicality of the platforming and the introduction of fire-, electricity- and water-based environmental interactions, puzzles are rarely too obvious and mostly satisfying to piece together. There were only two occasions when progress was halted by what felt like unfair means, where seemingly feasible puzzle solutions were overlooked by pedantic design, but these only make up a small number of the game's challenges overall.
As J.J.'s search continues, key milestones are greeted by the buzz of a mobile phone. Over the course of the game, J.J. exchanges a series of text messages with F.K. (no, not the chap from Deadly Premonition), a childhood plushie toy apparently come to life, and is also able to unlock past conversations with Emily and with her mother. These messages, along with additional conversations with friends unlocked via collectibles, serve to sketch out J.J.'s backstory and gradually, but elusively, relate the events leading up to the beginning of the game.
The buzz of the mobile phone right on the tail of a stressful bit of platforming can feel jarring, puncturing the moment in what feels like a typically Swery way. Tonally, the conversations are all over the place, too, veering from stonewalling a concerned parent to arranging a study session with a classmate, or shrugging at career advice from a professor to telling your plushie to shut up. But they do a terrific job of painting a portrait of J.J.'s life before it was upended by a camping trip. Reminiscent of the audio diaries in Gone Home, these text messages are a heartfelt window into the insecurities and vulnerabilities of a teenager struggling to process the ways in which they don't conform to the expectations of so-called normal society.
The Missing opens with the message: "This game was made with the belief that nobody is wrong for being what they are." It's a sentiment supported throughout, and particularly in its portrayal of the relationship between J.J. and Emily, except for one thing. The way the story structure withholds information--drip-feeding details to maintain suspense, in order to construct a surprise reveal at the end--ultimately feels like it undermines some, but crucially, not all of the good work it does along the way. The game wants to embrace diversity while at the same time treating a part of someone's identity as something of a 'gotcha' moment. It doesn't feel cynical--there are no bad intentions detected here--but its execution comes off as clumsy and its impact is diminished.
The faltering plot twist doesn't detract from the overall experience. The Missing is smaller and more mechanically conventional than Deadly Premonition or D4, but its components remain focused on distinctly a Swery game: a dark, idiosyncratic experience that tells a deeply personal story that's as confronting as it is sincere. It is absolutely not for everyone, but as the game reminds us, there is nothing wrong with that.