As a kid, I always dreamed of being a hero. I don't mean that I one day hoped to grow up and become a fireman, a fighter pilot, an astronaut, or Indiana Jones though. No, I wasn't interested in waiting until I was an adult to become a hero; I wanted to be a hero... NOW! As such, I was a big fan of movies like The Never Ending Story and Back To The Future, where (relative) youngsters are sucked into some fantastic adventure and end up saving the day. Where is all this leading you ask? Well it just so happens that this idea of an ordinary kid suddenly being whisked away from his mundane, day-to-day existence and embroiled in something far more exciting forms the back-story to this tidy little DS RPG from Rising Star Games.
Contact begins with us meeting an eccentric professor and his dog, who are flying around the universe in a space craft the professor has invented. Landing on a nearby planet, the professor encounters a young lad, and before said lad can say 'but I haven't had my tea yet, and it's beans on toast tonight' the prof's craft is under attack, and he's fleeing the planet, boy and all, pursued by some mysterious but apparently rather angry foe.
Thus begins a long and fantastical adventure for said young boy (if you're wondering why I'm not referring to him by name, it's because he doesn't have one - you choose his moniker yourself when you first meet him. I called the little chap in my game 'George', after a joke in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon). In the ensuing space chase, the prof's craft is damaged, and thus he lands on an alien planet, hides his craft in an old sailing ship (as you do) and it's then up to George to explore the gradually unlocked locations of said planet to help get the items (called 'Cells') needed to repair the professor's ship.
And that's about it for the storyline. From there on in it's staple RPG fair - wander the unfolding exotic locations, meet the varied inhabitants and talk with them, help them or fight them, collect objects, solve simple puzzles (with the help of digital stickers called 'Decals' that you find as you go) and generally just enjoy the gentle exploration. All in all, it's rather reminiscent of the early (2D) Zelda games, and that's no bad thing at all. The whole thing is actually rather relaxing in fact.
There's the look of the thing for instance - the game is basically depicted in two different visual styles. The professor, his dog and the inside of his spacecraft are shown in a crisp, outlined cartoon style, possibly inspired by Cartoon Network animations like The Powerpuff Girls and Johnny Bravo. The rest of the world, the characters you meet, and the youthful hero himself, are all shown in a very different style; one that looks almost as if they're painted in oils, which makes for some very attractive scenery. These two distinct visual styles are a nice touch, as the interior of the professor's ship generally sits on the top screen while the action unfolds on the bottom one, and the two graphical styles seem to complement each other nicely.
Anyway, add to the visual style the nice, languid pacing off the game and Contact makes for a nice, leisurely gaming experience. Even the combat is fairly chilled, being a sort of hybrid of turn-based and real-time action. As a gamer with a long-term hatred of straight turn-based combat (mainly because I always seem to lose at it) I've always enjoyed having direct control over battles instead. That said, all the button bashing can get a little tiring, so the system here is a nice compromise: to engage in combat, you enter 'battle mode' (by selecting an icon with the stylus, or tapping the B button). At this point, George gets into a fighting stance, and draws any weapons you might have equipped. There's no actual fire button though, instead, you simply move to within range of the enemy, and George strikes. The enemy will then strike back, then George will strike again, and so on.
While this might sound like standard turn-based combat, it's not, as you're free to move while all this is going on; so if you're quick with the d-pad (or stylus - movement and most actions can be done with either the control pad and buttons or the DS's trademark pen tool) then after you've made your strike you can quickly nip backwards, avoid the enemy's attack, and move back in to strike again. As I said already, I've always hated turn-based combat, but this variation on the theme I found surprisingly enjoyable, and it should hopefully satisfy both turn-based fans (you don't actually have to move) and real-time fans alike (as skill with the d-pad does actually affect the outcome of the battle) and it also fits well with the general relaxed nature of the whole game.
Contact is a great little game that offers many, many hours of adventuring fun for any DS owner. Criticisms are few and far between, but worth highlighting. First is the in-game music. It seems to have been deliberately designed in a very 'retro' style - the visual look of the professor and his dog may well be intended this way too... thinking about it, they wouldn't look much out of place in some of the old 'Ultimate' isometric 3D adventures from the Sinclair Spectrum/Commodore 64 days - but this means that it often involves a lot of high-pitched bleeps and bloops that can grate on the nerves after a while. Retro isn't always a good thing - the only reason games sounded like they did 'in the old days' was because those were the only noises the machines could make... if the programmers could have coaxed the hardware to a full-orchestral rendition of Ride Of The Valkyries instead, then they probably would have! But as I said, I get the impression that the sound is meant to be deliberately retro in many places, and no doubt many will like that.
The second criticism is more of a personal preference really, and it's down to the 'pick-up-and-put-down-ability' of this as a handheld title. To put it another way: as someone who owns a multitude of bulky, stay-at-home consoles, my handheld is almost always used on the move - while travelling, while waiting for the bus, when I've got a few minutes to spare before meeting a friend, that kind of thing. As such, I need to be able to start and stop playing at fairly short notice, which is I why I'm a big believer in the theory that all handheld games should allow for quick saves - something that Contact is sadly missing. Instead it uses location-based save points that you have to physically travel to within the game. This is but a small niggle though, and the fact that you can effectively 'sleep' your DS for long periods of time without losing your place in the game may for some people make up for the lack of instant saves.
Contact is a quirky little RPG that all DS owners should take a look at. It's got a great look and can be played without causing too much stress. The DS is the perfect console for casual gaming and Contact fits that bill perfectly, although a better save system would have been preferable.