Thursday, October 8, 2020

Beautiful Desolation

Ah, Indie RPGs.  As the mainstream developers like Activision/Blizzard and especially Bethesda continue to make their priority the separation of consumers from the money they’ve earned by any scummy means necessary, in place of the quality of their work, the Indie development community has fast become the more reliable industry for providing actual, honest-to-Erastil salable video games as its wares, rather than unabashed monetization schemes tacked onto lazy, unfinished faux-games like Fallout 76.  There are plenty of exceptions on both sides, of course, with a few ethically upstanding mainstream companies like CD Projekt Red (most of the time, anyway; can't say I'm pleased by their recent decision to abuse their employees with crunch after promising they wouldn't--that's some Pete-Hines-level lying right there) and a few shamelessly avaricious, soul-hollow Indie companies like Glumberland, but generally speaking?  If you want to be treated like a human being purchasing a product, you’re better off buying an Indie video game, these days.  Of course, if what you actually want is to be treated like a dairy cow whose only purpose in life is to be milked with efficient, factory-like apathy until you run dry, then by all means, Bethesda, Ubisoft, EA, and their peers will be pleased to make that happen for you.

Yes, the landscape of the gaming industry is indeed a desolate one, RPGs included.  So that’s part of why I’m always eager to laud those little Indie gaming patches of beauty within it when I find them, and that’s why we’re here today...even though, if I’m to be honest, this recommendation will be a bit of a challenge for me to make, for reasons I’ll get into below.

Beautiful Desolation is a new (at the time of writing this, April, which will probably be several months before it’s posted) game of the isometric style of RPGs,* famous for such lasting classics as Planescape: Torment and the original Fallouts, and such newer works of excellence as Torment: Tides of Numenera and Pathfinder: Kingmaker.  Of the 2 ends of the chronological spectrum of this particular genre of RPGs, however, BD is clearly far closer to the latter than the former--in fact, that’s perhaps its greatest selling point.

You see, unlike so damn many other RPGs, Beautiful Desolation’s title is absolutely dead-on.  This is a game for which the striking aesthetic of the far, far future’s post-apocalypse is Job 1.  And that may not seem like all that big a deal, on paper, because let’s face it, that setting has been explored many times, thoroughly and with great visual and audible power.  It’s been many years since the mutant-filled ruins of Chrono Trigger wowed me as a child.  The unsettling contrasts between harsh wasteland and twisted remains of civilization that were explored long ago in the first couple Fallouts, and the harsh conflicts of civilization trying to restart itself among rubble and rebar in the later Fallouts, have likewise become well-known to us.  We’ve seen a world of beautiful melancholy in Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon, glimpses of a world of stasis in Suikoden 3, the harsh frozen wastes of ICY: Frostbite Edition, the poisoned earth of Baten Kaitos, a vision of a world of lifeless sand in Radiant Historia...whether a brief snapshot of an end to be avoided or a panorama of a reality to be survived, the whole post apocalypse thing has had plenty of opportunities to be seen and felt in a myriad of ways within RPGs.  So a game for which a significant portion of purpose and appeal is simply “show off the world after the fall of human civilization” doesn’t seem like it could be anything to write home about.

However, the thing about Beautiful Desolation is that it draws its inspiration from the isometric RPGs of the past most in terms of visual style...and when you’re setting your artistic bar at Planescape: Torment and the original Fallouts, you’re reaching for the sky.  But its developers, The Brotherhood, must have some damn long arms, because they meet that standard and even exceed it.  The setting of the varied savagery of Africa’s physical environment is an unexpectedly perfect partner for the singular disturbing beauty of the aesthetic quality and style of the early Fallouts, Torment: Tides of Numenera, and Planescape: Torment, and Beautiful Desolation’s ability to join the setting and aesthetic together is generally flawless.  In many ways, it’s impossible to separate what in the wastes and wilds of Beautiful Desolation is the result of a post apocalyptic world from the natural harsh reality of Africa, and the result is a game of striking atmospheric presence with both a new, fascinatingly twisted and creative portrayal of the far aftermath of major civilization’s end, and a gorgeous rendition of the landscape, themes, and historic cultural dynamics of Africa.**

Its aesthetic is definitely the greatest part of Beautiful Desolation, and I’m sure that was the intention of its developers (given the game’s title, and all).  But it has virtues worth noting beyond that, too.  The use of future-tech is creative, inevitably dark and unsettling, and frequently intriguing in how it both intersects with and diverges from the basic foundations of life and reality--sometimes the objective of your latest quest involves finding a lost piece of incredible technology, and at other times, it’s as rudimentary and fundamental as finding a good place to grow a plant.  Just as it’s hard to know where the post apocalypse ends and Africa’s natural state begins, so too is it hard at times to separate the natural, the technological, and the mystic from the characters, events, and devices of Beautiful Desolation.  And that’s pretty neat.

The game also does well with presenting some decent choices to the player of who to help and what to do, some of which are tough to make and have no real right answer.  And sometimes, the consequences aren’t as you’d expect, either...I’d advise a healthy habit of saving with several different file slots, just in case.  Although there are a few times when even that may not help, given the length of time it may take to see the results of an action you didn’t even know was significant.***  Also, I like the twist and presentation of its ending.  That stuff’s not where Beautiful Desolation really stands out as its own unique entity, of course, but they’re virtues, nonetheless, and worth noting.

Now, here’s the thing that makes this rant a little challenging for me: I think Beautiful Desolation is an artistic, laudable game, I’m very pleased to have helped to Kickstart it, and I do recommend it on the terms stated above.  But oddly enough, I actually don’t really like it very much myself.

The weakness of Beautiful Desolation is the glue holding its narrative together.  The game has a core story, and that story is okay (but no better) as a whole: help Mark, his brother, and a robo-dog get back to their own time after they’re accidentally taken into the very distant future by a big ol’ techno-divine sitting-in-the-sky thingy.  But that driving motivation never feels like a very powerful force in the game, a goal you’re meandering in a roundabout way towards instead of actively seeking.  I don’t know exactly why that is, to be honest, because most of the time when Mark interacts with major NPCs, his goals toward getting back home are involved at some point or another in the conversation, and most of the substantial locations you can find are related in some way toward the game’s ultimate goal.  And yet, I nonetheless never felt strongly connected to Mark’s quest in Beautiful Desolation, never felt the presence of a story strong enough that it seemed actually involved in the experience of playing the game.

Maybe the problem is that BD is fairly open-ended in how and when you approach the goals of the main story?  But that’s really no excuse; the search for the water chip and subsequent need to stop the Master were always with me in Fallout 1, the stages of Mass Effect 1’s compelling story were never far from my mind as I made unreasonable demands of the Mako while exploring irrelevant alien worlds...Fallout 3, Fallout New Vegas, Fallout 4, ICY: Frostbite Edition, The Witcher 3,  all managed to allow for great exploration and some level of player choice in when and how to approach story goals, yet all possessed stories with a strong enough presence that at no point did they feel faint or disconnected from the experience.  Beautiful Desolation, on the other hand, has an overall plot that’s just kind of limply hanging onto the rest of it.

The other thing that turned me off of getting into Beautiful Desolation is that a lot about the main characters aren’t executed very well.  Pooch I have no problem with; she’s written well enough and I can mostly believe and appreciate her character arc.  But Mark and Don...they just don’t grab the player’s interest the way they should.  There’s great potential there, with Don’s troubled history and what that history has indirectly cost Mark.  But I never once really felt it from either of them, you know?  The way Don is written feels like someone going through the motions of being a man with deep emotional troubles, not someone who’s actually experienced and still grapples with them.  Meanwhile, Mark’s dialogue with Don is much the same--whether you choose to have Mark lash out in pain and anger at Don or rebuild their brotherly love, it never feels like a cohesive emotional story, and either way it feels insincere.

And I’m sorry to say that the voice actors (the English ones, at least; perhaps the performances of what seems to be the default (South African) are better) exacerbate this problem several times over.  Silent, the dialogue between Mark and Don feels somewhat artificial, but delivered by the voice actors for them, it feels bizarrely nonchalant.  Whether the subject is the abuse Don suffered in his childhood, Mark’s pain at losing his wife, a traumatic event during Don’s stint as a soldier, Mark telling Don he’s a piece of shit, or Mark warmly forgiving his brother and making his love for Don known, it all sounds like 2 buddies casually shooting the shit while they’re fly-fishing on a lake.  The overall writing for Mark and Don is unconvincing for who they’re supposed to be, but what chance their characters might have had to draw me into their individual and shared growth in spite of that is snuffed out by the voice acting.

The voice acting for the rest of the cast is kind of back-and-forth in quality, too.  Some characters’ vocals are done well, like Pooch, and a couple are even really good--the actress for the scientist in the hidden frosty region sells her character very well, I think.  At other times, the cadence of NPCs’ dialogue being spoken feels as uninvested as Mark’s tends to be.

Also, as a protagonist interacting with the world around him, Mark can be a bit puzzling.  When the player directs Mark toward neutral or good guy dialogue options, Mark’s fine, if a little underwhelming sometimes, but you often have the option to have Mark act like a big tough guy and throw his weight around.  It’s rather jarring to watch and listen to for a variety of reasons.  For starters, this game has no combat system (beyond a very isolated arena minigame), so most of the time, the player knows damn well that Mark’s not going to be making good on any of his threats.  Also, at least half of the entities that Mark can pull this bully crap with in this game are any combination of bigger, more combat-trained, better armed and/or armored, and in greater numbers than he is, and that’s if they’re not just an outright terrifying embodiment of monstrous death and violence.  So he’s either coming across like a completely needless bully, or more often, like an idiot with no sense.  And lastly, the genial tone that Mark’s voice actor seems perpetually stuck in doesn’t exactly help the situation.

And since I mention it, I’m not entirely sure where I stand with this game’s lack of a combat system.  Now, that may seem hypocritical of me, as I’ve many times said--with pride, even--that the measure of an RPG is, to me, entirely separate from technical details such as the quality of its gameplay, so long as it IS playable.  Even more hypocritical since it wasn’t all that long ago that I made a case for why Rakuen is a fine RPG in spite of having no combat whatsoever.  But hear me out.  Beautiful Desolation isn’t Rakuen.  Rakuen doesn’t have combat because it doesn’t need combat, because fighting isn’t what Rakuen’s about.  The obstacles and problems within Rakuen are personal ones that could be a part of my life or yours, and the purpose of the game isn’t about stopping someone or preventing something from happening.  The story, aims, guiding purpose, and interpersonal conflicts in Rakuen aren’t ones that involve battle any more than those you would find in, I dunno, a romantic comedy, or a soap opera, or an inspirational movie about family ties, or something.

Beautiful Desolation, by contrast, is a story about survival in the post-apocalyptic wildernesses of Africa, involving interactions with tribes who are at war, militarized robot societies, and a technological theme of revivifying the remains of the dead with various sciences.  You will chat with as many, if not more, individuals in Beautiful Desolation whose “face” is a skull in some form of decay and who are animated through technological means alone, as you will with anyone who you can say for certain checks “Living” rather than “Deceased” on his tax forms.  The concept of violent struggle with others is an inseparable component of the game’s setting and several of its themes.  So the idea that Mark, Don, and Pooch are never once forced to fight for their lives--especially if you have Mark going up to towering warriors carrying giant automatic rifles and telling them they better do what he says or he’ll kick their ass--is very strange to me.  It might even be part of what disassociates me from the game.  Even in as low-stakes a genre as RPGs and even to a player like myself who likes lower difficulties, doesn’t go near Shin Megami Tensei Persona Q’s Risky mode, and spams the Reset button shamelessly to avoid companion perma-death in old Fire Emblems and Romancing Saga 3 and whatnot, Beautiful Desolation has very little weight to its conflict.

On the other hand, even though the setting and several themes of the story essentially demand it, I can’t deny that a battle system has no real relevance to what Beautiful Desolation is ultimately here to accomplish, nor to its primary virtues.  Sure, Beautiful Desolation wants to tell you the story of Mark and company traveling through and surviving post-apocalyptic Africa...but more than that, it just wants you to experience that world.  Mark’s quest is not the purpose, but an excuse for The Brotherhood to convey to you the heart and soul of an Africa of the distant, creative future, which is more than ever the Africa of our distant, formative past.  And accomplishing that doesn’t require little guys with guns and swords taking turns making white numbers appear over each other’s heads.  It just needs you to lean in with interest to try to figure out where the twisted biological origins end and the animating technology begins in the bartender you’re talking to, to take a moment to admire the way in which nature’s flora has reclaimed an aircraft hangar for its own, and to feel the withering, silent heat of a settlement situated in a barren plain

And that’s what my conflicted recommendation for Beautiful Desolation comes down to, I suppose.  The game has problems with its storytelling, big ones.  They’re not aggravating problems like the nonstop anti-adult chatter of Jude in Wild Arms 4, or the convoluted, absurd idiocy with which Nomura explores the full range of emotional nuances of the human condition (as long as part of that human’s condition is NOT having yet graduated from middle school) in Kingdom Hearts.  That is to say, BD’s flaws aren’t actively working against it to make the experience as a whole negative.  They’re just problems of being lacking; Beautiful Desolation is wanting when it comes to cohesive, present, and convincing elements of storytelling.  And that’s the stuff that really matters to me when it comes to RPGs, the stuff upon which I will almost always judge an RPG as good or bad.  So if you’re at all like me, well, I can’t really recommend Beautiful Desolation.

But I do respect its artistic virtue, and I recognize that it’s on that virtue that it almost entirely stakes itself.  Beautiful Desolation’s purpose for being is its art of ambiance and creativity, rather than its art of story and characters.  And on that regard, it certainly succeeds, as a vehicle for a post apocalyptic world and (as far as I can tell) as a tribute to much of Africa’s physical personality and its cultural heritage.  There’s certainly an audience that enjoys immersing themselves into a new, striking setting and becoming enchanted by its nuance and craft, enough that they don’t need, as I do, a narrative purpose present at all times to shepherd them along.  And to those of you who may fit into that group, I say, by all means, consider giving Beautiful Desolation a try.  I expect you’ll greatly enjoy it.

* Although, inspiration notwithstanding, I expect not many people will agree with my classifying Beautiful Desolation as an RPG (in fact, it’s not even listed as such on GOG, and GOG tends to play at least as fast and loose with that label as I do).  But it’s my blog and my readership is low enough that you all can’t possibly outnumber me too greatly, so nyeh on you!

** I mean, I think.  I’ve got no personal experience with the continent, and to say I have even a layman’s impression of the cultural history of any of its nations and peoples would probably be an exceptionally generous estimation.  But from what I’ve read of others’ impressions of the game, I seem to be generally correct in my impression that Beautiful Desolation accomplishes its intent of capturing the heart and soul of Africa.

*** I think I may have accidentally doomed the world in my first playthrough just by using a certain item on a certain machine without realizing it would do anything, with the immediate result not giving any indication of what was to come and the final result only being revealed like 4 hours of gameplay later.  Which irritates me, honestly; I can’t help but feel a little resentful toward The Brotherhood that an innocuous bit of curious “try every item on everything” (which is a fairly standard rule of behavior in point-and-click games of this variety) could have such consequences.  Word to the wise: don’t go sticking nanite technology in stuff willy-nilly.

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