As an obsessive fan of various entertainment mediums, I’m a huge sucker for IPs that attempt to marry two or more mediums in a unified product, whether that’s through adapting an IP from one medium to another or by combining the inherent features of both into one unique experience (like rhythm games). While it’s obvious that when it comes to the relationship between movies and video games the transition between the two has been fairly underwhelming, it has also been fairly one-street; games are adapted into movies, not vice versa. Obviously, I’ve not been living in a cave for the past three decades, so I do know of the existence of movie tie-in games, FMV games, “cinematic” experiences; I know that game developers now use and think about concepts like cinematography and shot composition. But, I always felt like those games and those advancements have always started with an artistic and business oriented goal in mind; it wasn’t about adapting the experience of watching and interacting with movies into games, it was about developers/artists being heavily inspired and/or financially motivated to take certain aspects of movies and fit them into games. Simply put, it was the equivalent of early TV recording theater plays; it removes a huge contributing factor of why theater is popular, and does not play in the strengths of its own medium.
My friend Petro is not that; it is, in my limited experience, the closest to a movie adaptation I have played, not of a specific movie though, but of a specific sub-genre. John Woo’s movies like Hard Boiled and A better tomorrow have inspired many Hollywood blockbusters such as The Matrix, and it’s this Hong Kong 80s and 90s action that My Friend Petro successfully adapts to the video game format. So, how does My Friend Petro succeed where others have not?
Well, at its core My Friend Petro asks of the player three tasks: Move towards the right, kill everyone, and get to the end of the level. The first major success of My Friend Petro comes in the form of how it asks you to achieve those three tasks and the tools it provides you with: You can run, jump, leap, roll, zipline, skate, and roll on top of a barrel, to traverse the level, as well as shoot, kick basketballs and body parts, deflect bullets on pans and signs, crush, and kick your enemies to death, while using your abilities of slowing down time, splitting your aim when duel wielding guns, wall-jumping, and pirouetting to dodge bullets. All of these verbs and actions create this beautifully gory and cool-looking ballet of bullets, blood, and stylish action that make John Woo’s movies so iconic; it’s the feeling of raw awe you got when you first saw Yun-Fat Chow leaping into a room in slow-motion, duel wielding pistols and sliding at the end of the room—the awesome moment a person uses every inch of agility, athleticism, skill, sharpshooting prowess, to leap towards death, guns blazing and come out alive. It’s a game you ought to play with your finger glued to the D button, in order to keep momentum and excitement on a high, keep replaying levels to get better scores, but mostly to create cooler moments; where other games will give you a hard challenge and lots of complexity to achieve a single but satisfying victory, My Friend Petro gives you a less challenging playground that encourages you to keep moving, shooting, and doing cool stunts to get a higher score and a higher thrill from pulling of a sick stunt.
The second way in which My Friend Petro adapts John Woo’s signature style is in the animations: The player character dances around the level, seamlessly connecting with the environment, the ground, the objects, etc. This may sound like a cool little touch or a minor detail, but it’s what sells the cool stunts it wants you to do, and what makes them cool for the player; pirouetting in place while shouting your dual Uzis sounds like a cool and cheesy thing to do, but it looks rad and feels awesome when your uncontrolled spray of bullets and massive waste of ammo, results in a room full of dead bad guys.
The most significant reason, though, that makes My Friend Petro work as a John Woo-esque game, is that the game never really feels like an open sandbox; on the contrary, it feels like a heavily-directed experience, and in most of the levels I felt like the first run was always a “rehearsal” for a scene, rather than a legitimate run. Enemies will pop out in cinematic timing or with clear intention as to which tools should the player use in order to get maximum efficiency and cool ‘action-guy’ moments; it’s not exactly “trial and error” gameplay, because the game on the first two difficulty settings is not especially challenging (especially if you don’t care about scores and leaderboards). It’s more of a free-form, improv type of action that doesn’t really punish you for failing to react, but gets easier and more ‘readable’ the more you learn how the director works and what type of action he’s setting up for you.
This may sound a bit repetitive, and in all honesty it is, but that’s not where the game fails; the repetitive nature of the game is a good constant for you to build on and attempt wackier stunts and cooler moves, but that would only be feasible if the penalty for failing was not high, which makes it a ‘medium-risk, medium-reward’ type of game. Beyond that lackluster aspect, the game also has a few annoyances that hurt the overall experience, mainly the camera and how it zooms out of the action frequently in order to show everything coming up, but does make the action hard to keep track of.
Thus, it’s not a perfect game—more like a good game with a really good gimmick. It’s not even the best adaptation of a movie experience (more on that later!), but it is a game that tries to adapt a genre mostly associated with movies and does so in a way that I haven’t seen in a while. Ever since games got out of the “we can be like movies” phase, they went straight into their most recent phase of being likened to a movie or a book being an insult for a game; but now that is going away slowly as well, there’s room and opportunity for developers to start experimenting with adaptations in video games—as we are already seeing with John Wick Hex, adaptation does not need to be a straightforward process. Hopefully more developers will start taking these chances and hopefully those games will be as good as My Friend Petro, or hopefully even better.