Right of the bat, you gotta respect a game who bluntly lies about its awards and praises in the most hilarious manner. Manual Samuel is a game that clearly wants to make you laugh and follows a certain trend of games that are rather about awkward controls and getting through a game using them, similar to titles like Octodad, Surgeon Simulator or, to an extent, Rocket League. All of these are however excellent examples on how this concept can work well, as there is a certain rhythm and clear concept where the awkward control-scheme and/or physics grow on you throughout the game thanks to clever stages or ideas taking advantage of them.
These titles really need a genre-name and my favorite name given to them, is BNGR’s take with the “QWOP-effect” genre, referring to an old athlete game on the internet using the keyboard buttons it is named after. Regardless, Manual Samuel takes this concept to the 2D-realm and tries to make something interesting out of it. It is kinda interesting how titles like Minecraft and Dark Souls have gotten 2D counterparts as well that are well worth your time, with them being Terraria and Salt & Sanctuary. So, is Manual Samuel more than just a 2D-version of Octodad?
Like a decent feces-joke
After talking about the wrong Samuel, the narrator introduces us to our present-day Samuel, a rich douchebag who never has had a hard day in his life. After being beaten by his girlfriend, effectively ending their relationship, he storms out as fast as a man with a concussion can after her to win her back. Sadly, a truck runs him over and Samuel dies. Falling into hell, he meets the skateboarding Death who offers him a chance. If he gives Death all his literal shreds of life and can live 24 hours being handicapped without killing himself or others, he gets to live again with his old body back. With no wish to go to hell and work for satan, Samuel agrees and wakes up with even breathing being a struggle.
The story starts out strong with a lovely narrator describing all actions Samuel takes in hilarious ways, and I really love how they go far with how hard every single task is for a man who has never worked in his life, with even walking being a hassle. The small optional gags and signs in the background are also entertaining, such as how the developers are single. Sadly, while this slapstick is always a joy, the actual characters aren’t much to speak off. Samuel is a mute with only one trait, and Death is just a skate-kid who has a constant joke about doing kickflips that gets old fast.
Unfortunately, that is the biggest problem of the story: the repeated jokes. They try their hardest to make “feces” the new funny curse-word, the slapstick becomes predictable, and events in Samuel’s daily life are poorly connected in the middle-point and onwards, where random things start to happen just because they had no idea what to do. It is fun to have Samuel do both regular activities and be tasked with the abstract tasks he gets, but going so far to control a robot or armored satanic suits in hell, pushes it a bit as there are no clever segue to all of this and neither provides fun jokes that stay strong. In fact, the narrator even mocks some of the repetition here, which is a poor way to excuse their lack of creativity.
However, the narrator is humorous, providing about 90% clever commentaries that make me laugh out loud at times. I just wish the plot was better structured and that I actually cared for the characters. However, with good slapstick and funny moments, you are getting a lot of humor despite it not being always on top. Think of any short slapstick cartoons with no voices, and then throw in needless discussions and forcing this short episode into a movie. It can drag on, but at least with someone to mock it, helps out a lot for a decent time.
Story Score: 6.5/10
Pulling your strings
Before you start the game, you can choose to play the entire game in either co-op or alone, with both providing a nice setup. It is, however, annoying that you can’t change this setup within a save-file, but at least the game is short enough to make it easy to get through in a single sitting. As a broken-down Samuel, you must help him with breathing in and out, blink to see, get his posture up, use left and right foot simultaneously to walk and interact with left and/or right hand whenever the option is provided.
This is about it, and while it is hard to control our handicapped man, it is far from the worst. In fact, you will get quickly comfortable with the control-scheme and it is fun to take in mind what steps to take. There are also some minor alterations throughout, such as aiming your urination towards the right spot, or remember to blow your coffee before you drink and don’t breath in when you do so. These are definitely small attentions to detail that can easily throw you off.
Unfortunately, while these aspects are entertaining, they are rather short-lived. Not just because you can beat this game within 1 and a half hour, but also due to the game trying too hard to provide variety with little success. One segment has you driving the car towards you, where you must alter between gears manually, and steer left and right. Besides taking your hand over to the gas-paddle and foot between brake and gas, there is nothing interesting here and it gets quickly repetitive due to no variety in objectives. The same goes for whenever you wield a huge set of armor, as it boils down to attack, defend, and walk with your feet. You usually don’t even have to breathe here as long as Death is on your shoulders, for some reason.
Then we have the biggest problem with Manual Samuel: there is no penalty for failing. No one cares if you suddenly fall over, you can’t fail any mission, and should you even faint from not breathing, it is simple as getting up and breathing again. This makes it all feel lackluster and dull when there is nothing to really take in consideration, and segments instead last longer by resetting health-bars to an opponent, for example. You might as well not even walk, and just slither on the ground.
Manual Samuel starts out strong with a good concept, but focuses instead of creating variety in the controls-setup, instead of creative level-designs for the controls you start out with and give a progressive challenge throughout. Because of this fault, it makes the segments after the first 20 minutes repetitive and dull. It is a slog to get through, and with a final boss that is the definition of trial and error, I can easily say that this was not worth my time.
Gameplay Score: 3/10
Mediocre puppet show
There is a clear charm by going with flash-animations, as Manual Samuel wants to be a clever tribute to puppet-animation, with limbs being awkward and loose. It works quite well for complementing the gameplay, and I do enjoy the artstyle that defines our characters, with strong colors and a decent amount of diverse looks. It would have been neat to see more of the city, but a couple of Samuel’s everyday visits is not bad at all, and I love the portraits showcasing episodes or gameplay-modes.
Despite this, there is a huge problem here. By going with this style of puppeteer-animation, it makes every character’s general animations stiff and unappealing, which I think they could have gone further with. More facial animations, and limbs being more natural in movement compared to Samuel’s would have been a great contrast for example to highlight his struggles. Though this is not the biggest bother to me. The worst is actually the design for the mythical creatures, like Death, War, and Lucifer. All try to have a badass, troubled teen look, with strange hands more reminiscent of real human hands. While being a troubled teen could have been a nice change, they don’t go far enough with this concept in order to create laughs or something distinct.
As for the music, it goes for a more whimsical tune, with long stretches of tones, and a huge focus on flutes with light melodies. It is forgettable due to how repetitive and similar the tracks are, but definitely serviceable and fitting for this obscure setup. What really steals the show is the component voice-actors, with all providing great directions and tones. Death is a high-pitched teenager, the narrator is as British as he can be for an American, and the rest of the cast is solid and believable to provide a good atmosphere.
Presentation Score: 5/10
Getting up is a drag
The time-attack mode is quite fun for specific episodes, though due to the uneven pace and lack of making levels interesting onwards, this mode is rather a forgettable aspect. There are some fun achievements to find which does affect the game’s story in interesting ways and are fun extras. However, they are few and are easy to find in one playthrough with no active searching, so it is hard to see much reason to go back to the game at all.
Extra Score: 2/10
There is no shortage of these QWOP-games, but they are smart enough to start with a clear concept and go with it all the way through. Manual Samuel tries to rather change the core mechanics instead of creating levels around it, and while it is a silly and fun tale, both the gameplay and story get too repetitive to be enjoyable. The presentation is also not something to boast about except for the narrator and there is little to no reason to come back. It is kinda like telling the same joke, just slightly varied over and over again: you will get sick of it. Maybe there is a good reason for why the developers are still single.