Developer: Mike Bithell Games
Publisher: Mike Bithell Games
Platforms: PC, PS4 (review platform), Vita
I’m going to go on record and say I [with notable criticism] enjoyed Thomas Was Alone. Not in some pedantic or trivial sense of the word, but via an all-round acceptance that despite its appearance – of which a lot of people have (maybe for good reason, maybe not) criticized it – creator Mike Bithell’s take on the quirky, narrative-orientated 2D platformer was intriguing if not universally complete. Volume shares much of Bithell’s visual palette; fluid motion, strikingly bold colours, geometric arrangements, but the transition to 3D, albeit from a top-down perspective, does conjure further interest to be undertaken, both near and away from the narrative scope.
The tale of Volume is a lot more concrete, if not tangible, as is so often the case within the indie community. A rather near-future take on the classic Robin Hood lore; a petty thief stealing from the rich and powerful, giving back to the poor, becoming a beacon of hope and somewhat aspired empathy within the growing awareness of the larger populous. Or if you want to put it totally blunt: a homage to Metal Gear Solid’s VR training mode with its non-textured, flat-surfaced, sharp-corner simulations and simulation-style interface. Oh, and something about ‘streaming’ the main character’s actions to the online masses. Bithell hasn’t shyed away from the obvious influences here – both video games and contemporary culture alike – and truth be told there’s certainly pleasure to take out of this innocently self-aware, unoffensive delivery. The premise is rather simple and holds out enough to not feel stagnant or otherwise dominating; thief Robert Locksley goes about using a ‘Volume’ device to recreate, via VR simulation, heists of which are part of a unbeknownst military coup. All of which played to the backdrop of a dystopian, corporatocracy-run, future England that Locksley is fighting against.
The story swings to and fro before the player’s eyes – appearing in brief conversations between Locksley and the Volume’s AI, and make-shift companion Alan. There are of course, as VA to Alan humourist Danny Wallace – whom provided voice work for Thomas Was Alone as well – that offer the aesthetically British light-hearted take on humour and punch-line delivery and in most parts, the effort comes with a modest smile and genuine giggle in equal parts. Though the two-part dialogue, at times, overshadows the gameplay, this doesn’t necessarily detract from the game itself. Rather it benefits Volume’s flow by sprinkling a little glowing personality to the game’s rather artificially sterile and faux-perfect backdrop.
Anyone who enjoyed Wheatley’s clever human-robotic mish-mash of outspokenness (voiced rather brilliantly by Stephen Merchant) in Portal 2, will instantly get to grips with the back-and-forth one-up’s Alan and Locksley toss at one another. So it comes as a shame that narrative sequences appear to come and go as they so please. Often times you will chug through a dozen levels with zero dialogue and in others the reappearance of these two characters will come as something of a surprise. There’s nothing wrong in Volume’s rather random intrusion into the flow of gameplay, it’s just it would have been nice to have seen it present – and presiding over – just that little bit more.
Fortunately the dialogue doesn’t stem too far from the main game. Aside from the inclusion of temporary power-up’s and the introduction of differing enemies with varying shapes of ‘cone vision’, Volume rarely steps far from the initial mechanic of round-the-corner stealth and precision timing. Tension can come in abundance should you be spotted – whereby you’re given a limited time to find cover and hope to have the [artificial] guards lose your trail – but otherwise the natural progression through each of the game’s levels remains relatively the same: collect a certain amount of gems that lay scattered about the maze-like simulations and get to the goal without being spotted. Though your name does get plastered to player leaderboards, there’s little besides from the self-gratifying thrill to test one’s skill that makes Volume’s gameplay feel anything other than generally safe and locked-down.
Later levels do kick the difficulty up a notch and moments of haplessly, clueless ‘oh god what do I do, where do I go…FUCK’ panic do add a spark to the eventual whimpering affair. What’s more, contextual actions such as being able to distract guards or deactivating a barrier – knowing full well a patrolling guard could come up from behind and spot you – do help alleviate some of the stale repetition. It gives reason, and to that credibility, to the over-abundance of checkpoints (at least in later levels) that are found scattered throughout – subtly, but rightly, advising the player that careful planning and forward-thinking remain a high priority. What’s more, crucial plot-points and some rather befitting comedy-timing – one example being a rap song played over the apparent live-stream – do help in preventing the abundance of ninety-degree corners from feeling that bit deprived of aesthetic value.
Unfortunately, such is the game’s compartmental presentation that it only emphasizes what little else there is to attach one’s focus or interest to. The way levels are arranged, as mentioned, do offer intrigue into how many ways or means the player can accomplish their goal, but the game’s simplicity and reliance on self-made extension won’t appease everyone. For anyone who eventually grows bored, there are tools at one’s disposal to create custom levels and browsing through the online assortment, player creativity can become a dizzying cocktail of clever thinking and outright devilish cruelty.
But even a flick through user-generated treats only hinder – as opposed to complement – Volume’s genuine surface charm and slowly-sinking-in mechanical proficiency. A game built to look innocently simple on the outside isn’t new, but Volume works best when user interactivity isn’t at the cost (or rather, cover) of the core game’s limited efforts in delivery and presentation. Variety notwithstanding, Mike Bithell’s artificial-if-vibrant cyber-World is dazzling eye-candy f’sure and a perfect fit for that atypical just-one-more addiction that more often than not complements games of this level-by-level structure. The crucial sub-elements are all there to be used, abused and so on, it’s just a shame that Volume plays on its short-lived exhibitionist presentation so much so that it leaves the narrative and amusing dialogue standing rungs under the game’s already-dictated priorities. There’s plenty more mechanics and visual cues than what Thomas Was Alone may have offered, but as a whole, Volume may look a more complete and versatile follow-up of a package, it just doesn’t necessarily feel a better one.