Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
Pinocchio is a story about a copy of a child who attempts to become a real one. Lies Of P, the bizarre new action-adventure very loosely based on Carlo Collodi’s classic novel of wood-made-good, has a similar premise, at least so far as we’ve gleaned from its recent demo: It’s the story of a video game that wanted to be Bloodborne so badly it tried to force that blatantly false reality into existence.
Hard to blame them: Eight years after its release, From Software’s Gothic nightmare remains a masterpiece—of quick-moving and artfully designed combat; of incredible level and world design; of somehow making steampunk fashions not look entirely asinine. Bloodborne is a high bar for a company that clears a lot of them; the creation of Yharnam, the twisting, maddened city that sits at the center of the game’s ever-escalating horror, would qualify it for classic status even if nothing else in the game’s considerable arsenal did.
If you squint, there’s something almost clever about the way Lies Of P—from developer Round8 Studio, and out this September—attempts to imitate From’s game without seeming to understand it, or while lacking the skill to actually reach the heights of imitation it aspires to. This is, after all, a game in which Pinocchio—as in, that one, with the cricket and the nose and shit—must battle his way through grim approximations of the human form, cutting down artificial intelligences performing lifeless imitations of a living mind. Doing so via the medium of a slipshod and slapdash imitation of a masterpiece of gaming carries a certain meta thrill.
And it’s not like Lies Of P is a horrible game to play, at least from the demo—it moves solidly in the hands, and has a couple of mildly clever twists on the Dark-Souls-but-faster combat that Bloodborne basically perfected. (Most notably, a weapon customization system that gives “P” the ability to craft his ideal tool for smashing rampaging enemy puppets.) But it only takes a few minutes of running through the weirdly straight streets of an abandoned city beset by Puppet Problems for a sense of lifelessness to settle in. You can’t shake the sense that you’re running around in, well, a video game level: A series of boxes designed to funnel the player into various enemies, with just enough ruined boxes or other debris scattered around to check off “shit all over the place” on an “Imitating Bloodborne” checklist. None of the spaces feel like they were designed for actual people to move around in—which is a shame, because it ruins that feeling of walking in late to an apocalypse that makes good horror feel so queasy and real.
Meanwhile, the demo also gives us a taste of the game’s most interesting narrative flourish: The titular Lies, which come up every time the city’s puppet-phobic populace questions why this Timothée Chalamet-looking hunk of springs and wood has suddenly shown up to save their lives. The “lies” in this case are essentially Pinocchio’s assertions that he’s actually a real
Dune star boy, and tie into the story’s repeated attempts to assert that all this puppet stuff is very serious business. (We promise, you have never seen a video game try this hard to make the kindly old puppet maker Geppetto look badass.) And here’s where we note the one thing that has made every single person we’ve described this demo to over the last few weeks get just frothingly angry: At no point during all these conversations and choices about lying or not does Pinocchio’s nose ever grow, no matter what you do.
Anyway: The point stands that, at least at present, Lies Of P is more interesting as a metaphor than as a game. At least in the early going, it’s an inelegant copy about killing inelegant copies—interesting, sure, meta as all get out, but not actually all that fun. (It’s mostly an excellent sales pitch for a third or fourth replay of Bloodborne, if we’re being honest.) Still, in a world where copies are in ever more ready supply than true creativity, it typically doesn’t pay to bet against them; we’ll have to see if Lies Of P and its various artificial homunculi have more to say when its actual release rolls around in a couple of months.