by Johnathan Irwin
reviewed on PC
The field of US politics has become a tiring one. Somewhere between a carnival and a nightmare, it's just an absolute mess, even if it is often intriguing. The rollercoaster ride of the suits in DC is such a daily spectacle that it is easy to forget they are people; greedy people, but people all the same. Shape of America, a new indie RPG from kuklam studios, puts us in the shoes of an up-and-comer in a fictional version of the past two decades of the USA. Your goal? Working yourself up from being a nobody, to the occupying the most prestigious position in the land; the oval office, as President I might add. So, did Episode One shape up to be akin to House of Cards? Or the boredom of watching C-Span?
A Chance Meeting
October 31st, 1999. Players are dropped into the role of Nicolas Desma, a lowly waiter at a fancy restaurant. On the surface, it seems as though Nicolas is content with a life of monotony and ease. But all that changes when players meet Bernard Virgil. Virgil is a balding, old aged republican senator of 40 years who would rather spend his time in a friendly debate with a waiter than shaking hands with the movers and shakers in DC. Bernard is both a plot device, and the tutorial for what will make up a fair amount of the gameplay over the course of your time playing.
The game has a 'combat' system; no, we're not going to get into a fist fight with aging politicians, as fun as that would be. The combat system, called Throwdowns, is actually a debate system. Rather than picking from a series of dialogue options and experiencing an actual debate, you select from a series of 'moves' in an effort to get your opponent's confidence level to a lower number than yours over a set number of turns. Both player and opponent have access to the following moves: Abuse, Boast, Reflect, Rhetoric Devices, and if necessary, Give Up. Each category is pretty self-explanatory, and their effectiveness is based on who you're dealing with and how many times you rely on the same moves. The more you use an ability in a short period of time, the less effective it is.
This is one of the two primary gameplay mechanics, and what could've been (and should've been) fun just simply isn't. I know the game is meant to be a mix of serious commentary and satire of the US political system, but when I'm presented with debates I want to be able to actually debate my opponent; not a turn based battle system in its stead that oversimplifies things.
More Of A Graphic Novel
I don't think it's unfair to say that Shape of America is more of a graphic novel than it is an RPG. It has the same setup as most graphic novels, from hand drawn, mostly-static characters on static backgrounds to most of the gameplay actually being text based. In reality, there's not much 'game' like about them. You simply pick a person to go talk to and do so within the amount of action points allotted per day.
Still, Shape of America's first episode does try to drive home an interesting story. In some ways, it does but the immersion ends up broken a fair bit when certain characters utter words that seem to be out of character. Equally immersion breaking are several spot twists that even the blind could spot a mile away. These seriously lower the impact of the overall narrative in Episode One. Hopefully this is something avoided in Episode Two. The good thing about this type of game is that a quick patch can easily fix such issues, but at the time of writing these problems are still there.
While less tiring than real world politics, Shape of America's first episode fails to capture the intrigue, tactical ambition, and most offensively the platform for in-game debate that should make you feel good about getting the upper hand on your climb to power. When I start the game out as a waiter, I want to feel good when I beat a senator at his own game. I want to feel good when I talk my way through corporate and political big wigs. I want a sense of accomplishment, not a quick payout and a pat on the back. Shape of America's biggest flaw may be that it portrays politics as a machine with barely any emotion; and while that may be true to a point, at least the real thing has the thrill of debate and discussion.
Parody of US politics with some intriguing plot elements
Poorly chosen and implemented "debate combat system".