Gaming is very much a medium that’s all about the genre piece; despite claims to the contrary from the indie sector, most games fall into some easily-defined fields and don’t do a lot to expand from there. Sometimes, though, you’ve got a game that just defines classification in its efforts to do something new. We’ve got one of those today with bizarre breathing simulator Manual Samuel.
Our hero, Sam, was never much for manual labor…or labor of any kind, really. He was born into wealth and has enjoyed the perks of privilege for his entire life. That all changes after one bad day that leads to his death and subsequent descent to Hell. There, Sam meets Death, who offers him a unique opportunity: survive for 24 hours under a condition of the Grim Reaper’s choosing and he can return to life.
That condition, though, that’s the problem here. Sam is cursed to live the whole day in completely manual fashion; in other words, the automatic responses and instincts that we take for granted have been stripped from Sam. He has to think about breathing; he has to think about which leg to use when walking; he has to focus on his spine to keep from flopping over like a dead fish; God forbid he tries to drink or eat something, because he also has to make sure he doesn’t accidentally breathe in and choke while doing so. All the while he’s got Death riding shotgun as the day steadily becomes more and more interesting – and that’s not good news for Sam.
Manual Samuel plays out in a series of chapters; as you finish each one you can go back and replay it to your heart’s content. Early gameplay focuses on the nuts and bolts of Sam’s condition – you have to make Sam manually blink, breathe, walk and so on by pushing the appropriate buttons. You probably won’t get all of this right, which leads to hilarious results; stairs in particular are a horrifying menace to poor Sam. Simple tasks like eating breakfast or driving to work become Herculean tasks.
Later, the game goes in a more video-gamey direction. While the closing chapters remain interesting and funny, they focus more on action-based gameplay. Manual Samuel isn’t quite as good at that style and the latter half of the game suffers a bit as a result. In particular, the final boss, such as it were, amounts to a long, time-wasting trial and error exercise and probably should have been rethought.
Regardless, Manual Samuel isn’t very long (a first playthrough will only last about an hour) and it’s worth playing through. The game’s cartoon presentation is fantastic and there are plenty of memorable characters throughout; this game’s representation of Death and his endless attempts to land a kickflip is probably the star of the show, which is good since he’s around for the whole game. There’s even a Bastion-like narrator that supplies much of the game’s strange humor. The experimental gameplay flops a bit at times, perhaps a metaphor in keeping one’s spine focused (spineless?). But when it works, it really works, and Manual Samuel shines when capitalizing on these moments. At $10 it’s an easy recommendation.