Frantics review: Pity party

PlayLink is a neat concept: PS4 party games that let people use their phones to play, eliminating the need to wrangle controllers and reducing a barrier to participation who don’t spend much time playing console games. With a bunch of different developers involved, the framework offers up a range of different experiences, and that looks set to grow over time.

The latest addition to the PlayLink range is Frantics, a Mario Party-esque mini game collection from NapNok Games. Unfortunately, despite the love that’s clearly gone into it, it suffers from one crucial flaw: most of the games just aren’t very much fun. In a party game, that’s a dealbreaker.

There are 14 minigames in total, most of which are slightly quirky twists on familiar designs. There’s a simplified, one-button kart racing game, for example, with the added quirk of randomised “upgrades” that you can use to sabotage your opponents between rounds. Another one, puntastically called “Friendless Runner”, is a Subway Surfer-style endless runner where you can push other players out of their lanes and into obstacles. There’s a handful of arena-style games, curling with office chairs, a game of parachute chicken, and so on.

As with all PlayLink games, Frantics is played entirely through connected smart phones, and this is where the problems start. Most of the minigames rely on gyro controls, where you tilt your phone different ways to move your character. It’s terribly unintuitive and imprecise, and used for games where precision is needed—been you’re trying to push your friends off an icy arena, or dodge bombs being tossed around, or trying to defend your goal in a soccer game, the last thing you need is the controls for basic movement to get in the way. Of Frantics‘ 14 minigames, nine depend on gyro controls—meaning two thirds of Frantics is borderline unplayable.

The remaining minigames fare a bit better, making use of either familiar swipe controls or a simple, one-button setup with a virtual button on your phone’s screen. But even then, the design of the games makes them more frustrating than fun. There’s a significant random element to a lot of them in this like item drops, making them more about luck than any sort of skill or strategy.

Take that kart-racing game, for example. The racing itself is very simple: with just one an accelerate button and no turns to worry about, all you have direct control over is minding your speed so that you don’t go flying off a bump into the road and flip your car. But in between each round, each player gets a random car modification, which they then have to give to one of the other players—these are usually, but not always, things that hinder the player in some way, like square wheels. These mods have a much bigger impact on the following rounds than anything you can directly control, leaving the outcome largely up to fate.

 

Most of the other games have similar random elements in the form of items that drop onto the playing field. This isn’t unusual in party games, but in Frantics‘ case they tend to have a lot more influence on the outcome than they should, effectively turning each round into an elongated dice roll. That isn’t fun.

Alot of the games suffer from competitive gameplay that’s tiresome and tedious—the sort of competitive game design that just makes friends and family angry at one another, Monopoly style. In games like Friendless Runner, there’s a constant fight for territory, but without any meaningful engagement as part of that. You simply push one another out around, back and forth: you want to be in lane 2, so you push your buddy out of that lane, then they push you back, and so it goes on until someone crashes into something. There’s no strategy, no way to maneuver yourself into an advantageous position; it’s just a digital tug of war. Win or lose, it feels like a chore to play.

Between all these problems, there were only really two minigames in Frantics that I actually enjoyed playing. One is “Tour de Frantics” (the pun department was running out of material by this stage, I fear), another single-button kart-racing game, but from an overhead perspective. When you hold the button, you go fast but in a straight line; when you let it go, you slow down but automatically follow the curve of the road. Within that very simple setup, there’s a lot of room to outplay your friends, and be outplayed in turn, and it has none of the control or randomisation issues that plague the other games.

The other is Trappy Field, in which everyone moves across a tiled field to try collect a bowl of soup from one end and return it to the starting point. Movement is by swiping in the direction you want to go, and though it has a bit of Friendless Runner’s pushing and shoving, the bigger, multi-directional playing field and fewer obstacles mean there’s more room to actually run some sort of game plan.

Both Tour de Frantics and Trappy Field are a lot of fun, but when you can say that for only two minigames out of 14, that’s really not a great look.

In its main game mode, Fox Party, Frantics combines a selection of minigames in a game show-esque structure. You play anywhere from two to four games in sequence, with the winner of each game earning a crown; whoever has the most crowns at the end wins the whole match. In between games, the Fox who hosts Frantics might give players secret missions, or give you a chance to bid coins (collected during each game) on items for use in the next round. In some cases, he might even give players a chance to buy crowns outright—victory to the highest bidder. That’s never nice to be part of, but it at least pokes a bit of fun at “pay to win” games and capitalism more generally, which is more than I can say for the rest of the game.

I’ll also admit that Frantics is a beautiful looking game. It’s all done in a claymation style, and it makes full use of the PS4’s power to make that look as authentic as possible without the need for a painstaking stop-motion process. It’s also a rather funny game at times, though it doesn’t take long for the jokes to start repeating.

Superficial charms can’t do much to help the game underneath, though. Frantics is a party game where fun is in very short supply, and it’s doomed from the outset as a result.


Frantics is developed by NakNok Games and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. It’s available now on PlayStation 4.

A copy of the game was supplied by the publisher for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.