What happens when imagination runs unchecked? In the best cases, entirely new realities are produced, shattering open preconceptions of things that just weren’t possible before. In the worst cases it sprints chaotically like a wild animal, unable to be tamed or understood. After playing Stretch Panic, it’s painfully clear to see that the dangers of poorly structured vision pose a real threat to genuine innovation and creativity.
The first thing you’re faced with as you start a new game in Stretch Panic is a baffling opening cut-scene. Unless you’ve read the manual, you’d have no clue that the player’s character, Linda, is carrying her sisters’ weekly cosmetics supply home from the store (all of her 12 sisters are hopelessly vain, with her being the exception). Suddenly, a truck with a mysterious logo blindsides her, and as Linda arrives at the house she is surprised to see the same vehicle speed away from her driveway. It appears that the truck, driven by demons, delivered a package that spirited all 12 sisters away to another dimension, imprisoning them in a representation of each sister’s specific obsession (such as horror movies, giant robots, and spinning around in circles) as punishment for their vanity. Linda follows in order to rescue them, but not before her favorite scarf is possessed by a demon that enables it to stretch both environment and enemies.
It’s certainly an unusual premise, but the game fails to introduce any other developments beyond it. As Linda, you have to exorcise the demons possessing your sisters to free them – and that’s it. The innovative ?Stretchtisity’ technology could still save the game, but unfortunately the limited storyline parallels the limited gameplay.
The game world operates from a main hub, cheerfully nicknamed the Museum of Agony. From here, you can either head to a boss battle and try to free a sister or enter an EX (for EXternal, naturally) world where you battle Bonitas to rack up points – women granted immense breasts by the demons of vanity. Points can be used to enter doors leading to sister battles or to activate the Scarf Bomb, your most powerful attack. You can slap your sisters until they explode, but correctly using the Scarf Bomb is the only way to exorcise the demons from your sisters and save them.
Linda’s scarf, controlled with the right analog stick, is manipulated independently of Linda, who is controlled with the left analog stick. Pressing R1 extends the scarf outward, latching on to the first thing it comes across. With something firmly secured in the scarf’s grip, you can either release R1 for a snap attack (if grabbing an enemy) or rock the right thumbstick back and forth until the tension reaches its maximum, catapulting yourself into your foe for high damage. Linda can’t jump herself, but can use her scarf to flip onto ledges and across chasms, the most innovative use of the stretching aspect in the game.
The dual-analog setup works for the most part, but Linda handles like she’s knee-deep in glue. Luckily, the game moves at a slow pace, so you’ll rarely have trouble or die because of Linda’s failure to act. The camera suffers a similar fate – while it can be troublesome and requires frequent centering, the lock-on feature dispels most of the problems. The biggest manifestation of the camera and control woes occurs while trying to activate the Scarf Bomb when engaged in a boss battle; the combination of the lock-on, your closeness to the boss (for the attack to work) and the spastic nature of the attack itself makes it difficult to prevent the camera from zooming in and obscuring your view.
When you can clearly see the sister you’re battling, the screen is usually filled with vivid colors and arresting character designs. Each sister’s demonic form is both unique and a perfect showcase for the developing artists’ capacity for unobstructed madness.
Although the character models lack detail in polygons, some of the visual effects are still quite impressive. The deafening explosion when you defeat a boss grabs your attention in particular, but the kinetic energy of those oddball battles are counterbalanced by the drab EX worlds.
Each of them is confined to a theme such as island or ice; the EX worlds exist to offer chances to pick up much-needed points by stretching and slapping enemies. This is where the game’s flaws show through the most. If points are so critical to the gameplay – and they are – then why would the developers make acquiring them such a repetitive chore? It’s a baffling question, especially with the huge potential to exploit the stretch technology going unrealized. Instead of feeling constantly new and fresh, stretching enemies to death quickly becomes boring and tiresome.
Add the repetitive act of snuffing out foes with only one enemy type for all the EX worlds, and 4 tiny levels with no significant variation in between, and you’ve got a recipe for boredom. Oddly, the manual states that the Bonitas are the ?primary’ form of the demons, yet there are never any other grunts to dispatch. The singular enemy type isn’t without its good points, though – the Bonitas occasionally launch ridiculous attacks at you with their implants. This is humorous in itself, but should they fall off the level, they’ll hover back up using their ?assets’ as helicopter blades! It truly must be seen to be believed, and could very well be the highlight of the whole experience.
If Stretch Panic had a theme, it would be repetition. The limited song selection quickly becomes tiresome as you enter and re-enter the EX worlds, as does the one enemy type, as does the routine of wiping out ladies with hooters the size of cars, as does the same cut-scene that plays before each boss battle. In the end, Stretch Panic leaves the player feeling like Linda after she is literally dropped into the game world – confused, out of place, and uncomfortable.