Platform: PlayStation 4
Review Date: 8/29/20
Halcyon is an Earth colony run by a group of corporations that value profits first, and people last (if at all). Halcyon is also dying and on the verge of collapse. While terraforming has made several planets hospitable, human physiology hasn't adapted and the population is starving to death. You were supposed to be one of the original colonists to help build Halcyon, but your ship, The Hope, got lost on the way from Earth and you've been stuck in cryogenic hibernation for the last seventy years. An eccentric scientist finds The Hope adrift on the edge of the solar system and somehow manages to revive you. He enlists your aid to save the colony and he can only revive the rest of The Hope's population if you steal a bunch of chemicals from Halcyon's ruling Board of Directors. And thus begins your adventure on Terra 2 as you tangle with ruthless outlaws, dangerous wildlife, lethal robots, and dimwitted citizens who are force-fed a constant stream of lies and propaganda. As an outsider, the injustice, oppression, and stupidity are all too plain to see, but the downtrodden people of Halcyon don't know anything else. The game forces you to make difficult moral choices, and it's up to you how to best serve Halcyon and yourself. Do you aid the renegade scientist, side with the Board, try to make peace with the people, or kill everyone you meet?
The game is gorgeous and the presentation is stunning. Exploring the flora and fauna of alien worlds is fascinating, as are the communities and people that you encounter. The game utilizes the Unreal Engine, which comes with its own distinct baggage and flaws, but overall it looks and performs great. Weather and time-of-day transitions are fairly smooth and LOD artifacts generally only show up when transitioning to a new environment. The game runs fast and smooth, although loading times break up the action when you travel between areas. The superb music score is powerful and moving, although the twangy refrains of the Edgewater theme become grating really quickly. The writing is deep and thoughtful, although it has a tendency to revel in its own cleverness. The humor is full of satire and sarcasm, which is often more annoying than funny, but it grows on you as the game wears on. Dialog and character personalities are eccentric and intentionally abrasive, which is difficult to come to terms with. Interactions with NPCs encourage you to be a psychotic asshole in order to succeed, which caused some anxiety and grief.
Another area that stands out is the voice acting, which is top quality for the most part. All of the characters in the game are voiced (except for the silent protagonist) and there is TONS of dialog. While most of the performers are extremely good, Ashly Burch is phenomenal and rises above the rest as the awkward and shy engineer, Parvati. This shouldn't come as a surprise, since she also did a stellar job as Aloy in "Horizon Zero Dawn" (2017). Her ability to breathe life into Parvati provided the emotional anchor that I needed to stick with the game and complete it.
The gameplay is solid and entirely first person, which I didn't realize when I bought the game. I generally don't like first person shooters, but I managed to do okay due to the wide range of difficulty options. I played in "story mode" which is the easiest option, and even with that I found the combat challenging. However, as you level up and get more experience and more effective weapons, combat becomes easier - until the last several battles, that is. The game takes a few hours to find its footing and I honestly didn't enjoy it that much until I met Parvati, who became my first companion. Companions provide combat and dialog support, as well as other perks. More companions become available as the game progresses, and things become much more interesting once you get your own ship and are able to travel to other places. By default, companions are aggressive and go into battle as soon as you engage an enemy, which can be a hindrance when you're trying to be stealthy or work out a strategic attack plan. The game allows you to issue targets and commands to them, but I was never able to get that to work, so most of the time I just let them run into battle while I picked enemies off at a distance.
While you don't have to recruit any companions, bringing them along makes the game a lot more fun and engaging. In addition to Parvati, you can add Max (a grouchy clergyman), Felix (a simple-minded scavenger), Ellie (a pirate surgeon), Nyoka (a mercenary and big game hunter), and SAM (a cleaning robot). Each companion has a special skill set and personal quest line (except SAM), and fulfilling those is very satisfying. Helping Parvati set up a romantic date with the head engineer of The Groundbreaker is the most rewarding and heartwarming experience in the entire game. It's handled in a beautifully touching and tender way, and Ashly Burch's delivery is perfect. Not surprisingly, the male characters are pretty annoying, but Vicar Max's quest becomes more interesting the deeper you go. It finally ends in a hallucinogenic vision that gives him the answers he's been searching for (possibly at the cost of his sanity). It was a real struggle to keep Felix in my crew, and I was tempted to boot him out on several occasions, but I was too soft-hearted and felt sorry for him. The other crew members also started taking a liking to him, which also affected my decision to keep him on.
Curiously, when you begin the game, you're thrown into a complex character editor that allows you to define your appearance and base stats. This is extremely odd, since it's a first person game and you never get to see yourself. Also, the number of choices you have are overwhelming and the game lets you tinker and tweak to your heart's content. Fortunately, it turns out that none of these optimizations really matter in the big picture, unless you're just a total geek for performance stats. But in the beginning it can be paralyzing because you don't know what to do. You can talk your way out of most human conflicts, assuming your dialog and people skills are high enough. Otherwise, you have to shoot your way out of arguments. Unfortunately, I levelled up my character to be well-rounded, which meant I was a jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none. As a result, most of my encounters ended in violence. If I were to play through the game again, I would definitely max out my dialog skills first. Inventory management is a constant concern, but the game handles it gracefully and efficiently, and once you leave Edgewater you can stash all of your extra goodies on your ship. The game fails to point out that storage units have infinite capacity, so you don't have to worry about filling them up. Breaking down weapons and armor into parts saves space and also reduces weight. The robust save system lets you save your progress anywhere at any time, which is a great feature that helps you to rewind mistakes and bad decisions with minimal fuss.
The game is full of morally ambiguous choices, but perhaps the most grueling one is the first one you encounter. There are only two power converters in Emerald Vale and you need one of them. So, do you take the one from the city of Edgewater and doom them to certain death, or do you take the one from a group of deserters who have started their own community and are successfully raising crops, forcing the destruction of their promising and growing establishment? It's a crippling choice to make and either way you're going to make people angry and possibly violent. Often, the most obvious choice isn't the optimal one, so you have to work multiple angles to achieve the best outcomes. Other choices aren't as difficult or as gut-wrenching, and ultimately don't have much impact on the game. The only real game-changing decision is whether you decide to help the renegade scientist or turn him into the authorities since they view him as a threat.
The game definitely draws parallels to our own society and the crises we face on Planet Earth. These include starvation, over-population, dwindling natural resources, overbearing bureaucratic mismanagement, class warfare, extreme wealth disparity, corporation-led governing bodies that value profits over people, political gaslighting, corrupt leaders, social injuctice, and revolutionary groups that seek to overthrow the power structure. There's even a plague that threatens to wipe out the first town you visit, which was extremely relevant since I played this during the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar to our own dimwitted leaders, the corporate head of that town refuses to acknowledge the problem and encourages people to work harder when they're sick, claiming that "Work fortifies the spirit!" The game's politics mock and mirror the fascist and grossly incompetent Trump Administration in other ways as well, which isn't a surprise since development started shortly after he took office.
The game definitely raises some interesting questions about humanity and society. Ultimately, it asks you to either use science and technology to save Halcyon from extinction, or to exterminate hundreds of thousands of people so that the rich and famous can live out the rest of their lives in luxury. The former is obviously riskier and requires a lot of time and hard work to bear fruit, while the latter is a shortsighted solution that solves nothing and simply pushes the real problem onto future generations. The rich and famous are insufferably stupid and completely incapable of saving themselves, so they're doomed to die out quickly. The choice seems obvious to any sane, rational, and reasonable person, but given the sad state of American politics and the number of feeble-minded fools who still blindly support Donald Trump's fascist agenda, I really wonder how many players chose genocide as the best course of action? The thought chills me to the core.
Notes on updates:
Unfortunately, I decided to install version 1.0.4 late in my initial playthrough, which was supposed to fix a critical bug that could accidentally kill my companions, and it negatively impacted the gameplay. As I mentioned earlier, the music is exceptionally good, but the upgrade changes the music for the worse and switches some of the area themes for no good reason. The original gun reports were impressively loud and crisp, but the update decreases their volume in half which seriously reduces their impact. Weather patterns are altered, weird lighting effects are added to talking heads, dialog and voiceovers are modified, and some of the more endearing character animations have been removed. Loading times are longer and new graphical glitches are introduced that weren't there before. Perhaps the most annoying new feature is that you automatically draw your weapon whenever you enter a new area or reload your gun. This means you end up unintentionally pointing your gun at people a lot, which makes them upset and forces you to waste a lot of time needlessly holstering your weapons. It's too bad you can't easily roll back software updates.