My Friend Pedro is a side-scrolling action game in which you kick skateboards at gangster’s heads under the guidance of a talking banana. Would you like a longer introduction, or shall we crack on?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Your nameless protagonist (Pedro is the name of the banana, just in case “the talking banana” wasn’t specific enough) awakes rather inconveniently in the basement of a mafia hideout. He has no memory of how he got there, and his only companion is a floating piece of fruit that strongly encourages him to kill everyone, which I suppose is as good a motivation as any.
A bunch of touchstones are evident in My Friend Pedro’s design, from the psychotropic storytelling of Hotline Miami, to the bullet-time gunplay of Max Payne. But it’s easiest to think of it as Tony Hawk’s Pro Shooter, where killing your enemies is of secondary importance to killing them in cool ways, and it’s always worth the risk of smearing the ground with your own blood to pull off that slightly more incredible stunt.
And what stunts! In addition to the staple video game interactions of jumping and shooting, your masked vigilante can perform dramatic dives and balletic spins to avoid bullets, springboard off walls like a surprised cat, and roundhouse-kick all manner of objects from enemies to explosive canisters. If equipped with a gun in each hand, he can aim in two different directions at once, with the player locking on to one opponent with the left trigger, and using the right analogue stick to aim at another.
On their own, these basic controls enable you to perform an impressive array of action-movie stunts. Diving from a high platform, twin Uzis akimbo, and blasting a room full of mooks while pirouetting to avoid return fire will quickly become your standard method of progress. But My Friend Pedro goes one step further than, say, Max Payne, combining these core abilities with levels filled with interactive objects. There are ropes to dangle from, skateboards to ride, tables to kick over and use as ad-hoc cover. You can even kick a frying pan into the air and use it to ricochet bullets into your opponent’s faces, like Gordon Ramsey in his final form.
Some of these more advanced tricks aren’t easy to pull-off – directing a kick with any accuracy can be particularly challenging during combat. But mastering the skillset is part of the fun, and My Friend Pedro helps you out with its generous ability to slow down time. Killing enemies substantially refills your bullet-time bar, so keeping up the momentum lets you play large chunks of levels in syrupy slow-motion.
For the first half, My Friend Pedro delivers its ‘Tony Hawk with guns’ fantasy nigh-flawlessly. The platforming is elegantly built according to the Nintendo principle of introducing a new concept, then evolving and twisting it as you progress. The focus is always on enabling your ability to kill skilfully. The skateboarding sections, for example, are always accompanied by carefully placed ramps and conveniently stood enemies, letting you launch your skateboard into the neck of your first opponent, then strafe the others with gunfire as you sail over their heads.
My Friend Pedro’s shooting also has a wonderfully surreal streak to it. The first stage is set in a retirement home for gangsters, where your opponents are all overweight, silver-haired mafiosos who lumber around clad in polyester shell-suits, perfect fodder for the game’s introductory levels. This is followed by you crashing the local bounty hunters’ Christmas party, where you have just been selected as the present for everyone’s not-so-secret Santa. Pedro himself acts as a comic buffer between the bouts of relentless murder, popping up intermittently to offer a daft quip, or leaning out silently from the edges of the screen when you pull off a particularly impressive stunt.
Yet after a delightfully absurd central stage that I won’t spoil, My Friend Pedro’s slick design starts to peel around the edges. The first red flag is a murky sewer level which cracks a joke about games featuring murky sewer levels. This particular sewer is also populated by “hardcore gamers” who’ve had their brains melted by playing too many violent video-games. It’s a faltering stab at edginess that’s about 20 years behind the times. This isn’t to say gaming is immune from a bit of satirical criticism, but I’d argue the sect My Friend Pedro targets is far more likely to be induced into frothing rage by one real woman than any amount of virtual violence.
A more pressing issue is that it’s around this point where My Friend Pedro’s flow abruptly changes. The levels begin to place far greater emphasis on tricky puzzle-platforming, including large numbers of timed puzzles that require you to move at precisely the right moment. They’re not terribly challenging, but they inhibit your stunt-craft rather than facilitating it. Movement options become far more limited, and you’re constantly forced to stop and start. It doesn’t help that the character movement is quite slippery, which isn’t too much of a problem earlier on, but becomes more of a hindrance as the puzzle fringes harden.
There are still a few highlights in these latter stages, including an excellent (if short) train level, while the final boss battle is wonderfully ridiculous. But it isn’t enough to assuage the more general dip in quality. The designers are clearly trying to come up with new ways to challenge you, but in the process they end up overcomplicating the structure, and compromising the central premise that makes the earlier stages so thrilling.
In the end, My Friend Pedro’s two halves of the banana reveal the perilous balancing act of game design. The first half is a stellar example of how to build an action game, of how to engender a sense of creativity through the player’s toolset, and how to bake seamless flow into complex and challenging environments. The second half isn’t quite the opposite of that, but it tries much too hard to be clever, with humour that’s less goofy and more edgy, and level design that’s too exacting in its structure.