When I first saw Manual Samuel on the Steam store, I had high hopes for it. As far as indie titles go, anyway. It looked like a goofy, gimmicky, good time. Much like Octodad, I could play it, enjoy it, and move on. It’d be a short experience but one I’d look back on with fondness, and one that’d join the pantheon of must-play indie experiences. Only, this is one we’ll probably be forgetting.
The game starts off in a quaint cafe with our vessel-to-be Samuel catching flak for missing his girlfriend’s birthday for the third year in a row. After receiving a lecture over his laziness he shrugs it off, explaining that because he has a rich and successful family he can just coast through life. This doesn’t go down well and the conversation ends with a swift strike across the face with a bottle of broccoli juice.
This is when the player is handed control. You help the dazed and confused Samuel to his feet and work out how to use his limbs. The triggers move his legs, shoulder buttons move his arms, and the face buttons will control…well… his face. The controls are fairly straightforward but when pressed in the incorrect order, or not at all, Samuel will fall into a heap on the floor. Controlling someone manually is, as you’d expect, clumsy and slow, but entertaining at the same time.
One aspect of Manual Samuel I enjoyed, aside from the control scheme, was the narrator. The sarcastically dry storytelling provided throughout is tonally correct for a game like this. While the humour didn’t always land, it was a nice surprise to hear him react to the player’s actions. He’d often remark if I’d taken too long (sometimes telling me exactly what to do) or ad-libbed if I kept repeating the same action unnecessarily. It’s just a shame that every other character is without merit.
It’s like playing a video game adaptation of a tv show I’ve never heard of, and the only people who get the bigger picture are the developers
So, Samuel stumbles outside in pursuit of his girlfriend, and as he limps across the road he’s hit by a truck. As the narrator puts it “The impact renders him eight types of dead,” whatever that means. This is when we meet Death, arguably the most annoying character, who has a deal for Samuel. If he’s able to “manually” survive for the next twenty-four hours he can have his life back. A difficult task regardless, but even harder for a man who’s never had to lift a metaphorical finger. Of course, Samuel agrees and we’re taken back a day before the accident. After getting the hang of blinking and breathing, we set off on our day while Death practices his kickflips in the background.
This is when the clever and interesting mechanics of Manual Samuel come into play, and they make you truly appreciate our “automatic” lifestyles. Having to juggle basic bodily functions is hilariously chaotic, and the first few levels are filled with many forehead slapping moments. How could I be so stupid to believe that I could inhale while having a mouth full of hot coffee?!
There’s something inherently funny about struggling to complete mundane, everyday tasks, and that’s when Manual Samuel is at its most entertaining. Sadly, the game takes a very different direction that ends up missing the point entirely. The second half turns into somewhat of an awkward brawler as it tries to adapt the mechanics to fit the story. You’re no longer laughing along as you endeavour to live a normal life, instead, you’re required to complete a bunch of precise sequences with imprecise controls. It’s frustrating, especially as the story isn’t engaging enough to will you to the end.
Manual Samuel would have been a better game if it didn’t put its mediocre story in front of the mechanics. A simple tale of a man just trying to get through the day would have been sufficient enough to let players enjoy the gameplay. I’d much rather struggle with grocery shopping and mowing the lawn than fighting robots and demons. It’s an odd story, one filled with uninteresting characters with dialogue that often fails to stick the landing. It’s like playing a video game adaptation of a TV show I’ve never heard of, and the only people who get the bigger picture are the developers.
It’s not a terrible game by any means, and it’s cheap enough that it may warrant a purchase from anyone curious enough. It’s just a middle of the road indie title that may satisfy the QWOP fans out there, if those people actually exist.