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A Case of Distrust Review — Intriguing and Innovative

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A Case of Distrust

From Tex Murphy to Grim Fandango and L.A. Noire to Her Story, detective fiction is a genre that video games have long—but infrequently—explored, with varying degrees of success. The intricacies of real detective work—of different personalities, each with their own lives, backgrounds, and motives—makes the genre a laborious task for developers to explore in any comprehensive manner. With A Case of Distrust, former Visceral Games developer Ben Wander has undertaken that task, and the result is an intricate and eloquent narrative experience, flawed by the limits of the medium.

Players control Phyllis Cadence Malone, a private investigator and former San Francisco Police Department officer following in the footsteps of her late uncle, a famed officer in the department. Approached regarding a threatening and suspicious letter, Malone is forced to use her expertise to discover the truth behind the letter and, in doing so, enters the startling and multifaceted crime world of San Francisco. While the characters often fall into stereotypes of the 1920s, ranging from friendly bartenders to humourless criminals, they are typically well-written and provide great insight into the game’s universe. The character of Malone—a strong and determined woman stuck in a man’s world—often touches on the inequitable conditions of the time without allowing gender issues to overpower the narrative, instead opting to power through and focus on the case at hand—an admirable quality that makes her one of the strongest protagonists in video games.

Wander has cited the detective fiction novels of Raymond Chandler (The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye) and Dashiell Hammett (The Thin Man, Red Harvest) as inspiration for the game’s narrative, and the influence is clear; Wander’s brilliantly crafted narrative has the quality of a novel, with eloquent language that accurately explores the human mind. Even without voice acting, players will find themselves deeply immersed in the story—in no small part by the narrative, spectacularly supported by the game’s surprisingly complex mechanics.

A Case of Distrust employs standard point-and-click gameplay, whereby the player selects items of interest and the game provides a brief description that is added to Malone’s notebook. This gameplay mechanic is expertly taught to the player in the game’s opening moments in a hilariously low-pressure situation, and the tutorial is so smoothly implemented it is nearly imperceptible. A similar mechanic is used during conversations, often providing several dialogue options for the player to determine the flow and outcome of the conversation. A subtle but effective usage of the dialogue system is in the taxis between locations; by choosing to participate in conversation with the driver, the player is provided with a deeper look at Malone’s personal life and views, and while the chats are typically irrelevant to the overall story and investigation, they allow the player insight into the unseen aspects of A Cast of Distrust’s world.

A Case of Distrust screenshot

The game world itself is a beautifully dramatised version of 1920s San Francisco, utilising a gorgeous 2D art technique reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s distinct style. Wander has cited the recognisable poster designs of Saul Bass as a major influence of the art style, which shines throughout the entire game, giving the environments a distinct and unforgettable look that truly captures the period. Even more reflective of the period is the game’s music, designed by Mark “Marowi” Wilson: an alluring medley of slow jazz music that provides deeper immersion into the atmosphere of the 1920s.

Unfortunately, full immersion is not quite achieved in A Case of Distrust—a flaw that can only truly be blamed on the medium in general. While viewers and readers of film, television, and books view their respective stories from an external view of a specific character or group, the interactive element of video games requires developers to manually explore, write, and implement every possible choice and dialogue option, and the project would likely never release—or remain locked in development hell—as a result. Often while interviewing suspects, the player may find themselves interested in asking a question about a certain piece of evidence, potentially relevant to the case or not; however, the game ultimately decides which evidence can be discussed, and any topics that avoid immediate narrative progression are avoided. Furthermore, asking the same questions multiple times lacks consequence, which would certainly not be the case in a real scenario. Ultimately, these flaws are due to the limits of the medium, as immersion is unachievable for such small independent developers. Nevertheless, A Case of Distrust manages to engage players into the game’s world and narrative very effectively, with a plethora of different choices and outcomes.

With A Case of Distrust, developer Ben Wander takes players on an intriguing narrative experience, with complex characters and intricate gameplay cleverly accompanied by a beautiful art style and charming soundtrack. For his first game as an independent developer, Wander has knocked it out of the park. For any fans of narrative games, or detective fiction in general, A Case of Distrust is a must play.

Reviewed on PC.

Rhain discovered a long time ago that mixing one of his passions (video games) with the other (writing) might be a good idea, and now he’s been stuck in the industry for over four years with no way of escaping. His favourite games are those with deep and captivating narratives: while it would take far too long to list them all, some include L.A. Noire, Red Dead Redemption, Wolfenstein: The New Order, The Last of Us, and the Uncharted series.

Review

RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure

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RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 5

A Conflicted Beginning

The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.

Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.

As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.

Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 1

With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).

Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.

Gunplay To Die For

Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.

Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.

The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.

Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 2

Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.

The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.

The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.

However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.

A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast

The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.

Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.

With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 6

To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).

Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.

A Slipshod Structure

Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.

Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.

Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 8

On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.

Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

Reviewed on Xbox One X.

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