Wonder Project J2: Packed with personality—and problems

If you were going to create a lusciously animated and almost entirely pixelled “Communication Adventure” game back in 1996, and said game was going to be exclusive to one format… you’d put it on the Saturn, wouldn’t you? Or if not that then definitely the PlayStation. Or both. Or both and PCs too. Or maybe even the PC-FX.

But the N64? Never.

Not that Givro listened. And looking at the spectacular results on display in Wonder Project J2, it’s hard to say they picked the wrong format.

There’s a distinctive Ghibli-like style to the android Josette’s adventures in and around Blueland Island, a beautiful jumble of dirty steampunkish tech, nostalgia for a special sort of small town life that never really was, and the bluest skies you’ll ever see. Josette lives here in her own personal submarine with its built in washing machine and cute little sofa, and the charmingly rustic locals are happy to hire her to do everything from mechanical repairs to cooking, none of them ever more than a short walk away from a giant statue of a benevolent goddess or a forest teeming with flowers.

This is all in deliberate contrast to the iron fist of the occupying Siliconia Empire, their propaganda-pushing, resource-stripping, might so absolute there is little visible resistance to their activities because there is no question that anyone stupid enough to try would be killed—and J2 is happy to follow through on this threat—at the slightest hint of dissent.

The animation that brings these varied happenings to life is honestly some of the very best the era has to offer—yes, on any format. Josette is a lively character whose body language far surpasses the usual small selection of neatly pigeonholed reactions (“I’m happy” “I’m sad”) to the situations around her, nervously shifting her weight when she’s unsure of herself and squarely setting her shoulders when angry, while the pixel art somehow crams in more subtle changes in her facial expression in five minutes than most games manage in five hours.

The game’s split into two lengthy and entirely separate chapters, with the “Communication” segment coming first. Your primary task here is to help Josette, sweet but hopelessly naive android that she is, blossom into “a girl with a mechanical body and a human heart” by guiding her thoughts and actions via the imaginatively named mechanical bird, Bird: the cutest pointing, yes/no response giving, cursor-like go-between gaming has ever seen. Unlike other “raising sims”—think of the likes of Princess Maker—the goal here isn’t to make her the strongest, smartest, or even the happiest girl around but to make her whole, and sometimes that means encouraging her do things she doesn’t want to do, or making her face uncomfortable or sad situations she would have been (superficially) happier to not confront or understand.

Which is a pretty big ask considering Josette struggles to walk in a straight line without falling flat on her face at first, and may pout at your reasonable requests or kick the item you want her to look at across the room and then smile at you, awaiting praise for this inappropriate demonstration of her strength. These early moments would be supremely frustrating if she wasn’t such a thoroughly endearing character. You want her to do well and to have deep, nourishing, relationships with the kind people around her; not just because you need to if you want to reach the end of the game but because she so obviously takes pleasure from learning about and reaching out to the new world waiting outside her front door (well, I suppose it’s more of a hatch…). She’s overjoyed when she masters a new task, makes a new friend, or reads a book to the end instead of eating it (as an aside: there’s a phenomenal—and completely optional—extended sequence where she goes through a role-play adventure with you, her miming all of the actions as the two of you play), and the only reason she’s able to do any of these wonderful things is because of you.

These interactions aren’t entirely one way either. When you give a response to one of her many, many, questions she will often pause to mull it over and then follow up with a related query to make sure she’s doing the right thing, or express shock that you’ve told her to stop doing something she thought was OK. She may even initiate conversations herself, telling you what she wants to do or where she wants to go, and if you’re very lucky, shyly confiding in you who she likes or even wondering if you like her, and from time to time she’ll thank you for your help or (if she’s feeling comfortable and confident) tease you. It’s an extraordinarily difficult thing for a game to do well, but Josette does come across as an independent being you are assisting, rather than controlling.

The cuddly cuteness of these events never crosses the line into tooth-melting sweetness thanks to a steady stream of little balancing doses of everyday melancholy. Other girls can be, to put it bluntly, jealous bitches. New things can make Josette nervous or unsure of herself. One scene begins with her overjoyed to see the sea, which then prompts her to think of the beautiful island home she left behind and the beloved professor she can no longer visit, although at this point in time she doesn’t quite understand why (it’s because he’s dead. He died right in front of her after telling her she had to go to Blueland). She falls to her knees and sobs at the memory, and it breaks your heart not just because she’s so damned nice and she shouldn’t have to deal with these things at such a young age, but because you know she doesn’t even understand why she’s so sad.

Josette’s assorted hardships, some as minor as learning why people wash themselves, some as big as falling in love, give the story a heartfelt depth it would’ve lacked if it had decided to keep things artificially light under any and all circumstances. As you give her the moral guidance and worldly knowledge to weather these practical and emotional storms you see her mature, going from randomly shouting kind yet trite comments like “Love and peace!” at absolutely nobody to gaining real understanding of big existential concepts, even if the road to that noble end goal is anything but smooth.

The order she overcomes these numerous challenges in appears to be non-linear but there is still a loose structure to it all, the results of one skill setting up another: she can’t become an actress until she’s fallen in love with movies at the island’s cinema, she can’t go out fishing in her submarine until she’s become mentally strong enough to sit through two book’s worth of essential knowledge and performed a few other small tasks, including learning how to say hello to someone she’s never met before. Think of it like an old point and click adventure, although this time the real puzzle is the main character, rather than the world around them.

Unfortunately this opening  “Communication” chapter of the game tends to veer wildly between unprompted interactions between you and Josette that feel so natural you’d swear the cart was actually made of magic and an opaque, repetitive, mess. Sometimes locations you’ve had no need to revisit for hours may suddenly be the only place you must go for one scene only, and there are no “Hey, do you think I should visit the forest?” or “It’s been a while since I saw Karen…” style prompts to nudge you towards these under-used places. Worst of all, it’s possible to be in the right place at the right time with the right people and have correctly cleared all of the plot points leading up to the next event… and still fail, if you even trigger the next scene at all. You more than likely won’t know what’s gone wrong either, as Josette’s capabilities are, in an understandable attempt to have you rely on her actions and personality instead of boring old numbers, completely hidden away from view unless you cheat your way into the debug menu that lists all 26 of her personality-related stats. Is Josette not cheerful enough to clear this? Not honest enough? Not kind enough (these are all separate stats) to speak to this abrasive/weird/unusually quiet plot-critical character with the patience required? And even if you know she’s not… charming enough, for example (again, this is different from the other stats mentioned above), what the heck are you supposed to do to change that? The game does nothing to guarantee that if you’ve cleared Events A and B then you’re definitely ready for Event C, nor does it make sure Josette will at the very least consistently pipe up with a comment along the lines of “I don’t think I’m serious/strong/intelligent enough to do that yet, sorry” if you keep failing at this theoretical C. It’s exhausting.

And it’s all completely pointless too, from a certain point of view.

You see, once you’ve slogged through the “Communication” chapter you end up at the “Story” chapter—and you soon realise that nothing you’ve done in the first part makes a blind bit of difference to the second, the game jarringly switching from you personally tending to a garden of blossoming emotions to merely passively clicking through a series of entirely linear conversations until you’re forced to make your way through an utterly abysmal over-the-shoulder mazelike dungeon. Your “reward” for clearing that is to click some more text into oblivion, do another dungeon, and then keep hitting that A button until you reach the staff credits. Josette’s behaviour in this part of the game—the most exciting part where all of the really big revelations are—is written in stone and completely beyond your influence: it’s a bit like a fighting game saying no, you sit right there and watch, because after all that work it’s going to clear the last boss for you.

Those dungeons really are shockingly awful, even if you are hoping for any sort of playable reprieve from the hands-off storytelling Wonder Project J” suddenly dumps on you. The first you have to navigate by sound, the strength and direction (I do hope you’ve got your N64 connected to good stereo speakers) of Josette’s giggle your only guide. You also have to correctly answer twenty questions, in two batches of ten, about Josette’s feelings and achievements in the Communication chapter to get out of there too, with failure sending you back to the start. It can be done, but you’ll wish you didn’t have to do it. The final dungeon is actually a little better even though it’s spread across eight floors and enemy soldiers are trying to shoot her dead the whole time, thanks to a subtle visual guide built into the otherwise bland scenery: at many junctions you’ll see a four-way light in the ceiling, and the one green arrow on it always points towards the elevator leading to the next floor.

Still, being a little better than something terrible is about as faint as praise can get, and there’s no doubt that this is not a great way to spend your time. As with the other hellish Labyrinth of Padding you’re sent straight back to the beginning if Josette’s shot dead (!!), and there’s a non-zero chance she could find herself hemmed in by guards with genuinely no way to escape through no fault of your own at any time. These segments simply shouldn’t exist.

Luckily there is a rather thick silver lining to this gigantic storm cloud: the story you get to see unfold is written (and animated) well enough to make you believe Josette has only reached this level of independence thanks to your efforts. She still takes the time to stop and talk to you at important moments even though she knows (due to Bird’s temporary absence) you can’t respond, your previous opinions and teachings still guiding her actions and still tremendously important to her—in fact she thinks so highly of you she signs off her final letter, echoing the one she sent her “father”, Professor Gepetto, at the start of the game, as “Your daughter, Josette”. Not that you’ll be able to read the text, as you’ll have probably already gone all misty-eyed after seeing her so bravely fulfil all of the hopes and dreams her dear professor had for her, surrounded by friends in the forest she loves so very much.

In almost any other game the issues I had to fight through to reach Wonder Project J2’s end, from seeing events on tedious repeat just in case this was finally the right time to those miserable dungeons, would have seen the cart tossed into a dark storage box, never to return. But Wonder Project J2 isn’t any other game. The indignation felt towards these avoidable headaches soon fades, and when that happens the only thing you’re left with is the precious memory of a wonderful adventure and the girl you guided through it, not so much finishing her story as leaving her behind.

Good luck with your new life Josette, although I know you won’t need it—because I raised you better than that.

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