Aliens are among us in Under the Skin, but these extra-terrestrial invaders aren’t interested in conquering us or really even harming us. Instead, in this quirky Capcom title, the aliens are much more interested in pulling pranks on the populace.
A diaper-wearing blue alien named Cosmi is the main focus of this title, the young alien leaving the Planet Mischief as part of a coming-of-age rite his species undergoes where they aim to spread mischief to other planets in the galaxy. Cosmi decides to tackle the most troublesome planet his species has ever encountered, hoping that he’d be a hero for being the first alien to every successfully pull one over on the notoriously anti-alien humans of Earth. However, despite the planet’s infamy, Cosmi’s little trip to be the first to succeed there draws the attention of other aliens, a mischief master named Master Itazura calling them in to compete with Cosmi to try and teach him a lesson in humility. Now Cosmi not only has to try and successfully spread chaos among the humans, but he’ll have to outdo other aliens all trying to do the same along the way.
To spread mischief in Under the Skin though, you can’t just wander around as an alien, as any human who sees one will immediately turn aggressive and try and clobber you. Instead, using a special gun, you must capture one of the many humans who are wandering about aimlessly and take them to the little UFOs that are flying around, the player able to swap into new human disguises any time they manage to do this. The humans you can capture come in a wide variety of styles, things ranging from tiny kids to portly women to clowns, robbers, policemen, and even some odder ideas like pirates and zombies. Whenever you take on the disguise of a person, you’re given an assortment of special items in a circle menu that you can swap between and use to spread your mischief. Much of the mischief is violent but bloodless, the player doing things like hitting characters with boxing gloves, bowling balls, tornadoes, bombs, tacks, and more. Each item has a unique style of use meaning they have different potential applications and levels of effectiveness, with some of the weirder items able to hit multiple humans at once. You can unleash T-rexes on unsuspecting humans, sharks that swim around through dry land, unleash an elephant stampede, or just sing really bad karaoke to do the job, with most human disguises having multiple items to use. They may have a virus that will gradually replace all the other items though, and many human hosts will have their items displayed as question marks until you click to reveal them. You can see what a human will give before abducting them, so it’s a matter of trying to find the best human for the job to spread the maximum amount of mischief.
Or at least that’s the concept. You see, your mischief is measured in this game by the amount of coins a character drops when they’re damaged by your prank items. More effective items drop more coins, and while you can go around trying to prank as many people as possible, its more profitable to find a cluster of people and just bombard them with the entire item set of your current human disguise. Humans do get aggressive after being hit by a prank, but your human disguise can take two hits before it breaks, the first hit breaking you down to your underwear and the other forcing you out into your incredible vulnerable alien form where you drop coins and will drop more if you take damage. The humans can be effective attackers when angered, and the alien you’re competing against will often try to sabotage you as well, but the flow of the game quickly stagnates when it becomes clear what’s necessary to win. To earn coins at a decent speed, you’ll likely have to scoop up a loaded human disguise, dump all their abilities in a crowded spot, grab a human to swap your disguise, and then repeat that process. Rinse and repeat until you’ve succeeded at that level’s goal. The need to avoid danger and the fact some items require a bit more planning to use well than just blasting them at whoever is in front of you prevents this from being entirely brainless, but it does quickly become formulaic despite the game’s best efforts mostly because your prank items are both too easy to use and a bit too easy to refresh.
The different stages in Under the Skin mix up the areas you’ll explore and the people you encounter during your mischief-spreading journey, and they all have pretty distinct layouts, visual styles, and even level-specific prank items and challenges. It has a typical city environment to start, but then you’ll end up in areas like a Wild West town, a casino, a Mesoamerican/Polynesian amalgamation that is for some reason named Pharoah Island, and the zombie-filled Racoon City ripped straight from Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. Depending on where you go, the task at hand may be as simple as just collecting a certain amount of coins in a time limit, but in others you may have to compete with the other alien to have the most coins when time runs out or even work together with the alien to either earn enough coins in the time limit or, in the Resident Evil stage, help take down the Nemesis boss monster there. Each stage also has a unique Panic Time event meant to shake things up, there usually being some chaotic or dangerous event that occurs at certain times like rush hour making the cars drive like mad in the city level or pirates bombarding the area in their themed stage. While many of the stages last far too long for how little different you’ll personally be doing in them, the different visual motifs, goals, and Panic Times could have injected the right amount of variety into the game, but since your activities always boil down to the same limited cycle of churning through human disguises, that effort doesn’t really get to be as interesting as it should be.
The game does offer a multiplayer mode as well, the players able to pick from multiple aliens who all have different special powers, but even competing against another player will lead to things boiling down to a predictable cycle. You can angle to attack each other as a strategy, something that works against the AI in the story as well, but it’s still more about quick use than smart use ultimately, and that’s the heart of the issue. Under the Skin doesn’t really dish out the rewards for being calculated in item use, so instead it’s a scramble to make sure your turnover rate will earn you an amount of money that is surprisingly slow to earn in rather lengthy levels. There’s enough pressure and activity to the affair that it at least requires attentive participation, but it’s not very rewarding to just launch attacks that don’t require too much thought or skill to pull off successfully. With the AI opponents being capable and having head starts in their stages as well as timers being long but oddly tight, you can’t really slack on moving through the revolving door of disguises, meaning it’s hard to really enjoy the chaos you’re causing when you have to focus so much on the coin intake.
THE VERDICT: The kooky twist on an alien invasion in Under the Skin certainly had a lot of effort put into it, the areas you explore offering up different visual themes, unique characters to abduct, and unusual new items to prank people with in your quest to spread mischief, but the experience loses so much energy because of the need to maximize your effectiveness. To succeed in a stage involves constantly moving through disguises, exhausting whatever items are available to you, and quickly moving on to ensure that you’re able to keep up with demanding goals. Despite levels having unique goals and shake ups and despite the interesting designs of your tools, the potential for fun chaos is ruined by a system of coin accumulation that values speed over creativity or thoughtful application.
And so, I give Under the Skin for Playstation 2…
A BAD rating. There is a lot to like going on in Under the Skin, from the weird alien designs and level variety to the outlandish nature of the tools and humans you encounter, but much of the enjoyment is hampered by the focus on scoring. Racoon City might be the highlight of the game because it actually changes things to the point that you’re playing in a different manner, aiming to get the useful tools to damage a boss who will counterattack or resist certain approaches. In most stages, it doesn’t matter what you’re using or which human you’re disguised as, the moment you get them you take stock of your items and then need to use them quickly to keep up with the score required of you, and if you get that score too quickly, then it just becomes about passively sitting on it to wait out long timers. This is definitely a case of a game that lost its potential to be interesting by choosing a poor structure for its play. There are so many ways to suggest improvements, whether they be just making disguises harder to turn over, items pay out more based on difficulty of use, make humans more formidable foes, or change the goals to being about taking down enemies or pranking more total people rather than earning coins for potentially pranking the same few with a sudden burst of item usage. There were other directions that could have at least turned out a little better than the one they went with.
It does feel like Under the Skin was on the verge of being more interesting. The repetitive quest to collect coins is broken up by seeing new things and briefly getting to experiment with new gimmicks, tools, and stage designs, but things quickly fall back into the same cycle that really should have been broken up somehow. Had Under the Skin found more fulfilling goals for its mischief-making system, perhaps it could have been a delightfully strange deviation from Capcom’s usual fare, but instead it’s just an experiment that has some interesting aspects but it just couldn’t place them together well in a playable structure.