Beholder PC Review
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A more cliched opener is perhaps not possible but my reaction to this game invites comparison to the idiom. Beholder has 9/10 scores on Steam but also has a small contingent who strongly dislike the game. But the answer is, at it usually is, somewhere between the two.
Beholder opens with the playable character, Carl, becoming the Landlord of several apartments. Installed by the state, you must spy and gather information on your tenants, whilst balancing the needs of your family and the demands of being a loyal citizen. The gameplay is fun and innovative: I really enjoyed placing tactical cameras (as creepy as that sounds out of context), surreptitious spying and finding out more about my neighbours via their belongings. The strategy part comes from deciding what to do with the information you receive, as well as how best to tackle scripted challenges given the resources available to you.
Inevitably, this game draws comparison from the likes of Papers Please in its dystopian theme. It examines privacy in a totalitarian state and where the boundaries lie between survival and ethics. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really have anything interesting, new or complex to say about them – only that it is difficult to be a good person in a totalitarian state. This is a missed opportunity because the premise is brilliant and could allow for a complex and interesting examination of trust in a state dominated society or even a parallel to the privacy debate of the internet age. To an extent, it unintentionally performs the latter, simply by virtue of privacy being a very current issue but it would have been intriguing to draw it out more.
Even then, the ethical dimension of the game, which is touted as a major feature, isn’t fully convincing. The game is punishingly difficult and this means that to even have a vague chance of saving some family members, you have no choice but to steal everything in sight, blackmail everyone and even then, pray you raise enough money. As such, there is no texture to the moral choices: the player has to say “Screw it then, I’m a bad person,” and be maximally awful or just ignore the situation entirely. It lacks the creeping realisation of becoming morally corrupt.
The art style is suitably near colourless. However, the curvy, anthropomorphised blobs as individual characters and the cartoonish aesthetic seems at odds with the game’s serious plot. Watching the main character walk or bounce around is almost comical, even as he is blackmailing his tenants and watching their every move. This creates an odd dichotomy where the art style, aesthetically pleasing as it may be, does not really seem thematically appropriate.
In fact, many of the characters were also unsympathetic in their actions. It is not possible for Carl to calmly explain why they cannot give their wife $700 for groceries and she cannot calmly reply. Instead, both treat each other with utter derision or anger. There seems to be an instant bitterness between the family members which did nothing for my drive to keep them happy or alive. In fact, that the main character responds in their own way often breaks immersion. You cannot become a revolutionary or follow the state to the letter because Carl’s reactions always express doubt. This makes your choices feel as if they do not shape the character to a great extent, only the fictional state.
All that being said, I still found the game fun the first time I played it and the premise was interesting. The gameplay ultimately worked well, even if it did get repetitive with time. Also in consideration, and key to the ultimate scoring of this game, is the price. At £7, it certainly provides some bang for your buck; I played at least 5 hours before I started to notice the flaws and I have certainly played more expensive games that provided fewer hours of interest.
Despite much of this review, Beholder is not a bad game and at the price asked, I think it is worth a buy. The criticisms only come because Beholder sets its sights at such lofty heights and complex issues but fails to reach them. And of course, it suffers by association with the ethically sensitive and artistically cohesive Papers Please. What it achieves, however, is an entertaining and challenging strategy game. It is just good, which is a shame because it could have been brilliant.