Science Girls

Farla has made a tradition of giving me weird, cheap indie PC games for Christmas. This year’s offering was Science Girls, an RPG about six high school students in a science club who have to fight off an alien invasion. The game is very enthusiastic and well-intentioned, but it botched the execution so very, very badly.

Okay so firstly, the gameplay is a disaster. It’s not unplayably bad, but battles are extremely tedious and repetitive, and the combat balance is really bizarre. The basic setup is that everyone gets 1 MP per turn but even regular attacks cost MP, so you have to manage your resources carefully and defend at the right times to regenerate. The problem is that upgrading skills increases their MP cost, INCLUDING THE REGULAR ATTACK, but your basic MP regen never improves. At the beginning attacks cost 1 MP but you’ll get that MP back on the next turn, which I thought was reasonable – you can tread water as long as you like, but if you want to use a special skill (which you’ll have to do, for stronger enemies), you’ll have to sacrifice some turns on MP regen to use it again. Problem is, there is no attack stat: the only way to improve your offense is by putting points into skills individually and, as I said, doing that increases the cost. So if you want your basic attack to be at all useful outside of the intro section you need to pump points into it… but now if you want to do anything other than defend you’re bleeding MP by necessity. This also really defeats the point of having a low-cost low-benefit skill in the first place, if even that’s an MP hog. There are mechanisms in place to help with MP regeneration, but it’s still slow and tedious. Adding insult to injury is that the regular attack isn’t even useful – the damage range is absurdly high and just gets worse with every upgrade (I think the max level is 4-20 damage), so you can’t actually rely on it to cheaply finish off a monster even though that’s the only thing you’d logically want to use it for. There’s even one skill where upgrading it is objectively bad – the engineer has one of those skills that starts weak but gets stronger every time you use it, in this case starting at 1 damage but doubling every time. Upgrading it will make it start 1 stage higher… but it also doubles the cost. Yes, you read that right: the skill that requires you to use it continuously gets a more prohibitive cost. A rudimentary math analysis shows it’s not worth it – at the max level it’d cost 25 MP per use but would only start at 16 damage. That means at 50 MP (basically her entire reserves) you’d get 32 damage… which is decent, but if you expended that much MP with the regular version, you’d be dealing 512 damage. Is this supposed to be meta? Is it supposed to be a trap for you to avoid if you are yourself a good engineer who can do basic cost-benefit analysis?

I got the impression the game wanted to push a skill-heavy system where you’re not supposed to use your regular attack much – and I normally like that, but it just couldn’t commit! You need skill upgrades to remain competitive, but if you upgrade too fast or focus on the wrong skills the costs will become prohibitive, and since there’s no warning about this and no way to reallocate points, you can easily screw yourself over. The game was operating on the reasonable premise that stronger skills should cost more, but what it forgot is that most RPGs let you keep the cheaper option around if you need the basic functionality but can’t afford the maximum output.

Some of the characters’ stat layouts were really bizarre, too. The chemist has the typical squishy wizard layout – low HP, high MP – but she has the weakest and cheapest skills, so she’s not actually using that MP for anything! Meanwhile, the physicist has ungodly powerful attack skills that are like twice as powerful as everyone else’s, but they have MP costs to match – and she has the worst MP growth in the game, so you can basically use her supermoves once or twice and then she’s done. But that’s not even getting into how weird the skills are, like… one of the girls is a computer scientist, and somehow this means she can hack reality or something, because one of her attacks is just “deleting” a monster? And for her final skill she plugs her computer into the ground to “transfer data” from the biological monsters and this equates to draining HP, somehow. Is this supposed to be meta? And the psychologist makes no sense at all – one of her skills is hypnosis, which puts a monster to sleep, okay… But, how? The enemies they’re fighting are bizarre alien monstrosities, and almost all of them are plant-based. I think there are maybe two that have visible eyes. How is she hypnotizing something with no apparent sense organs? And her only offensive skill is psycho-analysis, which, what? How? Does she just go “Ah yes, a classic Oedipus complex, this explains everything” and after understanding her despite having no visible sense organs the alien commits suicide in embarrassment? Psychology is a very specialized science, it shouldn’t work on aliens! None of this makes sense!!!

Also, the overworld interface was just awful. The map only scrolls when you’re close to the edge instead of remaining centered on the player character like in every other RPG ever. This drove me insane, especially since there are often monsters lurking just outside the periphery that you can’t avoid in time because you can’t see them coming.

This could have been something really neat, if the game did something truly original that had some thematic connection to real-life science – an item-based battle economy like the Mario RPGs where resource management is important, maybe, combined with unique and memorable enemies that force you to, you know, experiment in order to defeat them. Instead it’s just a bog-standard numbers grind where the science is indistinguishable from magic powers. (Where on Earth did Nicole get a lightning gun and flamethrower from, anyway?! Is this in the post-apocalyptic future where the gun nuts won and kids now carry military warehouses in their backpacks???)

The story is better, but not by much. The girls are all utterly, staggeringly incompetent outside of their own fields. For example – one of the few clever things the game does is that at one point your path is blocked by an ominous chemical puddle. Everyone assumes it’s an acid, but if you get the chemist to examine it, she discovers it’s a base. At this point, all the other scientific prodigies in the room immediately go “oh so it’s not acid, that means it’s safe right!!!” and the chemist, mirroring my own reaction, is just like “WTH NO”. Just… seriously? What kind of horrible schooling system did the developer grow up in where high school students don’t know what bases are? My memory isn’t the best but I’m pretty sure I learned the pH scale in elementary school, and even if I hadn’t, chemistry was a required class in my high school. I assumed basic science classes were a requirement everywhere, are they not? Is my whole life a lie??? There is a more reasonable scene where the biologist tries to examine a cyborg alien they killed and shocks herself with a capacitor before the electrician can tell her that capacitors retain charge even when disconnected – and okay, that’s fair, I probably wouldn’t have known that in high school if I hadn’t taken that elective electronics class. But: The premise of the story is that these girls are in a science club. The inciting event is when one of their meetings is interrupted by the alien invasion. Even if we accept that these are hyperspecialized prodigies who never learned anything outside their own field (which is a shaky premise to begin with since so many fields are interconnected), they should be communicating with each other! How has the chemist not told the rest what bases are before this? Were they spending all those club meetings talking about stuff completely unrelated to the club’s name? Why are none of the girls even somewhat grouchy that it apparently took literally the end of the world for the others to listen to them explaining basic facts?

They never learn, either! So many scenes involve one girl going “hey I’m gonna do this” followed by the girl who actually knows about the subject screaming “OH GOD NO DON’T DO THAT”, just not fast enough to stop the first girl from doing the stupid thing. You’d think that they’d eventually learn the importance of thought before action and listening to experts but hey, it’s not like they’re scientists or anything.

(The one exception to this is Nicole. She took the plot seriously, I don’t remember her having any idiot moments, and the scene with her as a grizzled future time travel warrior was the only good thing in the game. She saved me a lot of time with her “everything dies now” skill, too. She was the best.)

I was particularly disappointed by the protagonist. She’s psychology, the best science, so you’d expect her to have some awesome moments, but NOPE. She’s so bland and inoffensive I forgot she was in most scenes. Her big moment is an optional scene toward the end where she’s like “time for some PSYCHOLOGY!!!” and just… gives the most generic pep talk speech ever, which somehow invigorates the exhausted party. That’s not psychology, that’s public speaking! She could have used psychology to keep the group together in a real way by defusing conflicts before they started – being stranded on an alien world should be stressful! – or she could have used ACTUAL psychoanalysis on the aliens to deduce their behavior patterns or whatever, but nope, nothing. Frustratingly, the game actually looks like it’s going toward the latter route at the beginning, where she’s the only one to observe an important detail about something the aliens are doing, but the plot thread is immediately dropped and never comes up again.

Which just highlights a bigger problem – even aside from the shallow characters, the plot was a mess. Plot points appear out of nowhere and then vanish just as suddenly, never to be spoken of again. Most of the game is taken up by a fetch quest that could have been used to give us interesting facts about the alien world, since, you know, these characters are SCIENTISTS who supposedly love investigating things and one of them is a biologist who constantly talks about how much she wants to study the aliens, but it’s just filler. The plot just limped along with no clear direction and there was basically no ending, leaving me with more questions than answers. What were the aliens getting out of this? How did they get the portal to our end? Why were they obsessed with hair? What was that uber-mindworm the protagonist sees after the fetch quest? What was the treeman? And why was there never any followup on the time travel plot??? That was the only interesting thing in the entire plot! I get the impression the game had to be cut for length or something, but that’s baffling when it’s so short as it is.

In the end, this was just tiring and frustrating for me. I can see what the game was going for, and it could have been so good! It could have approached a cliché plot from a new angle, with legitimately intelligent heroes who actually react to their environment. It could have taken a hard sci-fi approach to alien life and given us something like this, where the heroes can actually use evolutionary logic to their advantage. And it could have given us real scientific information instead of forced, patronizing The More You Know™ asides that never end up mattering. If you’re going to do edutainment, actually be educational – plus it would make a lot more sense that the girls don’t know specific facts from other fields if it’s more sophisticated stuff. Like… gods, I never thought I’d be pointing to Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors as an example of good storytelling, but even if its exposition was awfully delivered and mind-bogglingly stupid, at least it drew you in by being stuff almost no one knows about and ended up actually mattering. And it could have reinforced all of this with a clever gameplay system that encouraged ingenuity and clever use of the environment, you know, the skills that actual scientists use. But this shallow, hokey nonsense comes off more like The Commercial That Shall Not Be Named rather than something genuinely feminist, empowering, and pro-science. Don’t waste your money on it.

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