I cannot think of any game that requires its instruction manual as much as Stretch Panic.
To give you an idea of what I mean by this, it only takes an explanation of how the game starts to put things in perspective. Once you start a new game, a rather poorly done intro cinematic plays presented in what seems to be an attempt to mimic a comic book style. A little girl is walking down the street carrying boxes, a truck with a weird symbol races past her and stops at her house, dropping off a box with a door inside. The girls at the house stare at it before disappearing into the light on the other side of the door, the little girl getting sucked in as well as her scarf turns into a hand. Then, the game starts as the girl drops into a black and white sketch of a room with portraits on the wall, a bell on a tree, and a spinning node. If you want to play the game, there is no tutorial or any instruction on what to do in the game itself, and the best thing you have to go on is a small display that tells you what some of your controller’s buttons do but leaves out pivotal info on what you’ll need to beat the game.
I spent some time trying to feel out the game and learn the controls, but they certainly aren’t intuitive enough to be picked up on without being given any context. It’s not uncommon for a game to let you learn by experimenting with what buttons you have, but Stretch Panic’s mechanics are too complex to be picked up on this way. Notably, one of its mechanics is required to beat the game, that being the ability to exorcise the demons in your sisters, but this requires pressing R3 and L3, guiding the hands that appear to the boss, and then holding it for at least 5 seconds without getting hurt. The control display does not mention this ability nor does it explain the proper execution of any of its techniques. It’s simply exists so you can shift your control type, completely forgetting to put in any explanation of what those controls can actually do. Other games with complex controls like Katamari Damacy were able to get away with minimalist tutorial areas to explain their peculiar mechanics, but Stretch Panic will just assume you have read the manual and start you off right away, and even back in the era when this game was new, second hand games and rentals weren’t uncommon, so you were certainly not guaranteed the booklet’s inclusion either!
Luckily, the modern era comes to save the day, a kind soul going the extra distance to upload the manual scans of the U.S. and international releases of Stretch Panic so we can finally break through the confusion to learn the game’s story, its mechanics, and pretty much everything important about it. If you wish to see the manual, just follow this link here: http://stretchpanic.blogspot.com/2016/01/stretch-panic-us-release-scans.html
Now that we have a handy resource on our hand, we can finally begin figuring out what this old Playstation 2 game is about. Stretch Panic, also called Freak Out or Hippa Linda depending on your region, is the tale of a young girl named Linda whose 12 older sisters are obsessed with their appearance and have given in fully to their vanity. A strange force appears one day offering them true beauty which they readily accept, but Linda arrives late and isn’t so vain as to fall for the trick. Instead, she stumbles through the same door as them and sets out to save them, her scarf distorting into a strange hand that she can use to pluck the world around her and free the demons from her sister’s mutated forms. Surprisingly, the manual has quite a long intro written out that is nowhere in the game, and even if it had been plopped in as a wall of text, it would have been preferable to the baffling stream of images we are shown as a sorry attempt to start the story.
The weird sketch-like place we are dropped in is called the Museum of Agony, and it is a hub for everything you’ll be doing in this game. Linda’s interaction with everything around her is done through her scarf, the hand able to grab almost anything and stretch it around to cause varying effects. The main things Linda will be doing with this power are pinching enemies, pulling on them to launch herself at them, pulling on the ground to launch herself elsewhere, and grabbing objects to either break them or throw them. Despite being a Playstation 2 game, Stretch Panic’s graphics are bit basic with enemies made of crude shapes, but this was likely a deliberate choice so that you can stretch them from any point easily enough and thus it barely earns itself a pass. What doesn’t earn itself a pass are the doors you’ll find to access the games levels, most of them gated behind a certain number of points you need to enter. To earn these points, you must go to EX levels, and as you enter them, you’ll notice something incredibly strange. The EX levels aren’t really levels in the traditional sense, in that you don’t have anything you have to do to “beat” them besides going through the door to leave it. Instead, in these levels, your main goal is to grind for points, and you do so by approaching women known as Bonitas and beating them in combat. What are Bonitas? Well… there’s no classy way to put this, but… they are women with absolutely gargantuan chests.
Every time you are able to damage a Bonita by pinching a part of their body besides the obvious part, you’ll earn a point, and these EX levels serve exclusively as a means for grinding points up to open the other doors and are needed to activate your exorcism ability. Now, the Bonitas are definitely absurd, but they do play into the game’s narrative pretty well in that it’s clear they were perverted by the demons in charge to be their vision of beauty. The problem with these enemies is not their cartoonish conception, but their complete ineffectiveness. The Bonitas wander about without really doing much besides occasionally making helicopter blades out of their chest to traverse terrain. If you are close to one, they usually don’t care much either, although a few may try and attack you and do so little damage that they are no threat. These rooms really do serve as places just to build up points, making the points mechanic seem a bit frivolous since it all feels so tacked on. You will have to revisit EX rooms every now and again to progress as well, so while they aren’t exactly either boring or fun, they are a bit tedious.
The main focus of the game is certainly on what lies behind those point doors, and when you enter the real levels, you’ll find they are all boss battles! Stretch Panic pits you up against the twisted versions of Linda’s many sisters, and the gameplay here certainly has a lot more thought put into it. The controls for these battles will take a bit to get used to, especially trying to maneuver your scarf in the heat of battle, but with the manual on your side, you can get the hang of it surprisingly quick. Each boss presents something new to deal with, the game doing a pretty good job of delivering on variety but failing when it comes to difficulty and theming. If you read the manual’s story you’ll see the sisters were offered to become visions of beauty, but only about half of these bosses can be argued to match that theme, and the manual flimsily tries to work in the boss designs of the others with some tale about it being tied to the sister’s personality. This is sabotaged pretty quickly should you ever need to rematch a boss, as you’ll see the sister who is twisted into the demonic form is random each time and they might not even match the way the manual describes this supposed sister. Perhaps the most blatant case of this is Cyan, who is stated to be the smallest sister, but the randomization of the sister who is twisted in the fight’s opening scene means you can get the large or tall sisters instead.
For the bosses where the game’s theme of punished vanity does work, the game has some pretty creative ideas. One boss constantly appeals to her adoring fans who flock to her and its up to you to yank them away before she grows strong off their power. Another boss is a girl who was so obsessed with her facial features that the demons made them enormous yet removable. When the boss matches the broader theme, it works pretty well, but then we have an Egyptian mummy boss, a giant mech, and what I can only describe as a malicious drinking bird toy. The bosses aren’t bad to fight really, certainly most of them are on the easy side since you can take way too much damage without failing, but half-heartedly embracing the game’s core premise is a bit of a shame. Speaking of the difficulty, the bosses aren’t that hard to beat but still usually put up an interesting fight. You shouldn’t expect to die, but your approach to each one will likely be different. Balancing avoiding their attacks while going for their unique weaknesses is pretty fun, and if you don’t feel you’re up to snuff at handling the boss’s gimmick, you can whittle them down with pinches or torpedoing yourself at them. The main problem with the style of the boss fights is that all of them seem to be perhaps one mechanic short of being great. Even something as simple as making the boss have a new move after they’re at half health would rescue them from being too easy to take down, but there is an earlier mentioned mechanic that adds an extra layer to each confrontation.
Beating your sisters in battle is not enough to beat the game. Your sisters will constantly be twisted into these forms again and again until you exorcise the dark spirit inside of them. Perhaps the exorcism was meant to add that extra layer of depth to the fights, and I certainly can’t deny that it made the encounters more interesting. During the battle you must perform the Scarf Bomb attack, a poor name for three scarf hands grabbing the boss and yanking on them until they can yank the demon free. The strategy here comes from finding the best moment to use the attack, as you need to keep it going for a decent amount of time and taking damage will end it. Even more importantly, every use of the Scarf Bomb burns through 5 of your points, and unless you have a lot of patience for grinding in the EX levels, it’s likely you’ll find this limitation making you incredibly careful in when you try to execute the move. You can’t just beat a boss by hammering away on them because of this requirement, meaning you have to learn their strategies, patterns, and weaknesses so you can pull it off. Sure, some of the sisters it requires next to no thought or skill to pull it off, but for the most part you’ll need that level of preparedness to truly defeat them and free whichever randomly generated sister got inflicted by the taint this time.
The game starts to get pretty creative and challenging with boss designs near the end, but then… it abruptly ends. Stretch Panic is surprisingly short, and it gives you exactly as many sister fights as it promised before ending without really offering any closure on its story or why anything happened. It’s a real shame they couldn’t stretch the game’s concept further as the battle system does become fun once you’ve adjusted to it, but replaying it will also leave you with little to do as the EX levels are essentially padding and you’ll know all the bosses too well to enjoy a return trip.
THE VERDICT: Stretch Panic could have been so much more. It’s certainly a peculiar game, but the oddness is part of its appeal, and the concept of twisted beauty has a lot of legs. Sadly, the game focuses more on giving good boss fights, and while the designs of the battles are pretty sound, they also lack that extra oomph needed to really justify the deviation from the premise. Stretch Panic takes a bit to get used to, but not so long that you can’t enjoy the sadly short experience.
And so, I give Stretch Panic for the Playstation 2…
An AVERAGE rating. Were it not for the manual though, this game could have done far, far worse. Stretch Panic is by no means intuitively designed, which is a shame, as the short length makes it a perfect rental. Most anyone could finish it in a day even with just a few hours to play, but so much of the game is hampered by you needing to do your homework first to properly understand how to play and what is even going on. Luckily, if you’ve read this review, you can easily access the manual scans, and in the modern age with the internet so easy to access, its doubtful anyone who plays Stretch Panic won’t be able to find the answers they absolutely need to make this game playable.
After giving the instruction manual a read, Stretch Panic is no longer awful, it’s just slightly flawed. Battles are fun and things stay interesting throughout, but the point system is sloppily implemented and the battles always seem to be one aspect short of being as good as they should be. Memorable bosses (that are admittedly spoiled a bit by the manual so maybe don’t read that section too closely) who all carry unique gimmicks are the game’s bread and butter, but there’s just not enough there to elevate it beyond being a game that’s more interesting for its premise and concepts than its execution.
While I can’t say that Stretch Panic is absolutely doomed due to its outside reading requirements, I can’t say the manual completely salvages it either. It’s a tour through a unique game world, where knowing what you’re getting into is both required but also potentially harmful to the appeal of finding out what craziness lies ahead.