CIMA: The Enemy Retroview
Sahara: The Desert
Attempting to substantially innovate in the game industry is an endeavor fraught with peril. Going fully outside the bounds of what is already on the marketplace can reap great rewards, or it can produce a product that repels all in its presence. CIMA: The Enemy achieves the dubious honor of reminding all who experience its unique qualities that the tried-and-true isn’t so bad after all, and that what might have worked for a single mission is incapable of supporting an entire game.
CIMA is an action title with an isometric perspective in which the goal of every dungeon is to guide a group of vulnerable and stupid people step-by-step through each floor. Guiding the people is initially tolerable, if not exactly delightful, but each successive dungeon adds another person to the queue until fourteen are marching around by the end. The game will not allow progression to the next level of a dungeon until every person is adjacent to the exit, making for a tedious waiting game that only becomes more monotonous as the game adds extra participants.
Naturally, the game throws some twists into the tale of people marching along dungeon floors. These generally come in the form of the eponymous CIMA, which serve as the antagonists throughout the game, and less-than-taxing puzzles to open barriers in the way. The enemies are dumber than a second coat of paint but usually pop out of infinite CIMA-producing nests, and the lack of any recovery time after being hit means they can rapidly kill the foolish people if the player isn’t around at the right moment. This does demand attention, but as the appropriate response is invariably to mash the A button rapidly in front of the nest while people pass, its enjoyability decreases swiftly. The puzzles in the game fall under several types, all of which will be repeated ad nauseum: putting some people on weight-controlled switches, killing enemies not spawned from CIMA nests, knocking enemies into holes, and dealing with switches that stay open for a short time. Generally the solution will become clear within a few seconds, but maneuvering all the elements necessary to solve the puzzle will take much longer.
Controlling the refugees using the GBA’s controls is the catch, of course. Ordering all the characters around is easy enough, though they always move along one by one instead of in a bunch for easy herding. Keeping them in one orderly procession is not always possible, and when certain characters need to be in a separate location the GBA’s limitations for this sort of maneuver intrude. The characters are automatically assigned into groups of four as the game progresses, and the player can choose to order only one of these assemblages around along with the individuals comprising it. Once a group has been chosen to do something, though, all of its members must come to a rest again before a different quartet can be selected. There is also no convenient means of gathering the scattered characters into a group again, due to their tendency to get stuck on corners without very close handholding. Some characters are perfectly capable of fending for themselves against standard CIMA, but sending them away from the player is a gamble anyway due to their permissive AI allowing lots of hits. Dungeon floors that could be cleared in less than a minute by an unencumbered player will take much longer due to all the complications of making the pioneers move.
A special demerit must be given to the character of Ivy, who can occasionally be controlled but mostly tags along after the player. She is not normally subject to being ordered around, and this is frequently a source of rage when she gets caught on the formidable obstacle of a corner. She sometimes contributes to battle by hitting enemies, but more often takes a hit that the player just dodged due to her tag-along position. If she gets killed the game is over, so her idiocy is not an idle matter.
CIMA manages the unpleasant feat of being a portable game with a seemingly-friendly save system that is much more restrictive than it appears. The game allows saving anywhere, it is true, but only the status of the party upon entering a floor is actually recorded on the battery. Saving after accomplishing things on a dungeon floor will produce the unwelcome sensation of loading the game and seeing none of those events acknowledged. Most dungeon floors are fairly short, but this still means they must be tackled in one go without pause.
Healing characters in CIMA is a frequent task, and the lack of any magic means that items will have to do the job. This necessitates delving into a complicated and time-consuming inventory. Each character has a separate inventory of sixteen items plus five that are ready to be used, and switching between them takes longer as the screen fills with more options for assignment. Aside from taking a long time to use and having icons that are very small the item management is not wretched, but also prompts no cries of joy when the time comes to partake.
All other aspects are shunted aside when boss battles appear. No citizens must be protected and Ivy magically ceases taking damage. That leaves the combat system to stand on its own auspices, which boil down to trying to learn a boss’s pattern in an environment where one false move can result in almost-instant death due to the absence of recovery time after being hit. The difficulty of these fights varies wildly, but a particular note of displeasure is sounded near the end when four of the characters heretofore employed solely to move through the dungeons are required to vanquish their own bosses. Unless the player is aware of this beforehand and strengthens them as much as possible, odds are good that these fights will be spectacularly infuriating. Attack items exist to help take down regular enemies, but they are unusable against bosses, drastically limiting the player’s ability to turn the tide in these fights.
Killing CIMA in front of characters results in them trusting the player more, while letting them get hit gradually undoes this bond. The result of being trusted is that each individual can create specific items, meaning that extra healing supplies can come to be. This is one of the few RPG mechanics in CIMA, and another is its means of strengthening characters — via materials found in dungeons that one man can translate into an improvement for attack and defense. Not enough of these items are available to provide everyone with full upgrades, so educated guessing will be necessary as to where they will be most applicable. Guessing wrongly will result in at least one and possibly four boss battles with woefully unprepared characters getting slaughtered repeatedly.
The story that propels CIMA‘s events forward could have been interesting, based in a world where CIMA feast upon humans and the characters of this game were just trying to reach a new settlement. Instead of exploring this universe, the train conveying these settlers is zapped into another dimension and all the passengers are separated. It is up to Gate Guardian Ark and his aide Ivy to gather them back together, painstakingly visiting one dungeon after another to find the character trapped within. During the dungeon exploration characters will engage in dialogue that mostly serves to underline Ark’s inexperience as a protector, along with his determination to lead everyone safely away. In almost every dungeon one character will act like an idiot in order to break the party into two groups, and their reunion will occasion more trite dialogue. The game attempts to pack a dramatic revelation into the final battle, but it falls flat after all the preceding banality. A relatively small portion of the game’s roughly ten hour completion time is devoted to the plot, yet what it does present never garners much interest.
CIMA‘s visuals are serviceable but hardly a standout. Enemies are sometimes difficult to distinguish from each other even though their sprites are different, and many dungeons look very similar to each other. Of particular note is the use of a lamp post to denote areas currently blocked off from the player, when a wall or other blocking device that actually looks impassable could have been employed instead. As for its audio, CIMA boasts a gallery of forgettable compositions and a couple of keepers. It also boasts an annoying alarm sound that unceasingly blares whenever a character is near death.
It took almost two years after the North American release of this game for it to see a Japanese launch. Presumably that means it sold just enough to justify a belated exposure to another market, which provides another example of someone not going broke underestimating the American public. When the best I can say about CIMA is that sometimes playing it merely produces tedium instead of hair-pulling rage, that’s a recommendation to remember.