The Descendant PC Review
Episodic, narrative driven games have seen a resurgence since the advent of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. The latest in this trend is the recently completed The Descendant by Swedish developers Gaming Corps. The game is set after the destruction of Earth has wiped out most of humanity, except for those kept safe in Arks. In Ark-01, we play as Mia, a ‘Janitor’, who has the task of keeping the Ark running until such a time it is deemed safe for the Descendants, cocooned in cryostasis, to re-inhabit the earth. We also play intermittently as Donnie who, several centuries later, is investigating Ark-01.
Fallout influence is clearly heavy here as are the interactions found in traditional adventure games and the choice focused narrative of Telltale. All these elements work collectively to quite good effective: the story is engaging, as it becomes clear that not everything about Ark-01 is as it seems. The choices too seem to have weight: when the player makes a mistake, they are rewarded with knowing exactly which Descendants of the Ark have suffered as a result.
However, these inspirations do cause a number of problems for the game. The Telltale influence brings with it the problem that, when selecting how a character should respond in dialogue, it is often not at all clear what the player is choosing. I will provide an example: later on in the game, one character tells the playable character “You don’t belong here.” One of the options to respond is “I’m leaving!” and I took this to understand, “Ok, if you believe I do not belong then I will get on my way.” Instead, the playable character launches into a tirade in which she claims the other character is “crazy” and that she “isn’t staying here!”. This means that controlling the narrative can be very tricky.
The adventure game element brings with it inevitable strange mini-game puzzles that do not always make sense or can be misplaced. One section involves stealth but the only interaction is to throw items and distract cameras. Another involves traipsing around the map trying to upgrade your access keycard by solving very simple line-based puzzles. There are a few good puzzles though, for example, the tense navigating of a fire, and the time element to fix the water system in the first episode piled the pressure on, with unsettling consequences if you fail.
However, without a doubt the most frustrating part of The Descendant is the lack of WASD controls. Due to the fixed camera angles, the playable character often moves in the wrong direction and is stupidly hard to control. Just clicking on the map icon in the bottom-right causes the character to move in that direction, even as the map opens. Further, it’s not exactly clear which parts of the map or room are accessible. I often found myself trying to enter areas that it then became clear were blocked by invisible walls. Further too, it is often not clear which items can be interacted with. All this makes the game somewhat cumbersome and, at times, infuriating.
Despite this, the story is interesting and keeps the player engaged with the two protagonists at different points in time, setting up an intriguing mystery as to what has happened during the many years in between. It also lends itself well to investment in both characters. However, it is not quite enough to overcome the awkwardness of the interactivity in the game.
On the whole, the voice acting is well done for a small game. Unfortunately, this is marred by the strange, action hero cliché of the narrator in the first episode. Imagine, if you will, these lines delivered in an abnormally low and gravelly voice: ‘I should have realised this wasn’t right’, ‘Any risk was worth taking’, ‘A two man search team: him, the VIP and me, a nobody. Expendable’. This is not a fault of the voice actor, because he is excellent when not narrating, but more attributable to bad direction and a tendency of the script to veer off into action film platitudes.
The presentation of the game cutscenes was very competent. As is evidenced by some of the screenshots here included, light was used effectively and the character models were artistically life-like. The cutscenes were framed and balanced with aesthetic cohesion. The colour palette of cold blues and warm oranges and reds was used consistently and this attention to colour is often not seen in narrative games. Unfortunately, the gameplay between cutscenes did not maintain this high standard but was nonetheless not unpleasantly presented.
Overall, even though the controls sometimes made me swear in frustration and the hackneyed narration made me laugh out loud, I am still, on the whole, pleased to have played The Descendants. It is worth trying out in a sale, and if you can cope with the shortcomings in design, the story is an entertaining five-episode arc.