by Preston Dozsa
reviewed on PC
When the world ends in fiction, there always seem to be a few survivors who huddle up underground to wait out the nuclear winter / ecological storms / alien invasion, trying to continue living with the chosen few of humanity’s best and brightest. Occasionally, as in The Descendant, those humans will eventually work their way back to the surface to restart humanity and bring about the return of civilization.
An episodic adventure game, The Descendant: Episode 1 takes that idea of restarting humanity and promptly shatters it on the ground with poor gameplay, strange pacing choices and an extremely awkward narrative. If I had it my way, the humans in The Descendant would have stayed in the bunkers forever.
Two characters, two timelines
The Descendant places you in control of two characters: Mia and Donnie. Both are so-called ‘janitors’, assigned the task of maintaining the facilities that house the remnants of humanity while they cryogenically sleep for a few hundred years until the outside environment is safe to inhabit. However, both characters live in different time periods. Mia lives in the past, when the bombs first fell, and she is periodically woken up to service the ‘Ark’ she resides in. Donnie lives several hundred years after the bombs fell, tasked with the opening of Mia’s Ark and waking up its inhabitants. The game switches between the two characters periodically as you progress, making decisions that affect how humanity will survive.
From the start, it is apparent that The Descendant suffers from a pacing problem. Specifically, the game will switch between characters with very little action taking place. The game starts on Mia, but before you so much as make a choice or move a character, you flash forward to Donnie. After talking with a coworker as Mia, you will change over to Donnie, whereupon you click on two doors and switch back to Mia. It’s a very strange system, as you never really get to stay with a character for too long and often don’t make any choices while in control of a certain character.
This problem is made worse by the complete absence of personality each character has. I know nothing about Mia after playing the game. I don’t know what her personality is, what kind of person she is. The only thing I can say for certain is that she is an electrical engineer - and that’s because I said so in a dialogue option. I don’t know if I was lying. Mia could be a nuclear physicist for all I know, yet the game reveals nothing about her. Donnie is slightly better, in that he has a disdain towards politicians, but nothing else is revealed alongside that. He is a janitor, and that’s about all the characterization you are given.
As a result, I did not care for the lives or fates of any of the characters in the story. They are almost always defined by their jobs, with the politician the only character who has some degree of personality. Dialogue options are limited, with few having any meaningful impact despite the ever present “Name will remember that” popping up on the screen every so often. I never got the sense that I should invest myself in the future of humanity, instead wishing that someone would stop talking about how important their mission was.
Poor gameplay, poor puzzles
The game can be controlled entirely through the mouse, and entirely through the left mouse button at that. You click to walk, click to interact with objects and click dialogue boxes. That’s about it. There is always only one option for any object that you can interact with, which is to examine it, as the characters will always pick up usable objects by themselves. The limited interactivity pales in comparison to most other adventure games, and it made me not care about anything besides trying to solve a puzzle as quickly as possible.
Speaking of puzzles, it would be generous to call the puzzles in The Descendant easy. The most difficult puzzle in the game is to click on a bunch of boxes in order to find a spare part. There are maybe five or six puzzles in the first episode, all of which can be solved very quickly. There is no challenge to them, and it became tedious whenever the game stopped to force another awkwardly designed puzzle to the mix.
The one interesting aspect about The Descendant is the number of lives lost depending on your actions. In the first episode, your actions may or may not result in the deaths of people under your care. Different choices, though I have yet to see which, may cause more deaths. While this is dependent on the remaining episodes, this mechanic adds a compelling angle that could change the game for the better.
Tedious, bland and bizarre
As the first episode stands, however, The Descendant is a poor adventure game that fails to engage the player on every front. It is tedious, bland and bizarre. This may be the first part of the game, but it’s a game I wouldn’t recommend anyone to try.
Death mechanic interesting
Poor gameplay and narrative make for a boring experience