DEVELOPER: T&E Soft (port by GRC)
GENRE: Adventure/Visual Novel
RELEASE DATE: 04/27/90 – (JP)
Psy-O-Blade proclaims itself a “Moving Adventure,” but those expecting a traditional adventure – one where you interact with your surroundings and progress the story via a menu of actions – will be disappointed. Psy-O-Blade is more of a visual novel, a science-fiction thriller complete with government corruption, awkward space love, and an unholy amount of exposition.
You play as Keith, a naive young pilot for the Ministry of Space. Along with the other MoS crew, you’re tasked with exploring Septemius 2, an important exploration vessel that mysteriously veered off-course before it could return to Earth. This is where the game begins, though there’s also a lengthy backstory involving the future of the world (get ready for Neocommunism, folks!), and how governments create killer satellites to keep their opponents in check. This information doesn’t really play into Psy-O-Blade‘s main story, but it does remind us that people will always be brutal to each other and that there’s truly nothing new under the sun.
The Ministry of Space boasts quite the cast. In addition to Keith, there’s Bob the navigator, a quiet fellow who shares an uncanny resemblance to Robert, the de facto leader of the operation. Mark is a chemical analyst who’s killed off within the first fifteen minutes (spoilers, I guess, but were you really planning on playing Psy-O-Blade?). Michael is an engineer and resident jokester of the group. Doctor Jimmy is old, bald, and unusually quiet. Feminine is a green-haired Data Analyst with an awful name – surely the English translator didn’t bequeath this moniker upon her, did they? Finally, Sofia’s a computer engineer and Keith’s love interest throughout the game. These characters – for better and for worse – are the game. The only way to progress through Psy-O-Blade‘s tale of sabotage, murder, and mystery is by engaging with these characters repeatedly.
Psy-O-Blade‘s story takes place entirely within the confines of the Septemius 2. You talk with your comrades and interact with the environment by using the cursor and pressing ‘A’, while the functions ‘Move’ and ‘Save’ are brought up by pressing ‘C.’ Unless you’re specifically looking for clues as directed by the story, there’s very little reason to click on your surroundings. This means you’ll be talking to the characters until they provide you the right information. Usually, you’ll have to click on each of them several times and listen to some inane chatter until the Important Message is conveyed and you can move forward.
Some of the conversations drag on at times, but Eien Ni Hen’s English translation for romhacking.net remains excellent. Not all of the characters are likeable (Sofia’s kinda awkward, Keith, don’t be a fool), but they all have distinct personalities that are revealed the more you converse with them. And while some of the dialogue leans heavily towards convoluted science stuff that – full disclosure – my right-leaning brain couldn’t comprehend, it’s great that Eien didn’t feel the need to dumb down the game’s concepts. I admittedly haven’t played many fan translations, but Psy-O-Blade definitely ranks at the top for me.
Even when little is happening, the Septemius is a foreboding place, making it easy to inhabit the dread felt by the characters. A couple encounters with killer androids heighten the tension, as does the surprising shoot-em-up sequence which forces you to kill 200 enemies in order to move forward. Once you’ve completed the game, however, and all mysteries have been solved, the payoff isn’t nearly as satisfying as the journey. The ending ties all the loose ends together, yet still manages to leave you feeling empty.
Psy-O-Blade has never officially been released outside Japan, and was originally developed for Japanese computers like the PC-88 and MSX. From the few screenshots I’ve seen of those versions, the Mega Drive port is definitely the one to play, if only for the improved visuals and enhanced soundtrack. Save for the occasional grotesque head shot of the crew and developer T&E Soft’s strange decision to make all the dark-skinned characters look exactly alike, the colorful graphics enhance the late 80s sci-fi anime aesthetic. The soundtrack takes full advantage of the Mega Drive’s Yamaha sound chip and deftly weaves between bombastic rock (the drum patterns are glorious) and elegant melancholy.
The story isn’t as compelling as it could be, but Psy-O-Blade is still worth experiencing for the eerie atmosphere, first-rate translation, and incredible soundtrack. Besides, the game requires so little of the player, you could beat it in a couple of hours and get on with your day. At the very least you’ll have experienced a genuine Moving Adventure and lived to tell about it.