by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Join in the Movies
Late Shift isn’t a game in any traditional sense. There’s no objective. There aren’t any controls besides clicking a box once in awhile. There’s no strategy, skill requirement, or even gameplay. Late Shift, billed as an FMV, or full motion video, instead consists of a movie in which the viewer makes choices that affect the narrative and characters. If you’ve played Telltale games such as The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, et al, you’ll kind of know what to expect, only take out those title’s limited gameplay and replace the polygons with real, live actors on film. I wasn’t really sure what to expect with a product like this, but I’m glad I gave it a shot, because Late Shift ended up being some of the most fun I’ve had with a game (movie?) in quite awhile. Not that I normally know a whole lot about games I’m reviewing before I jump in, but Late Shift being an entirely narrative experience I made it a point to know absolutely nothing before hitting play. I’m not sure why, but I expected something very different than the tension-driven heist thriller that the experience ended up being.
Given the nature of the project, it’s a tall order to expect transitions, flows, and pauses to line up smoothly. After all, especially in a dialogue-driven thriller such as this, cut’s pacing, and line delivery are just as much a part of crafting an effective experience as the acting and quality of writing. Much to my delight, the branching scenes flow extremely well, with very few instances of awkward editing or speech. The decisions, which appear on the bottom of the screen as clickable boxes, appear at logical times with a times that’ll gave me long enough to understand what I was doing, but not long enough to escape the sense of tension and hurry. Oddly enough, though, the few awkward cuts I did experience happened between separate scenes, and not in between lines of dialogue or narrative branches. Even these few moments, though, were simply a matter of some mismatches background white noise, and hardly detract from the experience.
It’s What You Do That Defines You
Of course it’s important for us to actually discuss the choices that Late Shift offers, given that they’re the reason it’s being covered here on a gaming sight. Given my love and experience with choice-based games such as the aforementioned by Telltale or, more recently, the Mass Effect franchise, I was unsure how much my choices would resonate. Would they seem lesser with the engagement of actually controlling the characters and participating in gameplay is gone? Is such a short time (each of my watch-throughs came in at just over an hour) enough to build pathos? Thankfully the answers to those questions are “no” and “yes,” respectively. I cared quite a bit about what was happening and how my choices affected the characters and narrative because I was watching real people, not animated polygons. The actors, which were largely fantastic from top to bottom, lend both a more engaging, voyeuristic feel to the experience, as well as a tinge of the surreal. I’m used to character models doing what I tell them to do. I’m not used to characters in film doing the same.
The next question that begs to be asked is how much the player’s choices actually affect what’s going on in the narrative of Late Shift. As it turns out, quite a bit. I watched through twice for this review, trying my best to run things as differently as possible the second time through. For the first twenty minutes or so, my decisions may have led to some different dialogue or quick scenes, but everything still funneled to the same pivotal plot moment, and I’m not sure how much I really could have done up until that point that would carry over differently after. After that, however, things couldn’t have split more. For the next 45 minutes or so I’m not sure if I saw even one repeated scene until the final act, and even then, things played out much differently in those scenes that my previous run. What’s great about this isn’t just that it ads replayability, which is certainly does, but that your choices can fundamentally change the themes of the story and arcs of various characters. My first playthrough told the story of a young man thrust into circumstances out of this control, playing along to survive, as he slowly descends into the clasps of his inner beast. My second playthrough was much different, with our protagonist having to deal with the struggle of holding onto his morals and self while they constantly jeopardize and complicate his odds of making it through the night alive. [ad]s
Audio and Visuals
From a more traditional film-technical perspective, Late Shift is a well put together product. The blue-tinted color palate and atmospheric techno-light soundtrack are reminiscent of recent Fincher movies The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, which surprised me given the stitched-together nature of the product. I did have some issue with some of the sound, though. It’s very poorly balanced in places, with the music swelling far over the dialogue, making the optional subtitled near-necessary to catch everything being said. Also, for what it’s worth, I also noticed a decent handful of discrepancies between the subtitles and the spoken lines. There weren’t any meaningful differences, but they were there. These are relatively minor detractions though, and overall I was left very impressed with the production quality of the experience. Something with a higher budget may have been able to incorporate a few more gun fights or brawls, but I’ve seen a lot worse in the theater, and it’s certainly just as good as the flagship titles on Netflix or HBO.
Late Shift is a unique experience that I probably wouldn’t have given much attention too had I seen it pop up on Steam or elsewhere, but I’m very glad that our paths did cross. The few issues that it does have are easily outweighed by what it does right, providing a compelling experience that engaged me, and has me wanting more. Both endings I experienced left me with a completely different opinion on the story’s purveying themes, and I fully expect to watch through the story at least a handful more times to see what else I can change.
High production values, engaging story, quality acting, good balance of more and less meaningful decisions.
A few minorly janky transitions, occasional incorrect subtitles, and some sound balancing issues.