A New Beginning review
Adventure Gamers Awards
Global climate change is not an issue that is going away. Open a newspaper, flick through the TV channels or turn on the radio, chances are the topic will be mentioned somewhere. The one place you aren’t likely to have seen it so far it is in video games, where the thought of fun doesn’t fit neatly hand-in-hand with self-induced environmental Armageddon. But now German developer Daedalic Entertainment has united the words “eco” and “thriller” in their latest adventure, A New Beginning. Hotly anticipated for its sensitive subject matter and distinctive hand-painted art ever since its announcement several years ago, the results have proven worth the wait, a few blemishes aside. If you’re sceptical that a socially conscious message can coexist with an entertaining storyline and engaging gameplay, set those fears aside, because this game manages it.
Don’t get the wrong idea: you’re not spending your time separating plastic from paper or screwing in energy-efficient light bulbs in A New Beginning. This is life, but not life as we know it. The story begins at its end: in the year 2500, when climate change has made the environment completely uninhabitable. The remaining survivors expect to be killed by an oncoming solar eruption, and a few small teams plan to jump back to 2050 in hope of preventing their annihilation by utilising their shaky time travel capabilities. The landing is successful, but nothing else is. London is flooded, Moscow frozen over and Sydney burning to the ground. Too late.
Gameplay begins in the present-day scenic mountainous landscape that is home to retired scientist Bent Svensson. With his bushy moustache and polo neck jumper, the middle-aged Bent is not your typical protagonist. Emotionally worn out from his years of research into algae as an alternative energy source, driven with dedication that took a severe toll on his family, lonely Bent is now pottering around his Norwegian cabin when a young woman named Fay lands in a helicopter, claiming to be from the future and fully convinced that Bent’s algae is the only way to stop the oncoming catastrophe. Bent is doubtful, of course, but listens as Fay explains how she arrived in her current situation.
Players then take control of Fay as she ‘re-enacts’ her story in telling it to Bent. This method of non-linear storytelling takes up the majority of the game’s first half (only popping back to the present day for a brief stint), which allows for some funny moments as Bent intercuts the story to question some of your decisions, either for humour or to nudge you in the right direction. As you soon learn, Fay originally landed in San Francisco, but it too was already in shambles. Upon realising that there’s been a miscalculation, she tries to regroup with the rest of her teammates in order to move further back in time.
Fay convincing Bent of Earth’s plight is really just the launch point for the remaining adventure. Once united, the real challenges begin. The ultimate aim is to convince the powers-that-be that Bent’s algae is the only solution, but everywhere they go the pair encounters resistance, from Bent’s former research station to an ecological summit to a power plant in the Brazilian jungle. At first it seems a little ingenuity may be enough to win the day, but proceedings become much more complicated when some shady deals start to become exposed, calling for more drastic measures. Each major location is made up of many different scenes that take a fair while to explore, doled out at a pace that has that ‘just another one’ feeling, especially in the last half of the game as the intensity ramps up and the characters and their relationships develop.
There’s a strong cast of characters as you venture through A New Beginning. Fay is a determined, strong-minded woman who is always trying to do the best thing, while Bent is a cynical and weary man. These two play off each other to great effect, and I found myself rooting for both of them in different ways: Fay in her desperate eco-quest and Bent in rebuilding a bond with his estranged son Duve. Then there’s Salvador, Fay’s commander and a rough man willing to stop at nothing to save humanity. His intentions are sound, but his demeanour is harsh and the path he takes in order to get there is questionable. Despite only making brief appearances, other people like the fanatical technician who is overly protective of his car and the odd survivor in 2050 who invites you to meet his invisible friends all make an impression, a testament to the diversity of personalities offered here. Everyone feels very real, very human, which makes them all the more believable and relatable.
The voice acting stands strong, for the most part. Nearly every character’s voice suits them perfectly: Bent’s exhaustion, Salvador’s bluntness and news reporter Oggy’s enthusiasm all come across as genuine, but some of the inflection, or lack thereof, is borderline cringeworthy in the more emotional scenes. The main offender is Fay, who delivers most of her dialogue in a similar tone whether she’s angry or sad, which I found hard to take seriously. She’s perfectly serviceable and by no means disastrous, but it’s a weak link that stands out. The only totally appalling performance comes from a secondary character, but luckily the role in question only has a couple of lines.
The English translation seems to have gone relatively smoothly as well. There are a few occasional hiccups here and there where the dialogue seems too formal, but the emotion and intent behind each line is still very much intact. Never are you grabbed by the shirt and force-fed an environmental message (but it certainly made me think about my role in protecting the planet), nor is this a one-sided debate, since ethical questions are raised on both sides and the extent to which people are willing to go to pursue their goals. And although the game is tackling a serious subject, occasionally it shows a humorous side, such as when a computer speech recognition system fails to function correctly or when a door guard gets defensive over his baldness.
Even if it had no words, simply looking at A New Beginning would be a treat. All the backgrounds are hand-painted and they’re nothing less than stunning. The use of colour and light is especially astonishing. Locales are distinguished from one another with different colour schemes: the interior of the scientific research ship is a mix of metallic browns and blues; the climate conference is saturated in deep purple as grey smoke from power plants fills the sky; and the green jungle portrays a more peaceful, natural environment as yet undefiled. These scenes are presented from a variety of different camera angles, sometimes displaying a cut-out cross-section or a bird’s eye view. There are some neat dynamic touches too, like a room becoming darker when its light source is obstructed or dust rising up in a light beam from the moon, and the world always feels active, whether it’s a raccoon scuttling across the floor or water gently rippling. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but these small visual touches all add up in building an immersive atmosphere.
All the cutscenes are presented as if in a comic book, separated into different panels complete with big speech bubbles. Sometimes the timing is off (creating some awkward pauses), but I grew to like the format over time. The character models are nicely designed, but they don’t physically emote as much as they could, generally keeping their hands by their sides most of the time, and they look their best the closer they are in the foreground. As they move further away, they become noticeably pixelated and don’t smoothly scale down. The biggest disappointment of all, however, is that none of this runs in widescreen, instead putting black bars down the side. It’s a shame that such a graphically compelling presentation in a modern release isn’t making use of all the space available.
The quality of the audio easily matches that of the game’s art. Attention to detail exists here too, like the sound of a helicopter’s rotor outside getting louder when you open the window or the patter of footsteps reflecting the type of material being walked on. Music doesn’t always play constantly, making it more powerful when it does, with bold, striking compositions punctuating some of the more climactic moments of the story. Elsewhere, while roaming Bent’s old lab, a melancholic string piece plays, evoking the scientist’s wistfulness for the past, while an eerie and haunting track underlines the desolate situation as you explore the ruins of San Francisco. The music complements the action well, but it could easily be enjoyed separately, as it’s wonderfully orchestrated.
The majority of puzzles are of the standard inventory variety, with some complex item combination necessary. These puzzles represent some of the most satisfying I’ve experienced in quite a while. My favourite was finding a way to cheat at a drinking game by manipulating the environment, but there are other clever puzzles along the way, like decoding someone’s private notes in order to track their movements or luring someone into a trap with information they have unwittingly revealed. In each case, your aim is always clear and the logic always sensible, though A New Beginning is not a cakewalk. Even when you’re confined to a single room with a limited inventory in a few instances, it is never completely obvious how to achieve your objective. Some standalone close-up puzzles are less conventional, like when you’re defusing a bomb or operating a telescope. These logic puzzles add some welcome variety into the mix and are quite inventive, but if they’re not your cup of tea, a skip button appears after a while. My only real complaint is that the very final ‘puzzle’ in the game is hardly worthy of being called such. It’s really more like an interactive cutscene than anything, but at least it helps keep the climactic momentum going.
A New Beginning utilises a point-and-click interface in order to walk around its 2.5D environments. To interact with hotspots, you must hold down the left mouse button and select from a variety of context-sensitive options. You’re always able to ‘look’ at something in order to garner a description, but options such as ‘drink’ or ‘search’ only become available when appropriate. Holding down the spacebar highlights all clickable objects on screen, which is really for convenience rather than necessity due to pixel hunting. Right-clicking brings up the inventory, which is separate for Bent and Fay, and it can be left open at all times if desired. Overall, the interface is simple, effective and hassle-free.
Unfortunately, the game stumbles in its technical competence, as it’s riddled with many small issues that erode what is otherwise a high quality experience. Every time you move to a different location the screen pauses for a few seconds (which becomes really bothersome in large environments that require moving back and forth between rooms); labels on an overhead map are unreadable; some audio is not balanced correctly (Bent’s stock “I can’t do that” lines always stay the same volume, regardless of the current situation), cuts off or plays the wrong dialogue line; and there are localisation issues such as text coming up with the German alternative. These are all really obvious issues and it just comes across as sloppy and disappointing that they’ve found their way into the final release.
A few technical failings aside, A New Beginning comes highly recommended. It’s not often that I consider a game hard to put down, but I found myself getting deeply invested in the plot as it unravelled thanks to its convincing characterisation and an increasingly gripping storyline. Although there’s an obvious environmental focus, there’s also a strong heart to the story and it’s this that powers your desire to play on. Any minor problems that arise are quickly overshadowed by the stunning artwork and the inventive, well-integrated puzzles, so whatever your view on global warming, do yourself a favour and shell out the green for A New Beginning.