The city of Conglomerate has fallen into the hands of corrupt corporations and general cybery crime. Thus, becoming a sexy neon drenched dystopian landscape, set ablaze by a turf war that has raged for long enough that a special task force is established to clean things up at any cost. That’s you- you’re the task force, and it’s time for some dungeon crawling to set things right!
On paper, Conglomerate 451 is everything I want. I’m super into the classic style of grid based dungeon crawling present here. I loved Legend of Grimrock to absolute bits, and I had a lot of fun with its sequel even though its ticking clock framing gave me severe anxiety. A fantasy setting doesn’t really do much for me, though, but I understand how well staples of the genre – magic, weaponry, potions – lend themselves to a traditional RPG structure and systems.
Where the potions, loot and magic find their futuristic equivalent is in transhumanism, implants, upgrades. Cyberpunk is how you transpose all those things into a modern setting; a mind controlling spell is cast on a goblin in pretend past, and a cybernetic brain is hacked in a pretend future. So Conglomerate 451 can be an RPG set in urban, near-futuristic locales, underscored by synth strings and populated by katanas, sidecuts, and weirdly tolerable face tattoos. Granted, it’s a motif that is losing its novelty in the midst of 80s nostalgia saturation, but as a foundation for building an RPG it’s relatively untouched.
But you can pitch a compelling motif for a video game all day long, and the bigger hurdle is making a video game. I wouldn’t say that Conglomerate 451 falls apart in this regard, but almost everything about it is a little bit clunky, awkward or unsatisfying.
It makes a good first impression. Snazzy visuals dispel whatever worries you may have had booting up a modestly priced, Unity powered game. The atmosphere is established immediately, by moody imagery that successfully draws the kind of dystopian underworld you want to explore in a game like this. Character models are especially good, presenting nicely detailed enemies and NPCs that, although repeated, don’t give off a copy paste or throwaway vibe. While the levels are procedurally generated, it doesn’t feel like chunks of city are slapped together in a haphazard way that doesn’t make geographical sense – a legitimate concern when you aren’t just dealing with the caves, woods and dungeons of a fantasy themed equivalent. The presentation is on point and inviting, and makes you excited to dive into Conglomerate 451’s world. It’s crafted with visible care.
Before you can take to the streets and beat back the influence of shady corporations, however, you have to form your squad. You create said members by picking from and “cloning” premade character templates, with a number of preset traits. You name them and place them in a squad of three. As you progress through the game, more templates are made available, and as you conduct research in different areas, your ability to customise your characters – at the cloning stage and beyond – is expanded on. If somebody in your squad dies, they stay dead, and you either clone a new character, or insert someone from you roster of clones standing by.
But here, before your feet even hit the rain soaked pavement for some RPG-ing, you start noticing minor snags. At each juncture, the menus feel disorganised and clunky to navigate. You frequently have to select something, then move the cursor across the screen to click another button to confirm your selection, even though your selection can almost always be reverted on the next screen or the next step. In some cases, selecting one of a number of menu items takes you to another screen where you can simply tab between those same items, rendering the previous menu pointless. You do of course get used to this navigation, but before long it turns out to be representative of the whole experience of playing the game. If there’s a way for something to feel slightly clumsy, or for game mechanics to simply fall short of feeling satisfying, you can basically count on the game to make those choices.
For instance in combat- the game locks into a turn based system which queues up different characters, with actions costing a certain amount of time/energy. During encounters, you click on action icons in the bottom left of the screen and then on an enemy or a squad member to use them. Here comes another little caveat: You can use shortcut keys on your keyboard to select actions, but doing so merely highlights the icon with no indication of what that action does. Using the cursor to do the same, however, a tiny description of the selection pops up.
In games we’re used to clicking something a couple of times, memorising what it does, and then committing the shortcut key to muscle memory. But when you’re juggling different characters, and keep swapping out squad members for different missions, the task of actually memorising all of the little icons – which you can rearrange, by the way – is just one of a myriad of things that is more fussy than it has to be. The solution is right there, and yet arbitrarily ignored.
Level design is another area similarly plagued by tiny nuisances. Due to the nature of the gameplay, the levels themselves are made to be traversed in a grid pattern and rooms are spaced out accordingly, but they often feel like they weren’t meant to viewed at mostly 90 degree angles. Things are frequently placed off-centre when you approach them, so that when you try to line up with them they are awkwardly almost out of your view to either the left or the right. Moving in that direction of course transports you a full grid square and usually past what you’re trying to line up with.
The proposed solution to this is freelook, which allows you to look around the room while still facing one of the four arbitrary directions. You do this by holding down the space bar, but the view doesn’t stick in the position you move it to. So, you have to be mindful of where your cursor was on screen before, because the origin of the cursor is locked down and its movement rubber bands around that point, but it is still what you’re using to interact with the environment.
For a mechanic you use constantly while you explore, it’s really ham fisted. It just makes you feel like you’re compensating for and parrying the fact that fundamental aspects of the game aren’t very well thought out. As you can maybe tell, these things aren’t game breaking, they’re just frustrating and make playing the game less fun than it should be.
Which sums up my feelings toward the entire game in fact. It’s not that it’s broken or even bad, it just isn’t very fun. A game like this that is essentially all systems, with an inherently thinner veil of context dressing up those systems, needs to nail that X factor that makes it tactile and addictive to play. In over twenty hours of playing the game, the only feelings of reward came from things explicitly labeled rewards – experience points, loot, character promotions, various unlocks. Things that every game of this type has, often in addition to the game being satisfying to play at the core.
And that’s a point worth stressing: The problems that plague this game have been solved forever ago by other entries in the genre. I don’t presume to know what the developers are referencing when making this, but large portions of it feel made in a vacuum. Simply looking over at prominent, modern, japanese dungeon crawlers provides all the insight you need into how to make basic gameplay feel gratifying, in the grit of it, as you’re engaging with moment-to-moment mechanics.
There’s nothing outright bad about Conglomerate 451. If you want a dungeon crawler with this specific motif and you’re okay with a less than stellar underlying game that for all intents and purposes gets the job done, this should fit that bill. It gets the atmosphere right and there’s plenty to do, and especially for the asking price, what’s on offer here is not unreasonable.