Time killer or just killing time?
Every once in a while, a game comes along that is hard to categorize as such, for it wants to be classified or seen as art. Without a doubt, there is an artfulness to 2D action-narrative Arrest of a stone Buddha from the developer of The friends of Ringo Ishikawa, which you can read a review of here. While the latter was a contemplative River City Ransom, the former features much less actual gameplay and fewer mechanics that would qualify it as an enjoyable or intuitive video game experience. An apt comparison might be to Seinfeld; stone Buddha is a game about nothing. That said, it’s hard not to feel something in between the gratuitous shoot-outs and the aimless wandering that make up Arrest of a stone Buddha’s 3-4 hour runtime.
The opening is particularly jarring, and almost reminiscent of the violence you might experience in a first-person shooter. The nameless protagonist, a professional killer by trade, is sitting in a church. He slowly gets up and walks over to a man kneeling about a dozen steps away. He pulls out a gun, points it at the individual beneath him, and pulls the trigger. What follows are three screens of slowly walking from one side of the screen to the next, all the while a steady stream of enemies pours in from either side of you. Your task: incapacitate or gun down each one on your way to the exit, which turns out to be some type of getaway vehicle on the final screen. If you happen to get a hole blown through your chest, you start again at the beginning of the area.
One troublesome, albeit purposeful, element of Arrest of a stone Buddha is the absence of any kind of UI. The first few screens act as a tutorial, with messages popping up that teach you the controls, but other than a few dialogue options and some brief conversations with your handler, most of your time is spent walking and shooting. I get it, though; when you remove things like a life meter, an ammo count, and an item menu, it heightens the sense of immersion. It’s much easier to lose yourself in a game like this because there are no numbers or inventories to focus on. But it’s frustrating, too, since you don’t know how many bullets your pistol has left before you need to grab another from one of your assailants, which you do by breaking their arm and stealing their weapon. Even though there are only three types of enemies, their sheer number and the need to constantly be acquiring new weapons make the combat parts fairly challenging. The tutorial one itself took me about half a dozen attempts.
The story plays out between some date in October and one in November, covering approximately 30 days. Many of the days, you wake up in your apartment, go outside, and kill time until your next assignment (8-10 in total), which seems to be handed out every three days or so. Conversations with your handler usually take place on a park bench, and involve almost no details about your assignment. Instead, the two men ruminate on the meaning of it all, but much is left to the imagination, and the writing isn’t great. Before you are actually transported to your mission, all of which take place in a different location, you can visit a pharmacy to replace your sleeping pills, go to a movie theater, or shop for sunglasses and a trenchcoat. That’s basically it. None of the actions you can take is very enjoyable or entertaining; instead, they all represent an attempt to highlight the insignificance of our day-to-day routines.
The best way to describe Arrest of a stone Buddha is to think of it as a dream in video game form, and I mean the kind you wake up from and wonder: “What the hell was that?” The lack of control, direction, and agency that one experiences while dreaming are the closest approximation I can come up with. However, there is some wisdom to be gleaned from the hundreds of bodies this professional killer leaves lying in his wake. A muted and pale color palette of the French urban setting further underscores the boring non-combat portion of the game, but the soundtrack is incredibly evocative and almost forces you to meditate on the themes of death and existence. All in all, those looking for something light on exposition and direction but heavy on senseless violence and lonely wandering may find a worthwhile experience here. It bears repeating, though, that this is a much more dour and less varied title than its predecessor The friends of Ringo Ishikawa.