by Vanor Orion

Stop me if you've heard this one before:

Sometime in the near future you and your wife get free tickets to spend a weekend on the world's first space hotel in high orbit over the Earth. While you're there you get to attend a galla with a bunch of high-ranking government officals and businessman from Earth. And then--seriously, stop me if you've heard this before--very abruptly the party gets crashed by a bunch of freaky-looking monsters that rammpage about, killing and sending people into a panic, during which you become seperated from your wife and lose consciousness, only to regain sometime later locked up all by your lonesome in the station's main security room. As you fumble about the camera controls that let you see the entire run of the station, you come across a catty lone waitress named Rio who has barricaded herself in one of the staff rooms. After a little chit-chat, you both agree to work together to locate any survivors, get to the bottom of this madness, and find a way off this orbiting deathtrap.

And that's Lifeline, in a nutshell. I have to say that when I first heard about this title eons ago, I was rather psyched. The entire gimmick behind this Playstation 2 title is that you, the player, use a headset to give verbal commands to Rio and order her around as she investigates the space hotel. At the time that this came out, it was pretty cool to see a game come out that embraced the headset so heavily. If you compared the use of the headset to other games, such as Manhunt (where it was only optional and superfluous, at best), or SOCOM, which had you using it to bark orders while you yourself were playing an otherwise-mundane third-person action game, this game was being rather bold by putting almost the entire burden of game control through the player's voice.

Of course, different doesn't always translate to better, hence why this game remains mostly forgotten, save for embittered old curmudgeons such as myself who were once naive morons who gave every new kind of play control the benefit of the doubt. But now you too get to share in the awe and wonder that is Lifeline. Otherwise known as Operator's Side in Japan.

So you boot this game up, and even before you get to start, the game gives you a little test to make sure the headset is working properly and that it can hear your voice, which depending on how you speak, may or may not be a major issue, but I'll save that for a little later on. Anyways, you start the game, watch the aforementioned monster-party-crashing unfold, and begin by speaking with the waitress, Rio, gaining her trust, helping her out, and ultimately agreeing to work together to get out of this mess.

Basically, Lifeline is a 3D adventure game where your voice takes the place of a mouse cursor. While the player tells Rio what to do, you still use the controller to do things like checking out your inventory, going over special keywords and phrases, and mainly to call up the floor plan of the station and each room that you investigate. Each room has various locations noted on the map which you can then tell Rio to go to and check out, and really, that's pretty much how this game plays out for the most part. Go into a room, look at the map, have Rio check out every point of interest for objects to move things forward. Aside from a few unlockable extras, the only things of interest to find aside from clues to move foward are health items and later on the game, grenades for your rifle.

And that's where one aspect of frustration with the game can pop it's ugly head. The game can be very picky at times with what words you use to describe objects of interest you wish to search. Say you go to a table and you wish to look at a cup, well, you can say "Look at the cup." and she'll be all "Huh?" So the game is wanting you to say something specific like "Look at the mug.", or "Look under the mug." This can be frustrating at times because many objects can have many different words to describe what they are or what to do with them, especially since a good chunk of the game involves doing this.

Another part of the game involves combat with monsters that randomly pop out of nowhere to ambush Rio in corridors and inside rooms whilst she investigates (even taking the form of objects to search at times). As with searching, the player gives Rio commands to shoot the various enemies, which can be kinda aggravating, for a multitude of reasons. The major one is something I alluded to earlier but will finally explain. A major pet peeve this game has with the player is if you speak too loud, or too excitedly. If you start panicking when trying to tell Rio what to do, you can expect her to do exactly fuck-all save for standing there asking what you just said while a monsters are gnawing on her shins. So basically, no matter what, you have to be as calm and concise when you speak into the microphone as possible, which can be damn hard in this game when it comes to combat, because shit is happening so fast, and most enemies have to be killed in a specific way in order to more easily dispatch them.

On the other hand, the game will tell you the key areas of enemies to hit so you don't have to juggle all of that in your head. Another good thing is that Rio never runs out of ammo for whatever weapon she is using. Early on all she has is a pistol, and then later she trades that in for an assault rifle with a grenade launcher (which sadly doesn't have infinite ammo). What combat in this game really boils down to is being able to keep a cool head, keeping your voice calm and even, and getting the timing of your enemies down so you can blast their weakpoints in the right order to eliminate them as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

Which in all honesty can be a pain in the ass more often than not, especially when you have like three enemies hopping around you all the time and you start to crack up and tell Rio to turn around to blast the monster that's tonguing her ass only for her to turn 90 degrees to blast an enemy behind some furniture instead. What happens is that combat in this game becomes an exercise in tedium because you have to kill each monster just so in order to kill them quickly, which for some of them can be hard because they don't give you a large window of opportunity to hit their weakpoints. And nevermind the fact that your voice is undoubtedly going to get tired from doing this constantly.

Another aspect of the game that really frustrates me is with some parts of the game that involves puzzles. One in particular happens early on in the game when you have to try and open a suite in the hotel by using two pieces of a password to unlock the door, and you have to speak it in time with Rio in order to unlock the door, which can be a total pain in the ass because if you fuck up it takes like 10-15 seconds to try again because you can't speed through dialogue and whatnot. Another part of the game that infuriated me to no end was later on when you have to navigate through an air duct via damaged railing. Rio has to tightrope across color-coded rails and you have to tell her to hop left or right to each one so that she doesn't fall off and bust her ass and have to start over gain. I'm not lying when I say that it took well over two hours to get past the parts of the game because I kept making mistakes, and for a time I actually had a few videos up on youtube where I filmed myself finally managing to get past that part of the game. I've since taken those down because god help me, I plan on doing a let's play of the game sometime in the undetermined future.

Either way, I've kinda bitched about the things that aggravate me about Lifeline, so now I'll talk about the things that actually surprised me. For starters, as old as the game is, it still looks pretty damn good even today. The game's setting is actually well presented and realized, and there are many moments in the game that are literally awe-inspiring in terms of how it presents its space-based setting. For instance there's the hotel part of the facility that looks very 2001-esque in terms of presentation:

It's kinda hard to see, but you can see a great deal of similarity here.

And with the interior locations...'s much more clearly obvious.

It's actually pretty neat to see a videogame show off a more realistic portrayal of space instead of the typical long and dark corridors that we tend to see in most videogames. And while Lifeline does have those from time to time, more often than not you're spending time scouring storerooms, break rooms, living quarters, medical bays, and a massive dining hall, all of which have been given a great deal care and attention to detail, so it feels like something you could go somewhere and see right here, right now.

In fact they do such a good job of this that it's almost easy to forget that this game takes place in space at times, until the game reminds you in very neat ways. Like when you go down a massive elevator shaft that gives you an amazing view of the Earth below. Or near the end of the game where you enter parts of the station with no gravity, which is pretty well-depicted and handled pretty well in terms of navigation and implementation in the game. So it does show that the developers put some effort into making this game unique from a lot of other games that take place in space, even by today's standards.

And of course, there's also the issue of the character of Rio, who is pretty much at the beck and whim of the player:

Since she is stuck with you, it would be very important that she be someone the player can "get along with", because if you were to get stuck with someone

with very poor voice acting skills,

or someone who was very annoying,

then that's going to really make the player want to inflict harm on their companion, on top probably driving them to quit the game. So who do we have to do the very important job of voicing Rio?

Kristen Miller

So who is Kristen Miller? What has she done? Well let's see here...

She Spies...

Random episode of Charmed...

And let's see, according to IMDB she's been in the sequel to Single White Female (there was a sequel?), she was Lisa in Team America: World Police (which I've never seen), and her most recent work has been called "Life's a Beach" and "The Condom Killer". Clearly Grade-A talent we have here.

Actually, believe it or not, she does a pretty fucking good job in Lifeline. Surprisingly good. So much so that I would actually say that it's one of the better voice-acting portrayals in any videogame I've played. Not only does Miller kinda look like Rio, but she's able to imbibe Rio with a down-to-earth (no pun intended) cattiness, normality, and authenticity that most video game voice acting tends to lack (especially among female characters). She plays Rio almost like Sigourney Weaver plays Ripley in the original Alien: Tough and self-assured, but also vulnerable and prone to falling victim to fear and panic.

And across the board, the voice-acting isn't very bad (though not as good as Miller's portrayal of Rio). If only the game's story had actually managed to live up to the effort put into these characters and setting.

I'll just say that this game's story manages to be very unique in that it goes from being truly interesting, to downright ridiculous with its plot twists and revelations. Amidst the chaos in the hotel, the player has a goal, and Rio has a goal. The player is trying to find their wife and escape from the hotel. And Rio wants to try to find survivors and escape, but she also holds something back from the player. Of course the biggest mystery of the game is what the monsters rampaging on the hotel are. Are they monsters, are they aliens, are they some special government black project gone awry?

Well obviously it's going to be option C, which would make sense because you can do shit chemically in space that you can't do on Earth cuz of lack of gravity (which I think they do explain rather cleverly). Unfortunately the plot rapidly gets [REDACTED]ed towards the end of the game, and any mystery and tension is obliterated along with it, replaced by stupendous melodrama and outrageous character revelations and plot twists, culminating with a rather over-the-top yet straightforward final boss.

Of course, there are other little details to mention. The monsters in this game look unique, and are actually feel like a threat (even though their implementation in actual gameplay is rather aggravating). There's a recurring monster throughout the latter half of the game that is genuinely scary and its true identity actually makes for a pretty decent shock towards the end of the game. And while the voice command isn't flawlessly implemented, it isn't necessarily broken, the player just has to keep their cool and be patient with it. Rio likes to walk everywhere, but you can tell her to run from point to point Sadly there arent' really "boss fights" in the game since most of the unique boss-like enemies are treated more likes puzzles to solve in order to progress.

Such as this guy here, who you have to feed a Molotov Cocktail to get past.

And there's a lot of neat little things you actually do with the voice command in the game. You can find items that unlock little minigames that you can play with Rio, such as word scramble, solving math problems, completing phrases, among a few others. If you're high-strung from the more frustrating aspects of the game, then these make a rather relaxing distraction. Other things to mention is how save points are conveniently located in most rooms you investigate in the game, so this game isn't as aggravating with annoying player deaths as it could have been.

All things considered, Lifeline is a neat little "experiment". It didn't necessarily work too well, but it was something different, and you can clearly tell some effort was put into it in many regards (though could have used some more effort in other places). While I wouldn't recommend everybody to check this game out (because this game's flaws can be very very aggravating), it is worth looking into if you wanna see something different. Though as it goes, different doesn't always translate to being good.


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