Developer: The Chinese Room, SCE Santa Monica Studios
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
No longer can I proclaim there’s been zero games set in my local area. I’m still a little North (and some thirty years in the future) of rural Shropshire, but I digress. There’s no denying Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture has something of a familiarly personal and recognizable demeanor to it. A native country bumpkin or not, Santa Monica & The Chinese Room’s decision to focus on the mid-80’s rural aesthetic of merry old, conservative England is an interesting one, as is the rather British equivalent to the often vulgar and rather monochrome post-apocalyptic/calm-after-the-storm take on the less-pleasant genres of story-telling. But rather than tense stand-offs and sweat-inducing pacing akin to…say…a British flick like 28 Days Later, Rapture takes it upon itself to progress matters at a walking-pace…literally. Your objective: figure out just what the hell has happened to this rather peaceful little community whilst soaking in as much of the scenery as one’s eyes can process.
It’s a bit of an odd mix, yet it goes without saying Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture somehow manages to make you feel both humble yet inescapably anxious as to what’s been shown. More engrossing than anything The Order 1886 could deliver and perhaps just as impressive, if not more, than what Metal Gear Solid 5 is sure to bring in the coming weeks. Be it the deciduous variety of flora, the littered array of nick-knack items or the simulation of weather, Rapture’s World seldom fails to deliver a feeling of awe. I say seldom as the casting of shadows do offer abrupt pixelation in the worst case scenario and the game does at times delve a little too much into the surreal – reflections of objects cast in rather physically-impossible regions one that might have slipped past the testing net. But small hiccups aside, there’s very few sections that don’t deserve at least a moment or two to simply stand and marvel at. Even something as simple as strolling through down a road and coming to the inevitable bend are oddly infatuate.
The simulation of light and weather patterns only emphasize the game’s keen eye to detail and persistence in ironing out any unworthy creases in an otherwise proud complexion. Whether that be the reflection of rain on muddy ground or the way the transitioning of clouds alters the levels of brightness at random points in-game, the environmental processes genuinely impress. Sound design more so only pushes the game’s relevancy as a place of both immersive joy and inescapable sorrow. Replicating the game’s mysterious, intangible state and at times – one moment involving a choir of voices singing to what feels like a trance-like state of night skies and illuminated off-road paths – pushes the game further (and at times, so much so it feels a little too jarring) to create something altogether more evocative and engrossing. Yes, rapture’s soundtrack takes the biscuit f’sure and whether that be through a melancholic piano ballad or an assemble of choir voices, the music knows when and when not to elevate the context of the plot/story towards more celestially higher planes. Hardly does the self-gratification feel pretentious or otherwise self-serving, because unlike like a lot of games out there, the characters, events and situations – sci-fi elements excluded of course – Rapture doesn’t need to be seen to believed. Yes you can see it, and what a view it is, but the game can often triumph when all is still and the characters present are all you have for company.
Performance wise the game, though far from the treasured 60FPS, does make sure to keep as consistent a flow as it can sustain. Shadows can at times drop significantly and drape sluggishly across the ground and this does break the immersion factor in parts, but the game’s benefit in masking its potentially off-putting frame-rate is its investigative nature and the very way the World slowly opens out to the player – inviting us in, subsequently closing in around us as we sink deeper in. Not once did I come up against any glaring loading or rendering spots and while there’s little demand to keep up with the player’s pacing obviously, it only added to the initial interest I had in exploring the little nooks and cranny’s off the beaten track. Voice acting and character animations, which serve to expand the events leading up to the game’s beginning – and are delivered through well-performed, well-managed segments of peculiar orange-white animations – excel likewise and make the game feel equally like a [not shit] television drama or soap opera. Better still, playing on my rather close-to-home knowledge: it feels like a genuine everyday scenario revolving around a gossiping village. All friendly on the surface but secretly distrusting of a select few rather foreign personalities behind closed doors.
There’s clear intent to emphasize the skepticism and friction between certain characters so it’s a shame that this isn’t pushed or expanded upon in later chapters. Given the roster’s direct personalities and greatly directer inevitable clash of words do serve as one of the game’s main emphases – the player, more often than not, a passenger riding shotgun to the story being told. But as to the interactivity and actual gameplay, aside from a few contextual doors, rotations of the DS4 to unlock additional narrations and listening to taped recording littered about the village, the game slowly begins to wane from being fascinating and slowly becomes a prolonged lull. At times in open fields or back-tracking through a labyrinth of already-visited houses or buildings, a run or even light-jog button would have proved more than useful. Instead you’re left to casually walk your way back and back again through areas previously investigated. But even when the correct route is found and an entirely new home is spotted (and thus routed through like some off-kilter kleptomaniac), the lack of reward or useful information makes the journey feel all the more pointless. Suggestive maybe, persuasive at parts too, but the game’s particularly static delivery of story-telling through its interiors or its blood-covered objects for the most part don’t always suit the time invested or reap greater benefits within the general experience.
There are often multiple routes one can take to get to the next area, but a change in locale or slightly cloudier/wetter variety in weather aside, one’s humble curiosity can often be left far from quenched. Don’t be surprised if, signposts and look-out spot’s aside, the lack of a map leaves you lost for direction – requiring you to orientate yourself and look out certain landmarks or notable buildings to readjust. What’s more, come the closing section of the game, should you have missed a story conversation here or a vocal snippet there, you’re consequently locked out of the closing scenes to the game, resulting in you going off on a blind treasure hunt of sorts – map not included – to pick out that last two, three, four conversations. A somewhat trustee ball of light acts as your go-to beacon and helps guide you through the locale, but again, I found myself wandering in circles uncertain on how to advance the mechanics of the game’s progress.
The lack of player-involvement will put plenty of people off and in some rather glaring situations, the scenery can often add to the frustration more so than it distracts from it. But there have been games convicted of much worse examples of the same principle, what’s more Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture is despite all this still an interesting and gripping tale of unconventional story-telling where the pages to the tale are again left for us to find, as well as discover. From a development stand-point though, The Chinese Room deserve unanimous praise for the production and effort slotted behind all this. And given we live in an age of overdone reassertions of ‘classic’ art-styles done for past-generation nostalgia, it’s nice to see a studio trying an 80’s look from a new and impressively fresh perspective. A flawed experience definitely, but far from a doomed one. Chock full of untapped potential, the mystery and anxiety behind Rapture’s 80’s rural apocalypse is very much palpable. As they say on these British Isles of ours: keep calm and carry on.