This PlayStation 4 exclusive from Frost Monkey Games follows in the footsteps of This War of Mine, Bury me, My Love, and the recent Drowning, tackling a sensitive matter in order to raise awareness. In this case, the plight of Syrian refugees as they risk their lives to cross the border. While the subject is unpleasantly bleak, Massira is an experience not quite as po-faced as you may imagine.
The story involves Numi and Yara, a young girl and her grandmother. After a bomb explodes near Numi’s school, she’s forced to begin the perilous journey from Syria to Germany. Each level is set in a different country – Austria, Macedonia, Lesbos, the Kara Tepe refugee camp, and everywhere between – and usually entails exploration, puzzle solving, platforming, and short stealth sections.
Just to prove that Massira isn’t without a spot of silliness, the platforming segments vary from leaping on giant springy mushrooms to tilting the PS4 controller to remain upright while walking across logs floating downstream. There are moving platforms, too – a classic videogame trope we didn’t expect to see in a game of this ilk. The same can be said for the spinning, hidden, collectables. Each of these is a unique item, referencing Eastern European culture. A nice touch.
For the most part, Massira is relatively straightforward. A typical stage involves helping somebody by finding a missing item, partaking in a mini-game (one stage has an on-foot race; another a ‘Simon’ style memory game), pickpocketing guards by approaching them stealthily, or solving a puzzle. The amount of variety is easily the most standout feature – it’s always a mystery as to what challenges lie ahead. The levels also vary in size, with the refugee camp being wide and open – even containing a few optional quests – and a stealthy prison stage being linear and more action orientated.
The puzzles aren’t too perplexing, mostly being of the block shoving or rotate-the-mirrors-to-direct-a-beam variety, but they do suffer from awkward controls. One of the more innovative ideas is that both characters can be controlled at once, using an analogue stick each. The control layout can feel unnatural during these instances – during a short Pipemania style puzzle, which involves fixing the camp’s water supply, the button prompts appeared to be mapped incorrectly.
There’s also a split-screen platforming segment using this set-up, which required over a dozen retires to finally beat due to twitchy movement. As for other (less problematic) gimmicks, the touchpad is used to remove dirt from discarded newspapers, eventually revealing news stories related to the war.
A complex game Massira isn’t. It’s a late ‘90s/early noughties platform adventure at heart – even down to the purposely low-poly visuals – combined with symbolic art intended to make you think and reflect. Shady characters bare skull-like faces, for instance, while after reaching the shore after a perilous boat trip Numi is faced with a literal mountain of life jackets. These instances are used to good effect, becoming more frequent as the journey takes its toil.
That said, the penultimate stage set in a ghost-filled maze didn’t quite hit its mark. It’s presumably meant to convey Numi’s sensation of feeling lost and scared, but due to its colossal size, it came across as mere filler to pad out the 3-4 hour runtime.
Despite a few rough edges, Massira is still something Frost Monkey Games can be proud of. It’s a bold attempt to enlighten the masses that’s packed full of variety, with a meaningful story at its core. It’s a little too straightforward and childlike to recommend to experienced gamers, but those looking to educate their children about what’s going on elsewhere in the world should give it consideration.