The Bouncer
Image: Square Enix

"Sion, a man haunted by a tragic past.
Within him lies strength and kindness, but also great sorrow.
All this will change when he meets a girl named Dominique.
These are the residents of DOG STREET."

This text, right alignment and all, is the first taste most people will have of The Bouncer. This action RPG/beat ‘em up hybrid was once a marquee title in the early days of the PlayStation 2. Given the pedigree of Squaresoft (before the Enix merger) in the early ’00s, it’s easy to understand the hype. The Bouncer was modelled after action movies with full voice acting, cinematic cutscenes, and a storyline meant to keep players invested. Looking at the game now might not impress, but the graphical detail once showed how much better PS2 games would look compared to any "original" PlayStation title. In the days before other releases like Metal Gear Solid 2, Grand Theft Auto III, or Final Fantasy X, The Bouncer was the poster child for what the PS2 could do.

However, despite all of the pre-release interviews and videos hyping up the game, The Bouncer neither sold nor reviewed particularly well. The game was released in December 2000 in Japan and 2001 everywhere else. True to their word, co-developers Square and DreamFactory delivered a game modelled after an action movie down to the ninety-minute runtime. Not only was it short, some people also took issue with how the cutscenes seemed to outnumber the gameplay segments. Others found the combat to be lacklustre. Then, there’s the story, which keeps the game moving but fails to provide any real emotional resonance, leaving a lot of basic questions unanswered.

There are factors to keep in mind for all of these criticisms. One is that DreamFactory had a reputation at the time for working on other Square titles like Tobal No. 1 and Ehrgeiz that played around with the beat ‘em up, fighting, and adventure genres before The Bouncer appeared. Another is that the storyline is short to encourage replayability. With three playable "Bouncers" to choose from in the story mode, selecting each one yields different perspectives on certain scenes, unique stages, and different endings to unlock.

So, what is it like to play The Bouncer today, free of all the next-gen expectations and hype? Can the game be judged on its own merits now, or is it just as much of a disappointment?

The Bouncer
Image: Square Enix

Let’s return to those four lines of text quoted at the beginning of this article. Sion. Sorrow. Dominique. Dog Street. Evidently, Square found these lines so integral to both understanding and selling the game, they took the rare step of baking them into the game’s logo. It is the first taste players will have when they look at the front cover, when first see the DVD-ROM, and when they load the game up and see the start screen: “THE BOUNCER” in big text and those four lines near the top, always in English, recounting the vague premise like a poem.

Of course, reading the back of the box and the manual provides some more context to what’s going on, but the prominence of that logo text makes those four lines so memorable. They act as a buoy for players to cling to because, honestly, playing The Bouncer feels like tuning in to an unfamiliar TV show a few episodes into the second season. Character relationships have been established, prior events are alluded to, and the action doesn’t really stop to discuss who the protagonists, Sion Barzahd, Volt Krueger, and Koh Leifoh, really are. Players just have to pay close attention and pick up on what they can – and it all begins with those four lines of text.

The story, in brief, is about the three Bouncers and Dominique Cross, the bar’s "mascot", whose kidnapping by the Mikado Group jumpstarts the plot. At a close look, all the details are there; the Bouncers work at the bar Fate on Dog Street in the semi-futuristic city of Edge. The Mikado Group seems to work on biological human experimentation and space travel. How much of these basics players will internalize without looking anything up after one playthrough, or even a few, will vary. Most of these elements are told strictly through visuals, or indirectly through cutscenes establishing other important details.

As Sion and his co-workers fight the Mikado Group to get Dominique back, all the basic action movie tropes appear. Childhood friends return out of nowhere, old rivals try to settle scores, security guards need to be bypassed and duped – all the boxes are checked, but the game rarely allows players to connect enough with the characters on a human level. The plot is all business, and while Sion looks a lot like a prototype Sora from Kingdom Hearts (Tetsuya Nomura is credited as character designer on both games), his attitude is in the same school of '90s “whatever” that Cloud and Squall from Final Fantasy VII and VIII belong to.

What comes across in The Bouncer over twenty years later is how much it feels like the distilled essence of a Square RPG both past and present. Not only does Sion look like Sora, but his childhood friend Kaldea Orchid looks a bit like Rinoa from Final Fantasy VIII, while the antagonist, Dauragon C. Mikado, looks like a mix of VII’s Sephiroth and VIII’s Seifer. The game’s linearity is also reminiscent of later titles like Final Fantasy X, and especially Final Fantasy XIII.

However, the star of the show here is the city of Edge. It feels a lot like Final Fantasy VII’s Midgar. From the nighttime setting and the industrial and dark colour palette to the use of a train early in the story to transport the characters to the benevolent corporation causing unhappiness in their world, The Bouncer has the vibe of off-brand Final Fantasy fan-fiction. In fact, were this game made a few years later, it would make a lot more sense as a part of Square's attempt to expand the world of Final Fantasy VII, perhaps as an experimental spin-off starring Cloud, Barret, and Vincent. Using VII as a larger backstory for The Bouncer would fill in a lot of missing context and eliminate that "episode 3 of season 2" feel.

The Bouncer
Image: Square Enix

The deeper story elements also leave a lot of questions where there shouldn’t be. One example is the age difference between Sion (19) and the girl he’s meant to save, Dominique (14). While there is no direct romance between them, the plot nonetheless hinges on a bond that means Dominique would prefer that Sion save her over the other two Bouncers. Why a 19-year-old punk has a job as a Bouncer and a 14-year-old girl gets to hang around a bar as a “mascot” is a topic for another time, but nonetheless, the two mean a lot to each other. It feels like a situation where a modern localization team might touch up the ages to make everything appear a little more kosher.

In a March 2001 interview between Douglass C. Perry, Dave Zdryko, and David Smith of IGN and the game's director Takashi Tokita, the nature of this relationship is commented on along with the general theme of “love.”

Tokita says:

[It] is not a simple love story. With Sion, who has lost faith in human relationships, and Dominique, who years for human relationships, their relationship is more of a family type of love rather than the traditional love between a man and a woman.The love between a man and a woman is something that ultimately forms a family. The theme I concentrated on most was what Sion would do after learning Dominique’s secret. [...] The song that is played during the ending credits is Dominique’s answer to Sion.

In the end, the official intention seems to write them as a sort of "found family", but the game does not focus on this. It’s ambiguous and unclear for the sake of more action. The song that plays during the end credits, “Love is the Gift” does little to help the perception of this relationship as well, with lyrics like “memories touch me deep, as if you’re here with me. Are you sending this magic of what used to be?” It just adds a layer of discomfort on top of everything else the game offers.

If The Bouncer is worth playing today, it’s with the caveat that it’s a relatively small, experimental game modelled on action movies. While the “action movie” part of that was definitely communicated over twenty years ago, the project became such a showcase of the PS2 that it became the poster child for the overhyped next-gen game that looks great, but fails to impress.

It feels dated now, there’s no denying that, but could a remake for modern times truly make this game better? Unless that involves a complete reworking of the plot, story, and mythology of the world, The Bouncer is probably best left as an interesting stone to overturn in an old PS2 library, never to be released again. It’s been over two decades since Square has touched it - why start now?