Poison Control Review (Switch)
They say you never forget your first Super Mario game, and while I grew up playing Super Mario Bros. Deluxe on my Gameboy Color, Super Mario Sunshine was my first 3D Mario experience. Its obtuse design and freedom of movement fascinated me, and my love of the game stems largely from its tropical aesthetics and groovy graffiti effects. There was something very cathartic about cleaning things up with F.L.U.D.D., and I suppose that has trickled down into my enjoyment of a weirdly experimental dungeon crawler named Poison Control.
But you’re already reading the review for that game, so let’s stop talking about Super Mario Sunshine and get on with it, shall we?
Poison Control has the player taking on the role of a fallen soul and their Poisonette as they attempt to cleanse a variety of Belles’ Hells. What this means, in much simpler terms, is that the personal Hells of a number of living and dead individuals have manifested as dungeons in the underworld, and you’ll need to traverse and complete objectives within these realms in order to advance the narrative and get to the bottom of the reason behind your own residence there, as well as potentially getting a chance to ascend to heaven. The overworld of the underworld (what a paradox!) is a fairly simplistic one, featuring portals into each of the Belles’ Hells and a few other landmarks. Most of your time will be spent in dungeons themselves, which is where you’ll experience the bulk of the action and exploration.
Because Belles’ Hell is a manifestation of their distress, trauma, and negative thought, these dungeons are lightly themed around their personalities and fixations. While the most straightforward objective is usually to cleanse the dungeon of poison, there are a number of other objectives, as well, such as defeating a certain amount of enemies, uncovering images, or collecting resources. Poison cleansing is a straightforward mechanic, mapped to the L Bumper, which causes Poisonette to separate from the body of the player character and navigate freely for a brief period of time. Poison will become highlighted beneath Poisonette’s steps, and if you manage to encircle a field of poison and make it back to your body within the allotted amount of time, you’ll end up purging the whole area. Purging poison is an essential part of the gameplay loop, as it not only serves as a frequent dungeon objective, but also as a means of accruing experience points, healing, and expediting ammo reloads.
Yes, aside from being about cleaning up pools of poison, this game is also a third-person shooter, which is an unconventional choice. You can lock on to a single target with the Y Button, and use the L Trigger to switch into firing mode. When navigating dungeons, you can swap between equipped weapons and fire with your R Bumper and Trigger, respectively, and can also pull off an infrequent area of effect attack and perform dodge rolls with the X and B buttons. Your default weapon, which is tied to Poisonette, is a fairly standard, single-shot blaster, but you can obtain more by finding limited use alternate weapons, known as Deliriants, in treasure chests, and through exploring the Belles’ Hells thoroughly to unlock their unique equipment functions.
While not every Belle offers a Toxicant, or primary weapon, some offer Antidotes and Catalysts, which are offensive and defensive perks that can be leveled up via the game’s currency system. Lastly, there are several opportunities in-game for the player to have a sort of heart-to-heart moment with Poisonette, during which they will be presented with a number of different dialogue options that can boost a specific “relationship stat,” which can be leveled up to improve the player character’s speed, their ability to stay separated from Poisonette while she purges, and much more. These moments are single-use, so even if you return to the Belles’ Hell and repeat the instance, you’ll only ever get one stat boost.
Narrative and Aesthetics
As far as narratives go, Poison Control is all about trust and bonds. The relationship between the player character and their Poisonette – a mysterious bond between a lost soul and Klesha – is one that builds over time, revealing its nature in full to the player as the story progresses. Instead of just one protagonist having amnesia, you get to learn the past of both the player Avatar and Poisonette, though the latter reveals much more about the former through strange memory blocks that unlock with each boss encounter. Aside from this, however, are the personal narratives of many of the Belles, whose complex feelings and scenarios end up developing into Kleshas that are more akin to the Buddhist definition: negative mental states.
While many of these are more than simply over-the-top, they represent individuals at their most disturbed, which suits the setting well enough. Before entering each Belle’s Hell, you’ll listen to a radio broadcast from two demonic personalities, who shed some light and a bit of humor on the scenarios that are about to play out before you. While many of these telegraph the essential personality quirk of each Belle, some are meant to keep you guessing or continuing to explore until the scenario resolves itself.
This isn’t to say that the writing in Poison Control is always a knockout. A third-person shooter dungeon crawling RPG doesn’t really have the leeway to talk about these truly negative states with a great degree of nuance, and the psychotic and disturbed behavior of many characters is often played for laughs rather than seriousness. Also, the idea that these Belles’ Hells can simply be “purged” is optimistic, but perhaps a bit too fantastic. The game has no English voice over options, but since it is supposed to be primarily based on Japanese culture, this doesn’t present much of a problem. Just expect a heaping helping of anime-style dialogue and scenarios.
Poison Control’s aesthetics are one of its most striking elements, and the end result is something unexpected and novel. The game is very pink, with lots of background details appearing jagged and ominous, though this does contrast with the very voluptuous Klesha designs. I won’t mince words here, there is an odd focus on Poisonette’s feminine assets, in addition to some of the other denizens of the underworld and the Kleshas themselves. This is somewhat odd, considering the Belles themselves are all women, though their character portraits and narratives possess little to no sexualization. While everyone has their preferences and will tolerate a certain degree of mature content, I find it surprising that there’s no male characters to ogle here.
Despite all of this, the character designs and color palette are both unified and very pleasing, with some additional filters and aesthetics in each of the dungeons allowing them to feel more unique from one another, despite their structural similarities. While the game doesn’t have a huge soundtrack, the majority of songs featured fit the game’s visual aesthetics extremely well, offering a bubblegum electronica melange that manages to remain catchy and memorable throughout the game’s fifteen-to-twenty hour playthrough.
Impressions and Conclusion
There is something to be said about a concept as bizarre as Poison Control. While the disparate parts of gameplay don’t feel as if they mesh together well, the end result is strangely compelling, if not rife with odd quirks. Frame rate can dip in some scenarios, and it does feel as if there is a bit of input lag for certain actions, in addition to the recoil speeds for certain weapons. Despite being a third-person shooter, the range in which enemies will pop into existence in a visual and physical sense is rather small, which adds to the immediate sense of danger and resource management.
The game’s crosshair does feel inaccurate and there is a disjointed nature to your shots- you can’t just point-blank attack enemies, as you’ll find your shots will fly right over or through them. This can make the game’s ammo system feel punishing, but threats are rarely ever so overwhelming that you won’t be able to overcome them. The difficulty present in Poison Control usually has more to do with how prepared you are for specific scenarios, or perhaps not.
A point of ire in the game is its relative lack of tutorialization, or rather, the slow trickle of information that takes place throughout the first five to seven dungeons in the game. Essentially, you aren’t explicitly taught how to gain equipment until you’ve played the first group of dungeons, and the method for obtaining this equipment is obscure enough that it would be difficult to obtain any of it accidentally. Essentially, getting equipment requires a more thorough combing of each dungeon in order to obtain three golden tokens from their treasure chests, some of which can be hidden under poison mires, behind a kill room of enemies, or just off a beaten path.
Because dungeons have a one-hour time limit, you might feel pressured to attempt to finish them as quickly as possible, however. It’s unlikely that you’ll see that timer ever drop past the halfway point, but the requirements for obtaining gold tokens are often varied and can be obscure, and when you can complete a dungeon before even reaching the point where a token is meant to appear, you need to prioritize finding them first before completing the narrative objective.
There are also some rather obnoxious loading times before each dungeon, and I experienced some frame rate and pop-in issues as I progressed into the late-game, but this is fortunately the extent of Poison Control’s most egregious issues, and even in spite of this, the game is still fun. Sure, the dungeon design does leave a bit to be desired, as most end up feeling like a series of square-shaped rooms interconnected with single corridors with minimal aesthetic elements added to the physical space, but their size and easy consumption also make the entire experience feel more like a singular, continuous experience. The scenarios are somewhat hokey, but the end goal is to always attempt to resolve and improve the scenario that each Belle finds themselves in, whether they are alive or dead.
The game’s unique mechanics and transparent nature are also a huge benefit- you’ll receive the ability to boost your money gains rather early on in the narrative, which allows for experimentation with a variety of pieces of equipment and weaponry. Similarly, the game’s brisk playtime means that it doesn’t really overstay its welcome, fleshing out ideas like different kinds of poison mires, status effects, and weapon types thoroughly within a relatively short campaign, at least, by modern RPG standards.
Poison Control manages to be strange and charming enough to set itself apart from any other RPG on the Nintendo Switch, despite having a great deal in common with a number of preexisting titles. While it does stumble at times, the overall result is an inoffensive and enjoyable ride through Hell that has plenty of aesthetic unity. While it is far from a difficult title, its elements manage to smoothly mesh and provide a different perspective on a ground well-tread at this point, not only on the Nintendo Switch, but also in the dungeon-crawling genre. Though it could stand to feature a bit more freedom in terms of player choice and impact, this title is well-worth a look for those who want something a bit different from an RPG.