Hey, tank controls! I know those! And having to choose between moving and shooting? That’s just like most of my favourite Resident Evils (and the other one)! Just one question: How the heck do you make a good action game starring a slinky mercenary when you’re using a control scheme that, fundamentally, isn’t all that different from the one found in the dark and distant past of slow-paced horror-adventure gaming? The one intended to bring tension and awkward uncertainty to small rooms with weird camera angles and elaborate carpeted stairs that could only be navigated with a button press and a first-person cutscene?
Quite well, actually. P.N.03 (That’s pronounced “Pee En Three”, even if my brain always insists on saying “Pee En Oh Three”. While we’re here please fell free to mock my other weird internal misreading: “Silent Hill Oranges“) is Shinji Mikami’s sadly still GameCube exclusive 2003 stylish shooting action game – no, not that stylish shooting action game: all spotless sci-fi curves, deadly robots, fancy sunglasses, and movement logic that’s up to its armpits in 1996. Once you’ve adjusted to the idea that yes, someone really did think a nonstop action game needed stop-turn-forward-turn controls in the 21st century on hardware that came with dual analogue sticks (and triggers!) as standard and start playing for yourself… you’ll die. A lot. You’ll probably be facing the wrong way when it happens too – and worst of all it’ll be to things you know in your heart aren’t even supposed to move the needle on the challenge meter yet here you are, busily rearranging Vanessa’s face with incoming lasers. On my own inauspicious return I blew through all three of my initial continues just a few rooms into the first mission. A setback like that can feel more than a little disheartening when it happens, but in the end it was an important, and necessary, lesson: I wasn’t playing P.N.03 badly, I was playing P.N.03 wrong.
Approaching this as if it’s just another straightforward “Kill everything before it kills you” action game won’t get you very far at all: You may end up doing a lot of it but the basic palm-shot robot shooting itself is really more of a secondary aspect of P.N.03’s design, as strange as that sounds. It’s too simplistic (mash the button, then keep mashing the same button) to be anything more than the way to get rid of enemies if you’re hording your precious Energy Drives for something else, more of a practical means to an end than the heart of the game’s sense of fun. The true core of the game lies in protecting our foot-tapping leading lady from an ever-changing barrage of enemy fire, in keeping one eye on a distant robot’s visual telegraphing of an upcoming attack while swiftly destroying a group of closer ones and then elegantly moving to the side with a single tap of a shoulder button just as those life-draining remote missiles were just about to hit their mark. Even so, when viewed in the harsh light of 2020… isn’t that what a lot of games do? Don’t we have whole series fall under the “cover shooter” umbrella these days? Yes – but P.N.03’s not about lobbing grenades from behind a bit of crumbling brickwork, this sleek dodge ’em up wants you to learn how to deliberately expose and then manage the danger Vanessa’s in all for the sake of scoring lots of points – the game’s depth comes in the way it makes sure your safe zones are an ever-shifting dance based on new enemy appearances, wide open areas with little cover, and destructible barriers and obstacles that should only be cautiously relied upon to provide some temporary safety.
With all of that in mind I had another go and did much better, (eventually) pirouetting through enemy fire with something approximating grace, and although I didn’t make it to the end of the mission I could still feel all the parts slowly falling into place. My third run finally held that magical “I GET IT!” moment, breezing through the first chapter and finding myself not only consistently getting away from danger but even deliberately using the extensive invincibility frames in Vanessa’s lengthy Energy Drive motions to pose my way through an otherwise deadly attack.
It. Was. Glorious.
Vanessa herself moves beautifully, so beautifully in fact that one of the game’s greatest rewards is learning how to make her glide around the screen like the world’s deadliest ballet dancer, backflipping away from gunfire and decimating scores of enemies without even breaking a sweat. She’s lithe, attractive, powerful, and utterly unflappable. She’s everything I wanted Bayonetta to be. Sadly the unlockable “Papillon” suit – think “sexy” sci-fi lingerie coupled with a butterfly tattoo whose backstory can only be “Let me tell you about my insistent tattoo-loving friend and that time we drunk a lot of cheap wine together” rather spoils the tone – even more so when you realise the suit offers absolutely no protection against enemy shots, which means wearing it doubles as an extra and supremely hardcore challenge mode (there’s a unique ending scene if you clear the game with it on as well). Imagine the reaction if any other action game forced the leading man to constantly gyrate his exposed buttocks at anyone hoping to play through the hardest difficulty? The whole game would become a flippin’ meme. Are most people ever going to see it, never mind use it? No. Is it a game-ruining disaster? Of course not. But did we almost have a game where a clearly beautiful woman was allowed to be a capable fully-clothed professional the whole way through without being reduced to the most obvious and boring sort of sex appeal? Yes, yes we did.
It won’t take long to complete P.N.03 as it’s only a few hours long even with optional extra runs through the points-farming Trial Missions (a fabulously balanced way to earn the currency – which is also your score – needed to go on suit-upgrading and continue-buying shopping sprees: You can have as many of anything as you like, but you’ve got to earn it all yourself) and one rather rusty woman at the helm, but as with so many arcade classics it’s not enough to progress through levels until you hit an ending; to get the most of the game you’ve got to want to play well. As with all the best examples of “character action” games there’s a slow, safe, combo-destroying, way through a tricky situation and a quick-but-dangerous alternative that will either see you leave the room with a huge points boost or kill you off very quickly. To it’s credit both methods will work even if P.N.03 does its best to encourage players to lean more towards the riskier play style, the ever-visible score total and combo timers counting down to the centisecond serving as constant updates on your immediate situation and full gradings appearing after every single room (very Dino Crisis 2) giving a more detailed breakdown on your current performance.
This combo-chaining points extravaganza (or missile-eating continue-o-tron, depending on how well you’re doing) plays out in an interchangeable series of rooms decorated in that timeless end of the millenium music video style. They’re a sea of featureless white curves, short and very simple areas with little – and sometimes nothing – to differentiate them from one another (this repetition is slap-you-in-the-face obvious even on a blind first run through). Whether you’re hoping for challenging platform segments or rows of deadly lasers to flip through with perfect timing, there’s never anything here that will put up any real resistance, and if (if) a corridor dares to have two exits the “wrong” one will always lead to some pickups or a hidden shop with a dead end shortly after, swiftly forcing you back the way you came. Disappointing, right? However – much like a certain modern action game – they’re not really meant to be “areas” in the sense of accurately representing a specific location at all, but carefully designed arenas created for you to do combat in. The battle system is everything to P.N.03, and the stages exist purely to enhance that silky-smooth laser choreography. The steady stream of robotic enemies operate as a series of interwoven puzzles: There’s the long distance problem, the small nimble in-your-face problem, the “Oh heck I need to prioritise this or I’m gonna die” problem. Some will track Vanessa’s movement as they fire, forcing you to take cover, while others take aim and then blindly shoot straight ahead, allowing you to shift to the side and still continue firing. As you learn their unique rhythms and the layouts of each repeated chunk you’ll find yourself pushing things further and further until you’re deliberately running ahead as the last remnants of your “Harrier” Energy Drive bounce off the walls because you know you can catch the spawn at the end in the final burst for a quick combo-boosting kill if you’re fast enough.
In keeping with the game’s arcade-like atmosphere the climax of most stages is an intense battle against a room-sized (or sometimes a room’s worth) monstrosity made of metal, missiles, and death. These battles pull no punches and a few can be over in seconds if you get them wrong… or right. This do-or-die approach (I should also stress that more cautious-minded players won’t find them quite as binary as this) is absolutely electrifying but crucially never unfair: Every single boss chamber without fail – even the brief gauntlets of lightly reheated foes towards the end – is preceded by a pair of full health and energy replenishing orbs. Thanks to this small touch every player who manages to survive long enough to reach these climactic fights will be as prepared as anyone else, and everyone will have guaranteed access to their giant laser-ignoring Energy Drive moves. Should the worst happen it’s possible to restart the battle with full health and energy (continues willing) – something that may sound like a prime opportunity for some mindless credit feeding – but as the fights are just as reset as Vanessa is it’s impossible for anyone to pay their way to victory.
P.N.03 is unique in that it offers a very distilled sort of score-focused trial that isn’t seen often enough at this level – you’d expect this sort of experimentation from an ambitious indie or farmed out by a bigger company before being left to die – but this was a game developed internally by a prestigious international company with one of their biggest stars at the wheel (even if it was apparently made, by Capcom standards, very quickly and on as little money as possible – there’s the real reason why there’s just one human model all game). However coming back to it years later the game never quite escapes feeling like it’s the rough draft of something better, a working prototype for another project (do go and play Vanquish by the way) – it’s good, but it needs a P.N.03-2 to make the concept great. It’s also living proof that enemies firing shots from off-camera isn’t realistic or challenging, it’s just irritating and unfair (not that I’m annoyed). But these are ultimately minor disappointments in a game that has mostly successfully spun what less creative hands would see as straw into shining gold. P.N.03 still stands apart from the action game crowd, tapping one foot to its own beat.