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‘Detroit: Become Human’ – A Game That Knows Exactly What It Is

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What does it mean to be human? It’s a question that philosophers, artists, and scientists have attempted to answer since the dawn of recorded history. Why was humanity, of all the species on this green earth, selected to bear the singular burden of conscious thought? Unfortunately such questions have no universally accepted answers – at least none that we are currently capable of providing. That doesn’t stop David Cage from attempting his own exploration of such ephemeral conundrums in his latest magnum opus, Detroit: Become Human.

Cage and his studio have been criticized ever since the 2010 launch of Heavy Rain for being less concerned with implementing compelling gameplay and more with the creation of interactive movies. That Cage alludes to himself as an auteur certainly hasn’t helped matters, as such “highfalutin” language is liable to put off the majority of the gaming populace who tend to see games as a form of entertainment, not as high art. The quick time event driven and dialogue-heavy nature of his work often results in the perception of Cage as a wannabe movie director in-waiting. In fairness the point stands: both Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls felt more like cinematic choose-your-own-adventures than anything else. However, the same thing could be said about the point-and-click adventures released by Telltale Games ever since their surprise smash hit contribution to the The Walking Dead franchise revitalized an otherwise defunct genre. Detroit: Become Human is a game that exists in exactly the same vein and doesn’t deserve to be judged overly harshly because it unashamedly wears its brain on its sleeve rather than its heart.

The narrative of Detroit: Become Human is heavily informed by the likes of Blade Runner and West World but Cage has never been one to be overly troubled by the anxiety of influence. Set just two short decades from now in the year 2038, it tells the story of a burgeoning robotic revolution that sets its three principle android protagonists Kara, Connor, and Markus all battling in their own way for the rights and survival of their kind. The underlying arc is entirely linear, but there are multiple intersecting branches to the story that allow players to determine exactly how they arrive at the foregone conclusions of its various endings. No matter how it unfolds or ends, the story can be familiar at times but it’s nevertheless told in a fresh and engaging way that allows it to succeed on its own terms.

Each of the main characters serves in some fashion to highlight the deficiencies of us, their creators. Over the course of a masterfully constructed plot that covers a surprisingly robust range of social and political issues, the central performances of Valorie Curry, Bryan Dechart, and Jesse Williams are always brilliant resulting in some of the most touching scenes I’ve encountered in my time as a gamer. There are a few bum notes in the script – understandable given that it’s at least 2000 pages long – that could have proved disastrously hilarious were it not for such sterling work from a skilled and dedicated cast. At all times the action is supported by a surprisingly affecting soundtrack written by a trio of experienced composers known for their film and television work. From the opening moments where Philip Sheppard’s sweeping symphonic étude for Kara dominates the introductory credits right up until John Paesano’s synthesized strains play us out to the final seconds, players are treated to one of most gorgeous scores in recent gaming history. This goes a long way to restoring my faith in the old fashioned theme tune that seems to have been mostly abandoned in favor of the sprawling post-modern soundscapes that pass as game music these days.

Titles from Quantic Dream have never been known for the quality of their game mechanics, and Detroit: Become Human makes no attempt to move away from the formula of their previous releases. Player ability to interact with the various environments and locales of near-future Detroit is entirely limited to contextual button prompts and quick time events. From opening doors or climbing ladders to acrobatic fight scenes or frenetic traversal sequences, every action is determined by a series of context-dependent controller inputs. Granted players are given the option to select difficulty modes that increase the challenge of the quick time events that define almost literally every single second of a playthrough, but that never fundamentally alters the experience in any significant way. This wasn’t particularly impressive or interesting when it first came to the fore and time or familiarity hasn’t improved matters. Being restricted to such limited interactive possibilities means that players are never really given the opportunity to fully engage with the game world.

The resulting experience can feel rather transitory as player options are often curtailed in order to meet the requirements of the design. This is a problem with the point-and-click genre in general but it is a particularly glaring issue here because the world that the developers have built is one so full of lavish detail that it begs to be explored. That potential sadly goes to waste because of the on-rails nature of the gameplay. If the team had been given more latitude to expand the control scheme and game mechanics to match the under-utilized scope of the expertly crafted environments then that could only have been an improvement. Having said that, clunky and routine as the quick time events are, in this instance they do an admirable job of conveying the logical and consistent behaviors and actions of machines. The game is predicated on a vast array of options; some of which are inconsequential, whilst others drastically alter how the story plays out. Each command prompt entered in isolation can be dismissed as nothing more than a basic input, but when considered as part of a greater whole they each become inextricably connected links in a chain of events forged by moment-to-moment player choice.

Choice, self-determination, and the freedom to exist on our own terms are inalienable human rights. Without them we would be nothing more than bio-organic mechanisms performing rote functions until we die, devoid of any method to explore our consciousness to its fullest extent. The emergence of consciousness in technological machines of all types, from advanced computers to anthropomorphic robots, is a long established trope in science fiction stories across the genre spectrum. Mankind’s obsession with our own seemingly inexplicable possession of self-awareness provokes us to constantly debate if we are either the unique creation of a higher power or just an accident of evolutionary happenstance and cosmic folly. Narratives in which we become the creator of new life in our own image have always been preoccupied with the notion of our worthiness not only to assume the mantle of godhood but also with whether or not we ourselves deserve to be supplanted by the fruits of our intellectual and creative labors should they prove superior. Which for better or worse they almost invariably do.

In her capacity as guardian, Kara proves fiercely protective and resolutely compassionate in ways that no human had otherwise demonstrated themselves capable of being. However it ends for you, hers is a tale of bittersweet anguish that admirably demonstrates that even when our lives are at their lowest ebb there is still some measure of hope to be found. Connor, the investigative android assigned to assist in the pursuit of emotionally unstable deviant machines, is the embodiment of naivety. His initially good intentions are methodically undermined by either his growing awareness of the horror of the situations he finds himself in or by his unwitting participation in a grand conspiracy against android and human alike. Markus, the carer turned revolutionary would have to represent our desire for justice and retribution. His fight for android recognition takes him from his comfortable home with artist Carl (adroitly voiced by sci-fi veteran, Lance Henriksen), to the hideaways of an underground movement, and eventually to the barricaded city streets. In their own way, all three of the main characters draw attention to the fact that the line between terrorist and freedom fighter, and the distinction between heroism or villainy in everyday life is a lot less clear-cut than most would like to think it is.

It would be all-too-easy to classify the narrative of Detroit: Become Human as a somewhat dated metaphor for America’s perennial problem with race relations. It’s made particularly evident by overt references to slavery and highlighted by world design which creates segregated spaces for human and android characters. Whilst there are obvious parallels between the androids’ quest for recognition as living beings and the struggle of African Americans for freedom and civil rights, to confine interpretations of the scope of the game’s narrative to that one aspect does it and such subject matter a disservice. What truly lies at the core of the game’s story is an examination of socio-economic class. In our supposedly meritocratic world, class is something of a dirty word and is widely believed to have been consigned to the history books not long after the end of the Cold War.

But for those of us at the sharp end of the stick, as it were, class is still very much a reality and is largely the single greatest divisive factor in societies the world over. Whether people like to admit it or not social class, or economic status, does more to determine our life choices than race and gender combined. The androids in Detroit: Become Human aren’t modeled exclusively on a single ethnicity or sex, rather what defines them as a group is the fact that they are expected to do all the dirty, dangerous, nasty, and just plain boring work that society has decided they should do. Just like billions of us around the world today, they are expected to perform the same tasks without question and with no choice until they eventually cease to function or are replaced with more efficient, newer models.

Cage’s androids wake up, they do their jobs and then they shut down day in and day, year after year, with no thought given to the consequences of such relentless servitude. The reason that labour disputes are so ruthlessly curtailed in reality is because the people who control our lives and determine our functions, understand that if we were all to realise the truth of our situation and act to change it, then the world that the 1% rule so haphazardly and unjustly, would come to an end in an instant. The developers of Detroit: Become Human may not handle such subject matter with any great deal of finesse or subtlety, but they are at least addressing it and that might just be a first for the gaming world. I don’t think any other game, with the exception of perhaps the Deus Ex series, has ever really even attempted to broach the subject of class in a meaningful way. In a world where zero hours contracts, the gig economy, and wage subsidies from central governments are the norm for the vast majority of us it’s very salient of Quantic Dream to attempt to highlight the dangers of treating an entire section of the population like they are disposable tools.

Detroit: Become Human is by no means perfect, but what flaws there are can generally be overlooked if you’re not hellbent on lampooning it simply because David Cage penned the script. Although the gameplay, such as it is, can be clunky and some of the scenes do feel like they provide little more than extraneous exposition but on the whole it is a best-foot-forward moment for Quantic Dream and stands out as one of the most impactful and meaningful gaming experiences of 2018. If you’re not a fan of Cage, his work or the controversies that surround it then feel free to give this game a pass. However, if you’re the kind of gamer who relishes the opportunity to truly guide a story from beginning to end then I’ve no doubt that Kara, Connor, and Markus might just be the androids you’re looking for.

Chris is a Cambridge, UK based freelance writer and reviewer. A graduate of English Literature from Goldsmiths College in London he has been composing poetry and prose for most of his life. More than partial to real ale/craft beer and a general fan of sci-fi and fantasy. He first started gaming on a borrowed Mega Drive as a child and has been a passionate enthusiast of the hobby and art form ever since. Never afraid to speak his mind he always aims to tell the unvarnished truth about a game. Favourite genres: RPGs, action adventure and MMOs. Least favourite genre: anything EA Sports related (they're the same games every year!)

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. DevilGearHill

    June 22, 2018 at 1:59 am

    A pretentious David CaEg feelsfest. Just rewatch Westworld, people.

  2. david grimes

    July 2, 2018 at 3:35 pm

    great review. iv just posted a comment elsewhere on this site on another article accusing the writer of needlessly bashing the game. good to see not all the staff of this site sing from the same hym sheet.

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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Game Reviews

‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale

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Yaga Game Review

Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?

From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.

Yaga Game Review

“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”

The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.

Yaga

Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.

However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.

Yaga

At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.

“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”

The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.

Yaga Game Review

On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.

Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.

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Game Reviews

‘Remothered: Tormented Fathers’ Review: I Want My Remummy

There’s merit to be had if you just want a quick bash at a quirky, indie horror game, but with so many flaws, I can’t recommend Remothered.

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Remothered: Tormented Fathers Review

It feels like a while since the ‘survival horror but you can’t fight back’ genre was at its peak, especially with the recent, tradition-tinged revival of the Resident Evil series, but back in 2017 when Remothered: Tormented Fathers was being developed for PC it was all the rage. Like any indie game that’s had even the slightest amount of interest or acclaim during the current generation, Remothered has received the now-obligatory Switch port. Although its modest technical requirements clearly made a successful transition to the platform more than manageable, they don’t help to hide the game’s very obvious shortcomings.

Players take control of Rosemary Reed in her attempts to investigate retired notary Dr. Richard Felton, who is currently undergoing treatment for a mysterious disease. Oh, and he has a missing daughter that he probably murdered. The plot of the game feels a little cliché, but it’s undoubtedly its strongest facet. However, suspending your disbelief at the ropy animations and dodgy voice-acting is needed to avoid being sucked into feeling like you’re watching Theresa May running around a big mansion trying to escape from a John Cleese impersonator with his arse hanging out. Alas, I clearly failed in this endeavor.

Remothered is essentially a game of ‘go there, fetch that, bring it here, use it’ with an added element of ‘don’t let the annoying old man kill you in the face with a sickle’. Yeah, one of those ones. The story takes place almost entirely within Felton’s huge mansion, and navigating the ol’ girl is by far the game’s toughest element. It’s made especially harder while you’re constantly on edge, trying to avoid the stalking lunatic without a map, weapons, or a proper objectives system. Be prepared for your bearings to be quite considerably lost.

There are a couple of ways to avoid that face full of sickle. There’s a dodge button (provided Rosemary isn’t too tired to actually dodge), a run button, distraction items, and defense items that will automatically be used to escape a grab attack if you have one equipped at the time. Remember those crappy bits in Resident Evil 4 where you had to play as Ashley? This is like that… for a whole game.

While a little tired in 2019, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the formula of the weapon-less survival horror game – it’s just that in Remothered, it’s not implemented all that well. Enemy AI routing is weird, which should be grounds for an unpredictable fright-fest, but leans more toward the annoying and/or hilarious. It seemed like the stalkers would either sit directly outside the room I needed to enter – barely moving and refusing to be distracted for longer than a few seconds before returning immediately to their original spot right on my current objective – or simply bugger off to another floor and never come back.

Even with his penchant to completely vacate the area, and despite his advancing years, Dr. Felton possesses supersonic hearing. It seemingly doesn’t matter how far away you are – if you run in this game, he will hear you. To make matters worse, the sound design just doesn’t make sense. With every press of the run button, enemy dialogue would instantly change to indicate they’d heard you and then loud footsteps would permeate every room you enter as if they were right behind you, when they most certainly are not.

It’s either a cheap scare tactic to give the impression of enemies constantly being within touching distance, or the fallout from a combination of naff sound design and the limitations of my Switch’s Pro Controller not having a headphone port. What makes it worse is that everything is so campy that it’s seldom scary in any tangible way. When the man trying to murder you is constantly shouting about how he hasn’t got anything to eat that isn’t moldy while you hide in his cupboard, it’s not exactly bone-chilling.

As a result of the big-eared murderers and their impeccable radar tuned to the sounds of running, I spent almost the entirety of the game… well, not running. Unfortunately, Rosemary walks slower than an asthmatic ant with heavy shopping, and this made exploring the mansion a monotonous chore – especially when getting caught and subsequently having to run up and down floors to hide before slowly sneaking back to restart the investigation.

Puzzles are that old school type of obtuse where you’re tasked with finding everyday items to fix problems. The puzzle itself lies in realizing the item the developer decided should work, finding it in the giant four-floor mansion, and slowly returning to the its intended area of use without dying. For example, in order to get into an attic, you have to search rooms at random to find an umbrella to pull down the door’s previously-out-of-reach cord. It’s such a shame that Remothered eschews any type of self-contained puzzle for a string of confusing fetch quests, as everything feels more tedious than taxing.

It feels a little unfair to bemoan the lack of polish for a two-year-old indie game, but Remothered is full of niggling issues. Animations are janky, lip-syncing is non-existent, and the camera wigs out after the QTEs to fight off enemies have finished – always pointing you in the wrong direction. I also encountered a couple of game-breaking bugs where Rosemary did her door-opening animation without the door actually opening, and I couldn’t enter the room without rebooting the game. Lastly, and I don’t want to be too harsh to an Italian developer, but the in-game English is pretty abysmal, and lots of the game’s expositional notes and articles border on illegible through their poor translations.

There are some people out there who can’t get enough of the whole hiding under sofas schtick, but I like my survival horror games with better psychological tension, a (limited) means to fight back, and coherent puzzle-solving. There’s merit to be had in the game’s labyrinthine setting and short length if you just want a quick bash at a quirky, campy indie horror game in the Haunting Grounds model, but with so many flaws and such a frustrating gameplay loop, I can’t recommend Remothered: Tormented Fathers outside of anything other than morbid curiosity.

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