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Played in 2023
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Love a game where I feel the impulse to take notes and am rewarded for doing so. Fantastic atmosphere, great music and voice acting, beautiful and (for the most part) effective interface, and a largely solid story structure. Perhaps my favorite element of the game is just how beautifully crafted the three-dimensional tableaus are—in the moment I was too focused on investigating to really appreciate them, but in retrospect there's some extremely painterly shit in this game, and rather than being diminished it's enhanced by your ability to navigate each scene in three dimensions.
The rest of this "review" is really just me thinking out loud about the very few things that felt off in the game, and (spoiler alert) requires references to the story/structure.
My only real (though minor) overall quibble: At least in my playthrough, the first 4-5 chapters (X, IX, VII, II, VI) felt amazing pace-wise, leaving just enough gaps in the narrative to reward careful documentation of what you've seen so far, while keeping enough continuity to fill in gaps, making each chapter more than the sum of its parts. You're guided to many bodies, but you're still rewarded for searching for others when you have a hunch. I'd have to replay the game to be sure, but I feel like at a certain point the chapter branches open up, meaning that the sequence you experience depends on what order you find bodies in. Given that I didn't really understand the structure/mechanics for a while, it could be that this is very early on (after X, say) or later (after VII or II). But for whatever reason (game structure or just chance in terms of what rooms/decks I entered first) the pace kind of went off the rails after completing my fourth chapter; I started VI in the middle of the chapter rather than the end, and before I found the last body of VI I was thrown into chapter I, I believe. Then, before I had the chance to even orient myself in that new chapter much less go back to gleaning all the information I could from VI as I wanted, I was thrown into V, and so on through the remaining chapters. Perhaps that's intentional (at least one of these quick chapter transitions toward the end of the game feels forced, or at least strongly encouraged), but it's the only gameplay sequence that really took me out of the story and the role of an investigator; I could feel the game jerking me forward with that cloud of smoke, and I felt a little annoyed at it until I could stop click-click-clicking through bodies and go back to really investigating. If this was just happenstance, based on what decks/rooms I happened to explore, I wouldn't have minded the game taking a bit more control over the order and pace at which I encountered new chapters in the back half. After all, once you've been introduced to a chapter's parts, there's still plenty of nonlinearity in the game: you're going to be going back and forth among different chapters all the time while tracking down various identities/fates.
I also sort of wish there were a "hardcore" option where no fates are confirmed until you decide to finish the investigation, or in which no fates are confirmed to the player at all, perhaps until you hear back from the survivors; after all, by all accounts the insurance company is just going along with your story, and until the very end of the game nothing you deduce can be corroborated by a witness. As it stands, the confirmation-by-threes encourages you (or encouraged me, at least) to take a wild guess every time I could be certain of two fates; that isn't such a bad thing when the guesses are based on a specific clue (I know it has to be X or Y guy, and based on the accent, say, I have a hunch it's Y), but feels a bit gamey when it's arbitrary (I know it's one of these two Russian guys, or one of these three Chinese guys, so I'll just throw in the possible names one by one and just wait for the little "ding"). But the problem with a hardcore mode, of course, is that one doesn't know if they'll want or enjoy (or trust a game enough to risk) it in a game like this until they've finished, at which point it's moot. And anyway, in the end one of the magic tricks this game pulls is making you feel like you're role playing just by virtue of the structure, interface, and atmosphere, and that feeling kept me from indulging in these kinds of exploits (well, I did do this once...sorry).
More typing than Uplink, but less exciting. Miscellaneous thoughts: Music gets tiresome. Doesn't feel like the choices of what you hack and what you do once you're inside matter in the least. The memory limitation is annoying but not in an interesting way—it's not like it forces you to make any meaningful tradeoffs/choices (contra how Uplink approaches hardware and memory/CPU capacity, for example), it just forces you to do exactly the same things every mission, but slower. Didn't delete logs after the first couple of missions but never saw any consequences—is there not actually a passive trace mechanic?
Nothing like skimming along the water in your fighter jet before going into a controlled stall and shooting up at some joker you're about to kill. I know the game is made for controllers, but using a flight stick felt great, and once I got the hang of the movement/high-G maneuvers it really felt like there wasn't anything I couldn't pull off with the right plane. The story and dialogue and cutscene animations can be a bit silly, but who cares, that's part of the fun. My main gripes are that, for a game where 90% of the fun is coming up with and executing wild flight tricks and dogfight scenarios, the free-flight/custom-encounter system is extremely rudimentary (how hard would it be to tell the game to spawn X enemies in Y map and let me just jump in?) and the replay/recording system is nowhere near adequate to capture all the cool stuff you do (there are some mods you can use to get around this, but so far it's been a pain in the ass). Haven't tried the multiplayer, I'm guessing at this point I'd just get creamed by people who have been playing for years.