In a gaming landscape dominated by action games, it’s exciting to find titles that buck that trend in favor of more meditative and intriguing experiences where the journey is its own reward. Enter sci-fi adventure game Beautiful Desolation by developer The Brotherhood and publisher Untold Tales. Taking place in a fascinating post-apocalyptic South Africa, players will discover the world and uncover its mystery, and whether the creativity and attention to detail provide enough entertainment without relying on high-octane action.
The setup for the player’s journey into this harrowing world is the aftermath of a brutal war when the auspicious arrival of an alien object named the Penrose heralds a period of technological advancement where disease and mortality are eradicated. But Heretics emerge against Penrose and its defender Penrose Allied, leading to a period of conflict. Into this setting comes skeptic Mark Leslie to investigate Penrose 10 years after its arrival and the resulting death of his fiance Charlize.
Players control Mark as he enlists his older brother Don and they begin their pursuit of the truth. But before their investigation goes very far, an accident sends the two dramatically off-course and into an unfamiliar, far-off future where inhabitants worship or resist the highly advanced technologies that now rule their lives. How players interact with the wide variety of personalities they'll encounter will help determine the course of their journey and attempts to return to their own time.
Indeed the game is described as a story-driven adventure game that forgoes RPG elements like character customization, loot grinding or constant combat in favor of exploration, consequential dialog options and some puzzles (in addition to mini-games and optional combat). From the start, players will navigate the world from an isometric perspective and converse with others in an indirect first-person perspective. The presentation in this regard is impressive, apparently owing to the photogrammetry that the South African developers used to put pieces of Africa into the levels, art and characters.
Settings such as grasslands, marsh, shores or settlements are varied, detailed and colorful, creating interesting areas to explore on foot or from the air. During several hours I've explored three of the game's seven areas and am impressed with the natural and artificial landmarks, not to mention the ambient sounds present at each location. There is beauty to be found in Vesta, Zozo and Saxonwold, in the ruins, villages and places in between, not to mention in the imaginative characters that populate each locale.
Organic and mechanical life comes in a wide variety of beings that exhibit equally varied beliefs, loyalties and personalities. There are sentient robots called agnates; servants of Dullahan, the creator of the world that they believe came from the Penrose; Witnesses of the Ascendency (which bestowed immortality), who provide gold and technology to the High Priests of Tribulation; and nonbelievers who reject Inja and followers the Kettle Maidens, to name but a few. Who they and others are, are better left to players to discover.
Developer The Brotherhood reports that there are more than 40 unique characters, all of whom are voiced by African actors that speak thousands of lines of dialogue including multiple conversation paths. In fact, meeting and interacting with this world's characters is a high point of the game thanks to creative character design and strong voice acting that helps distinguish each individual and every encounter thus far. While I have yet to determine to what degree dialog choices affect the story, the conversations themselves are entertaining and worthwhile.
These encounters do form the basis of the story, as characters will reveal details about this future that Mark and Don find themselves in, and suggest how the world changed since the arrival of the Penrose. As noted above, the post-apocalyptic free-for-all has resulted in a head-spinning menagerie of individuals and factions each with their own values and goals. It can be a challenge early on to keep it all straight, but it does make for an exceedingly colorful and eccentric cast that provide a lively journey even without regular combat.
In these ways world-building feels like an accomplished feat, at least to judge by the first several hours. This is not insignificant considering that exploration and story play such a prominent role in Beautiful Desolation. But gameplay in general and the controls that enable it facilitate the player's journey, so do they likewise rise to the occasion? The developer touts that the game's controls, interface and movement have been revamped to provide an intuitive experience on consoles.
On the Nintendo Switch, basic interface controls and menu work fine. The plus button opens the game menu for save, load, achievements and game/video/audio settings, which include accessibility options for text size, subtitles and color. The minus button toggles descriptions on/off in the isometric view, expanding on labels that identify objects in the environment (eye icons also highlight interactive points of interest, while notepads/pens identify noteworthy objects for the journal). L and R buttons control 6x magnification.
The ZL button opens the inventory. Players select an item with X to Use With a point of interest, or with Y to combine it with another item. Uses can involve converting gold possessions to credits, which can then be used to purchase items from vendors; or combining items to gift in return for a favor. Items therefore have specific uses to obtain entry or objects that will help Mark and Don. This inventory system encourages progress, and is not your typical character-building, stats-buffing loot grind.
An in-game handheld device is accessed via the ZR button. L and R buttons navigate between a network connection, map, recorded messages/dialog, Messages Review and To-Do List. The up direction key opens a journal/sketchbook, which includes clues (i.e. symbols, numbers). The down key opens a kind of walkie-talkie for contacting others or summoning the Buffalo transport. A is the action button for picking up items, initiating conversations, adding journal content and entering/exiting.
All these work reasonably well. But problems arise (at least they did for me) when attempting to navigate in this world or track objectives. Character/transport movement is controlled by the left thumbstick and kept my character moving when on the correct path. The issue is that those paths are not always defined and when moving off the path, my character got stuck or movement impeded to the point that I had to struggle with the control stick to get back on the predetermined path.
This issue is compounded when using the Buffalo transport to traverse the world from the air. Perhaps because of its relative speed, getting myself into sticky situations proved easy, though extricating myself out of them proved a challenge. Turning and forward movement felt less responsive with flight controls, and boundaries are even less clearly delineated with the aerial view. It's possible that my own skills are at fault, but I don't have this kind of trouble with other games.
As for tracking objectives, I was left at a loss on several occasions. Maybe I'm spoiled by games that include a measure of handholding, but I did feel this element likewise was not that intuitive. Given the breadth of areas and objectives, I had to regularly consult not only with the To-Do List for tasks but also the recorded messages/dialog screen in some cases to remind myself where I needed to go to complete the task. I missed having related HUD indicators, quest logs to track progress, and related map icons for current tasks.
All this lead to repeat menu visits, backtracking and fighting with controls just to stay on the correct path. Again, it could be partially my fault, but it's not something I struggle with in other titles. A little more clarity or clear boundaries would go a long way, especially for a game where exploration and story play such a prominent role in the experience and entertainment value of the game. It's worth noting, too, that the game did freeze when I chose to speak again at the Kettle door after initial conversation.
On a promising note, The Brotherhood has indicated that dialog choices will impact the ending of the game, and that there are multiple ways to complete it. Side quests and world-building stories augment the experience, as do cutscenes that I have found well-designed overall. The instrumental/electronic music (by Mick Gordon) is upbeat and provides a good background score for the goings-on.
Several hours into the game, and having explored three out of seven areas, I can say that Beautiful Desolation so far is overall a creative and intriguing experience that I'm eager to revisit. Meeting the bizarre but charismatic denizens of this future dystopia and learning about this world is a fascinating exercise from a player and world-building perspective. But like this cautionary tale there are technical issues that hold back the journey. I'm hopeful that the story and characters will continue to shine brightly, and be what players remember most about this odyssey.
(This post is based on a review key for the Nintendo Switch version of Beautiful Desolation, which released alongside the PlayStation 4 version on May 28, 2021.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
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