Stone Buddha is the level of patience required for this one
Genre: action, sidescrolling
Release Date: Feb 28, 2020
Picture this: a hard-boiled man in a suit that walks like he’s covered in tar, and despite pinpoint accuracy, he will only shoot the target closest to him on either side and after this mission he just walks around town doing nothing for long stretches. This might be ok for a few scenes in a movie, but actually playing it is peak frustration.
Arrest of a Stone Buddha manages to be both a mouthful and a handful. There are two distinct portions of gameplay: the shootouts and the downtime. Each of these parts have their own quirks and frustrations, and maybe there is satisfaction to be had. The difficult part is that this game is that you feel the auteur breathing down your neck at every turn.
The shootouts feel obtuse at first, but can slowly become comfortable. As mentioned, the protagonist cannot be bothered to outrun a sloth dying of old age, but he sure can shoot; the shooting is done either left or right, but it will only hit the enemy closest. Enemies die in one hit while the player can take around 4 shots before he slumps over. This is a problem because enemies come in (possibly) endless hordes for most levels. Enemies come equipped with pistols, rifles, or shotguns. Enemies draw their weapons at random times, so if 5 suits charge at the player but only the last one has his weapon drawn to fire, the player will need to shoot the enemies in front to get to him.
Ammo is limited, so the player can also disarm and maim enemies to grab their weapons to be able to keep shooting. Weapons can’t be picked up from the ground. This juggle between trying to grab enough weapons to keep shooting the guys in back is often frustrating more than fun. Then there is the problem of an enemy slightly off-screen: because this is side-scrolling action, your exit is at the other side and as you fight your way through, it’s possible that you will receive the fatal shot by an enemy just beyond your exit.
While the gunplay takes a lot of getting used to, the pace overall brings to mind Hotline Miami. An army of 1-hit enemies with spots of random elements (when they drop their weapons or what weapons they wield), being killed by offscreen enemies, signposting dates, music that doesn’t stop, quick retry after death, receiving instructions for a job to enter a mission, and leaving a mission through a getaway car, all of this seems reminiscent of the indie great, but the similarities don’t stop there.
Arguably, one of the standout elements of Hotline Miami was the arthouse portion where the player did some mundane thing and interacted nonviolently with some sort of shop owner. ASB takes this idea and blows it up in all the worst ways. The player is treated to sparse dialogue between the protagonist and his handler, but then they have to wander around doing mundane things for what feels like eternity: the player can take sleeping pills, walk through a museum, ride an elevator, sit in a theater, etc. There really did not seem to be a point to any of these portions. They dragged on forever without characterizing the protagonist or adding to the action.
I Go Werner Herzog
I played through this game in one sitting. Not out of joy, but because I felt like I was being held hostage, worried that if I exited and reentered the game I would have to play through it again. ASB is simply uncompromising in its vision: the lack of ammo count, UI, proper health etc. make every part of the action harder. No guidance for the slice of life portion means the player just walks around aimlessly.
There is definitely a message here; when a new game is started you choose the date on a calendar, the player doesn’t know why or how it affects anything but its the opening, one of the most important parts of any story. The dialogue touches on war trauma (possibly Vietnam due to the mention of a chopper, like Hotline Miami), loss, and other things, but it goes nowhere.
ASB is not terrible. The sound design and music are great, especially when it cues during a scene for cinematic flair. The flick of a lighter to end a terse conversation, the squeal of the guitar as the shooting kicks, these are great moments. Some of the motifs work really well; at the beginning of the action sequences, the player has to raise their weapon and then fire. When the mundane life moments finally end they often melt away sporadically. Even the lack of traditional HUD with health and ammo is cool. But then there is a level where the player can only see the protagonist as he walks by windows. The player is blind for most of it and just has to push through hoping that they make it.
Arrest of a Stone Buddha lacks balance. For every empowering run of akimbo pistols and shotguns, they are coupled with dozens of agonizing defeats. The protagonist is a total nihilist, which makes him a tough sell. Even if some of the animation is cool, seeing hundreds of canned death animations gets old. ASB is a moody genius with a lot to say, but I just can’t figure out what it’s trying to say.