Video games give you the freedom to do as you please, regardless of the moral implications. That freedom of choice is celebrated and encouraged as a means of player expression and wish fulfillment absent real life norms and responsibility. It's a rare game that not only attaches serious consequences to your actions, but forces those decisions on you as the main gameplay mechanic.
Players who take on the role of Joe in Family Man will face moral choices every step of the way in the new indie title by Broken Bear Games (published by No More Robots). The life of the protagonist takes a seriously shocking turn at the beginning of the game, placing him in debt to the mob when he can least afford it. It's a solid premise and one that the game's design is structured to support throughout.
To pay off the mob, Joe can perform jobs or tasks for the townspeople of Riverport. From flipping burgers at a local fast food joint to odd jobs including eradicating a rabbit problem, retrieving papers or running errands for local powerbrokers, players decide how Joe will make money. But legit options are limited, and payment is due to your crime bosses every day.
This is where the drama comes in to play. Joe can also choose to perform criminal activities that pay better, however, engaging in them not only takes a personal toll but also degrades the town as criminal activity escalates. Add to that dilemma the challenge of looking after your own family -- their welfare, mental and emotional well-being, and household chores -- and cruel trade-offs proliferate.
Neglect mob payoffs and Joe dies, neglect his own welfare and Joe dies, neglect his family and they leave Joe, neglect their welfare and they starve, etc. All are game-ending scenarios that exist every day over several weeks that Joe is expected to pay the mob. They lead to difficult decisions of time and resource management when not every obligation can be met.
Broken Bear Games deserves credit for a clever premise that seems simple and relatively straightforward but is complex in execution. For instance, catering to your family's needs means satisfying different measures; but each action benefits some while detracting from others. That mirrors the overall gameplay where acts might help some townspeople at the expense of others.
This leads to taut moments where players feel the weight of daily decisions amid the backdrop of a merciless day/night cycle. Few games are as effective at generating a sense of real consequence to one's actions or the related suspense of making the right choices within a limited window of opportunity. That the game succeeds at this for as long as it does is testament to the developer's efforts.
I often felt pressed for time as I rushed to make enough money to pay off the mob each day while still allowing enough time to care for my family, including shopping for food or medicine, eradicating pests or washing dishes, playing games or making it home for bedtime. These competing obligations tear at the player but also at the game.
It could be my poor decisions or execution, but the challenge of "doing it all" within a limited amount of time meant I was often sprinting everywhere, skipping dialogue and taking mob jobs first, and still enduring game-ending scenarios from time to time. For a game about choice, it felt sometimes like I had none. Though I'm sure others will have more success managing their obligations.
It didn't help that the game ramps up difficulty in an artificial way that's similar to how stronger foes or more enemies greet players as they progress in adventure games. As players become more proficient at meeting their obligations each day, the mob would demand a bigger payment from Joe. It's not unrealistic given the game's premise, but did feel a little contrived.
Because I relied on criminal activity to make ends meet, it meant an increase in the town's degradation. More thieves stood ready to intercept me, and I was at greater risk of wasting time in jail (I wasn't about to spend hard-earned cash to get out). Thankfully, players can upgrade abilities with earned points and obtain meat to feed their family by killing animals, both of which can improve survival.
The problems with these is that the retrieved meat would often fall through the ground and the upgrades I chose didn't have much of an impact until about a third of the way through, when I'd earned enough points to unlock one in particular that made the game much easier. One upgrade shouldn't make that much difference but I'm grateful it did.
One thing that surprised me about Family Man is that stealing food or money isn't an option despite criminal activity playing such a prominent role. There aren't even pickups off the thieves or other people you kill. Of course this all would undermine the chief gameplay mechanic but it's a notable incongruity in the game world that the developers created.
That game world can suffer from other minor issues, such as a small map; overlapping, obscure or absent mission icons; too small prompts and menu text in handheld mode; interruptions by people, animals and phone (the latter causing a cheap death); and glitches that impede progress like irretrievable delivery packages, frozen inventory screens and an inaccessible home (forcing a restart of the day).
Thankfully most are rare and don't often distract, which should allow players to better appreciate the game's appealing modular or block design of Riverport and its inhabitants (reminiscent in some ways to Minecraft), the comedic dialogue and discussion options between the player and colorful characters, or the melodic score that is (mostly) on point.
If players can take the time to appreciate Joe's exchanges with townspeople, chances are the ending they receive will resonate more with them. Like the game's introductory shock, its ending can pack a wallop, if the one I unlocked (of several) is any indication. Crafting a solid premise that has such strong bookends is no small feat.
In the end, Broken Bear Games is able to generate a suspenseful gameplay mechanic that makes every decision and action feel consequential in a way that too few games manage. But the intricacies of that design can sometimes weigh gameplay down or undermine choices. Still, it's a bold approach with a memorable start and finish (for me) that makes a visit to Riverport worth the trip.
(This post is based on a review key for the Nintendo Switch version of Family Man, which released alongside Xbox Series X/S and Xbox One versions on September 14.)
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