When booting up the game The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories, you are met with two statements: a message and a warning, a warning that is vital to know for both the game itself and for this review.
“This game contains explicit content, including extreme violence, sexual topics, and depictions of suicide”.
I warn you now, this is no joke and is not a message to be taken lightly as this game dives deep into the darkness and does not hold its punches. On this week’s review, the otaku rabbit hole is delving into something gruesome, harrowing and in many ways, excellent – BUT this review is not one that will be spoiler free and is certainly not one for those who are unable to face depictions of gore and/ or body-horror.
Please be aware that this review will be discussing ALL aspects of the game. If you do not wish to be spoiled for an experience that is, quite frankly, equal parts shocking and painful, and that comes with a level of brutal honesty that is almost frightening, I implore you, PLEASE do not read this review just yet. Instead, try to check out this game for yourself and then come back to read my words.
With all the warnings out of the way, let’s begin our voyage down the otaku rabbit hole and check out The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories.
This game opens, and we are introduced to our two main characters – “best friends” or possible girlfriends J.J. and Emily out on a camping trip together on a secluded island. Shortly after arriving, however, Emily disappears, leaving a worried J.J. no alternative but to track her down.
After setting off on our journey, it is immediately obvious that all is not as it should be. The rain sets and ominous and thickly sinister atmosphere, and this is made all the worse when J.J. stumbles upon a monstrous creature bearing down on what appears to be… Her?
In her search for Emily, J.J. finds herself passing through a field of flowers, a gorgeous environment that stands as a stark contrast with everything we’ve seen until now. But this momentary reprieve soon comes crashing down when, in a devastating moment, the beautiful J.J. is struck by lightning, killing her, and with a blood curdling scream, the flowers are set ablaze, reducing her to a lifeless, charcoal husk.
This, however, is far from the end of her suffering, and is instead where we as players are first introduced to the main mechanic of The Missing, a mechanic stemming from J.J.’s inability to die; the ability to infinitely regenerate, regardless of the injury sustained. Crying and in pain, J.J. sets out on what will soon become a horrific journey filled with pain and many soul-destroying moments. But believe me, it’s not one you’ll soon forget.
The gameplay in The Missing can be broadly broken down into three sections: puzzle solving, chase sections and intermediate sections where cutscenes and other important story information is revealed.
The Puzzle Sections
To start with the puzzle sections, here, J.J. will find herself in one of many diverse, if bleak and barren, environments, ranging from an abandoned train to a run-down diner and even a bowling alley. There, she will have to use not only her brain but also her body to solve the puzzles at hand. Thanks to her ability to infinitely regenerate, she is able to use her body in ways that you would never imagine, resulting in some truly grotesque, yet inventive ways to solve puzzles.
Should she need fire to burn away weeds or roots that block her path, J.J. is able to set herself ablaze, screaming and writhing in agony, only to be able to recover in the flick of a button. She can also dismember herself to use her now lifeless limbs to undo traps, knock things over or use them as a counterweight to ensure that she can avoid a pitfall. Her final trick is the ability to, when her neck is broken, reverse gravity, enabling her to walk on ceilings in place of the floor to overcome or even avoid puzzles.
All of this culminates in a truly horrifying experience, with her screams ringing through the game. To address this traumatic ordeal happening on screen, certain design choices are made. The blood spilled is never red, instead appearing as a stark white, coating wherever or whatever it lands on – providing a grim reminder of your failed attempts to solve the puzzle. Additionally, when injured, J.J. will appear as a contorted black silhouette against the background of the screen that often only has the slightest passing resemblance to what a human body should look like. While this is a small blessing to have the reality of the situation obscured, to continuously have no alternative but to see her body affected in such a way is almost heart-stopping and will never cease to send a shiver up your spine. In what can only be called a stroke of genius, you as the player are made to feel continuous guilt for progressing through the game as you have no alternative but to inflict pain to advance, a brave and surprisingly insightful design choice by White Owl Inc., given the theme of pain being a vital component in overcoming difficulty.
The Chase Sections
The chase sections are relatively simple compared to their puzzle counterparts, as you are simply required to escape a ghoulish apparition. In these sections, the game plays more like that of a platformer, requiring split-second timing to escape. While not particularly difficult, these sections can ramp up the tension rapidly, and maintain it relatively well throughout. My biggest issue with these sections, though, is linked to the fact that once you’ve played one chase section, the formula remains the same, never really changing for the rest of the game, which results in them becoming somewhat stale. These can feel like little more than a roadblock, preventing you from moving the game along into the next story section, but for what they are, they are a welcome change from the puzzle-heavy sections.
The Story Sections
The final sections, and most important, are the slower-paced intermediate sections, focusing on the story. Now the story is something that is most definitely deserving of its own section. However, what The Missing chooses to do, instead of showing us a story unfolding on screen as the game progresses, we learn the story through the use of the in-game menu/ phone. This is done when reaching certain points/ areas, with texts and phone calls being received by J.J. to fill in the story. This acts to drip feed us the story that shaped J.J. and that eventually lead her to the events of the game that we’re now playing. The moments where the story is delivered, quite frankly, are what you should play this game for as, while not perfect, they work incredibly well in creating a sense of dread and intrigue in the player, driving your desire to discover more and to piece the mystery together for yourself.
There are also additional “optional” story lines that you can pursue if you so desire. These, however, are linked to collecting the games main collectable, donuts. These are often seen floating in seemingly impossible to access areas. This does mean that, if you want to find out everything there is to know in this game, you will have to spend a considerable amount of time in each area trying to find and collect every single donut. On my first blind playthrough, I managed to gather 208 of the 271 donuts, meaning that many of them can be found with relative ease. The pursuit of donuts does make for a sort of annoyance/ relief cycle, however, as trying to find the way to access a donut can prove frustrating. Please be warned, then, that in this game, while the key story will be given to you as you progress, to get the full picture it is essential to seek out the donuts.
Honestly, the sound design of The Missing is minimal. Drawing more so from the ambient noise of the environments that J.J. finds herself inhabiting, music is more often than not reserved for the high-tension chase sequences, or emotional moments. This is far from a detriment to the game, though, as with this choice of minimising the music, you’re forced to focus on the eerie ambient noise and the more disturbing sounds like broken bones, missing limbs, wet, unnatural noises that make you feel totally uneasy throughout.
Before we move on to the beefiest chunk of this review, the story, I think it’s best to get the issues out of the way first. The Missing, despite everything I’ve said up until now, is far from a perfect experience. Firstly, the puzzles themselves do have the tendency to sometimes outstay their welcome, being frustrating to solve and slow due to the decreased speed brought about by J.J.’s injuries. This slow pace is irritating, but made worse by the fact that, as a completion bonus for finishing the story, you’re granted a “cheat” that lets you move at double speed, suggesting that even the developers were aware that the games pacing sometimes suffers as a result of the gameplay mechanics. Had this option been made available from the start, the game’s flow may have been improved as a result, but understandably, this would likely have detracted from the intended impact of these moments, so I can forgive this – to an extent.
The almost unforgivable issue with this game, however, is the voice acting. This game is an emotional tale filled with equal parts love and pain and certain moments border on the nightmarish. Given this, the fact that the delivery of some lines by J.J.’s voice actress borders on the realm of disinterested, missing the emotion cues of a given moment, totally ruins some of the games later, more emotionally charged moments, and was nigh-on unforgivable. These lines, when compared to some of the other voice acting choices such as the backwards speech, in the style of Twin Peaks, which really helped to make this world feel wrong, just fell flat and I was really disappointed in The Missing for that.
The Story – *Major spoiler warning and sensitive material warning*
The story progresses, as mentioned previously, at a relatively slow but consistent pace. In the search for her girlfriend, Emily, J.J. is tireless and will stop at nothing to see her safe return. Upon being struck by lightning, a lab-coat-toting moose appears on screen, stating that a shock had been administered and that there’s massive haemorrhaging.
From here the mystery is set. Phone conversations that take place between J.J. and other characters, both from the past and in real time, act to merely string the player along. As the story progresses, we receive an increasing number of important dialogues between J.J. and both her mother and Emily. Particularly important sections have J.J.’s mother refer to people as being made wrong and being abnormal. As uncomfortable as these conversations are to read, you have no choice but to continue pushing forward in hopes of finding out what it was that lead J.J. here. These issues finally reach a head, however, when a message is received from the mother about girls’ clothes being found in J.J.’s room, followed by another message regarding J.J.’s need to return home to see a doctor to “fix” her – a frankly vile sentiment.
From here, the mental state of J.J. visibly decreases due to the horrifically selfish actions of her mother and the self-loathing that these actions force upon our tragic heroine. All of this culminates in the single most horrific moment that I have ever experienced in a video game.
As a player, you are given one choice, and it is one that you cannot escape.
You must make J.J. attempt to kill herself.
Self-loathing and insecurity are issues that plague people indiscriminately, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. These issues, however, are far more prolific within the LGBT+ community, becoming a driving force in higher depression and suicide rates within the community. Having to hide a portion of yourself for fear of rejection (or worse) by those around you is something that most LGBT+ people can relate to, and often takes root within the psyche in a way that may cause lasting emotional and psychological damage. What The Missing does, by taking a potent poison that impacts so many, laying it bare for all to see, is to provide a shocking twist, especially given that this is a sad reality for so many. This is not an issue I would ever expect to see covered in a game.
As J.J.’s mother’s texts descend deeper into the realm of ignorance, followed by the eventual heart-wrenching rejection of her daughter, merely for being her true self, we as an audience are exposed to an important issue. The direction that her mother’s actions steer J.J., into an attempted suicide, proved to be the most emotional moment the game. Terrifying to watch, this moment got an emotional reaction from me that I have never experienced from a game before, almost pushing me to turn off the Switch, rather than make that final choice. To put it simply, I couldn’t watch the screen.
This isn’t the end, though. It is revealed that J.J. is already “dead”, but she can return to her day-to-day life. This is the turning point for the game, and where the main message is finally revealed. Self-acceptance results in J.J. being able to immediately regenerate herself and undo any injury caused. A final chase sequence is played out and mixes up the formula we know from the rest of the game just enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. The message that you will definitely draw here is that sometimes, no matter how hard the world is or your situation, pain is a necessary part of growing stronger – and the mechanics of the game are, at last, revealed to have been an integral part of the narrative all along.
For one final time, I will offer a MAJOR spoiler warning if you do not wish to be spoiled for, what is arguably, the biggest reveal of this game, please avert your eyes!
After facing her demons one final time and ultimately overcoming them, J.J. awakes in the real world next to a paramedic, only, she is not the J.J. we’ve come to know. It is revealed that J.J. physically male. In a moment where everything finally slots into place, it is revealed that the story of The Missing, of J.J. Macfield is a story of not simply one of a lesbian couple, but is also one about a transgender woman, coming to accept who she is in the face of extreme bullying and ignorance.
This story was one that was filled with ups and downs and is certainly far from an easy experience. What it does succeed in, however, is being a truly brave piece of media portraying a topic that very few others dare to touch. For that I applaud it. However, as I have already mentioned be aware that this game is NOT one that I would recommend to everyone, and to commit to finishing The Missing will require some considerable dedication and steeled nerves. You have been warned.
The opening statement of this game, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, came in two parts. First, a warning and second, a message – and an important one at that:
“This game was made with the belief that nobody is wrong for being what they are”.
Regardless of who you are, your age, your gender, your sexuality, your race – you are not wrong, you are simply you and do not let anyone’s ignorance or intolerance convince you otherwise. The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories is a game that will take your emotions, rip them out, twist them up and throw them away. It is far from a perfect experience, but tells a hard-hitting story that’s as important as it is rare. Despite its flaws, the game is very good, even if the subject matters and gameplay elements mean that it’s a hard one to enjoy. With everything considered, I award this game…
With its haunting, and deeply affecting closing chapters, I can guarantee that, should you choose to pick up this game, it will burrow its way into your head and stay there for a very long time to come.
With that we’ve reached the end of this rather difficult trip down the otaku rabbit hole. If you yourself are struggling or if you know of anyone else who is, I implore you to please seek out help. I’ve attached a few links below for anyone seeking information or help. Once again thank you so much for joining me this time on the otaku rabbit hole and until next time, keep it weeby!
DISCLAIMER: I DO NOT OWN ANY OF THE IMAGES USED IN THIS REVIEW. ALL CREDIT FOR THE IMAGES GIVEN TO THEIR RESPECTIVE OWNERS.