Adventure Gamers Awards
Imagine a world where death is no longer final, where precious memories are saved to enjoy forever, where your “soul” is immortal. Master Reboot unfolds inside a Soul Cloud, a virtual reality created by the Mysteri Foundation. Here people can upload the memories of near-death family members and recreate their personas online so anybody can visit them long after they’ve passed away. It’s the promise of eternal life through the miracles of technology.
Here in this artificial afterlife you’ll find an unusual adventure game that incorporates mechanics from a wide variety of other genres including platforming, stealth, arcade, racing and even first-person shooters. Master Reboot abandons traditional conventions in favour of its story and breaking boundaries, and in general it does so very well, though not without some noticeable fragmentation and a lack of ingenuity in puzzle design.
You play the game as a visitor to the Soul Cloud. Your identity and who are you visiting are revealed as you progress and put the pieces together. For every soul uploaded into the cloud, the Mysteri Foundation creates a personal town with buildings that hold important memories from the deceased. The particular village you’re in serves as the hub to the game’s levels, which represent the most important periods in your host’s life.
Although the real point is to discover more about the Mysteri Foundation and determine the identity of both yourself and the owner of the memories you’re accessing, progress is made by overcoming challenges and puzzles in these self-contained worlds, thus progressing and unlocking more memories. A lot of this will be familiar territory for adventure gamers: Decoding an unknown language to obtain a password, memorizing the order in which bells toll, getting out of mazes. But for every traditional puzzle you encounter, the game surprises you with an unexpected mechanic that makes this game so hard to label and predict, like a flight for your life from a killer robo-teddy bear.
Movement in Master Reboot works as generally expected in first-person, free-roaming games. You move forward and strafe with the keyboard or controller stick and look around with the mouse or the other stick. There’s also a general purpose key or button to interact with the world, one for running and another for jumping.
Both the mechanics and tone of each level are designed around the significance of the episode in your host’s life, much like levels in Psychonauts were built around the psyche of each character. For instance, one of the first levels you are able to explore is the “Childhood” memory. Since Through the Looking Glass was a notable book for this person when they were young, you cross a mirror to find yourself in a bedroom where the furniture is huge (or are you tiny?), as when Alice drinks the potion.
In the “School” memory you have to solve a series of puzzles related to the art, music and science lessons for the level to be completed. In the case of the science puzzle, you must recall the order of the planets in our solar system and arrange them in an interactive space sequence. This may be thematically pertinent here, but after a while it starts feeling like Master Reboot recycles the need to memorize and reproduce patterns in puzzles far too much. The problem with most of these is that they feel rather arbitrary and at odds with the captivating narrative. You’re dealing with episodes of a past filled with intense emotions, fears and heavy psychological drama, but resolve many of them by repeatedly mix ‘n matching shapes, an activity that provides no depth to the underlying theme and feels irrelevant.
Other memories rely more on exploration and finding objects that need to be picked up or activated. These are more reminiscent of experiences like Gone Home or Dear Esther, where the focus is not so much on inventory puzzles but rather providing an understanding of the central character’s feelings in order to create a deeper immersion into their world. These sequences fit the psychological nature of the game much better than trivial intellectual challenges.
As you slowly unravel the dark stories around the morally dubious Soul Cloud, the game also gets increasingly terrifying. The “Flight” memory has to be one of the scariest moments I’ve experienced playing videogames, forcing me to pause the game like a wimp. You must escape a creepy stewardess by means of stealth (staying out of her line of sight) and quickly fleeing through the labyrinthine air ventilation shafts. This sequence features distressing footsteps, voices and whispers and other eerie sounds that complemented the disturbing emotional atmosphere as I felt her drawing closer and closer. The jump scare happens when she’s finally upon you, before restarting the horrifying chase from a few seconds earlier. It’s one of the highlight levels of the game for its succinct, elegant and effective ability to maintain suspense.
Unfortunately, that level won’t be the first or last time you will face mazes in the game, and the same scary sounds get reused continuously, eventually losing their impact. The musical pieces are more diverse, however. They tend to be on the minimal side, but some of the game’s defining moments are accompanied by dramatic songs that stand out from the rest. Voices are rare in Master Reboot; other than the Soul Cloud A.I. giving instructions in an appropriately monotonous tone and a shady antagonist who takes the form of a girl, it’s mostly a lonely experience.
Master Reboot is nothing if not an ambitious game. It drops you at the beginning on an island, with no explanation or pointers as to what’s happening, pushing you blindly into a journey of discovery in every respect. You never know what to expect. You may find yourself looking for buried treasures on a beach, shooting targets in a circus, platforming inside a gigantic dollhouse or just taking a stroll through the forest and carefully aiming your axe at trunks to log your way through.
The game's diversity extends to its visuals. Featuring a slightly blocky but clean, distinctive 3D art style, the scenarios are so different from each other that it’s hard to believe the various worlds were all created by the same people. They range from trippy, Tron-like graphics with skewed geometry and a dreamy circus scene bathed by moonlight cutting through a Ferris wheel, to imposing cathedrals and bloody hospital hallways. They are awe-inspiring, incredibly imaginative, and deserve to be displayed at the max settings as a lot of the beauty relies heavily on complex lighting and shadow features.
A few of the locations are not as remarkable, but nothing does as much harm as the amateur-looking 2D art. This is Master Reboot’s unforgivable sin #1. During the game you’ll find collectible rubber ducks. These contain the messages that family and friends have sent to their lost loved one, which is one of the ways the game reveals background and context about what’s going on and why you are there. The other way is by completing the memories, which always reward you with a cutscene. Both are presented in a completely out-of-place style that looks like crude anime fan art drawings and diminishes the quality of the whole package.
Unforgivable sin #2 is the final chapter of the game, a sequence so frustrating to play that it feels like a work of evil and not of love. It features a timed platforming event – a device never used to that point – which breaks the whole difficulty balance. It’s there for the sake of making the ending harder, but it feels like a punishment for all the time you’ve invested. I was tempted to quit in disgust when first playing through it, especially after my attempt to restart the sequence resulted in being dropped at a checkpoint way, way before it. Gah! A final revelation in the middle of this level proved too exciting to let go, however, and it was well worth the extra effort to persevere.
Despite its drawbacks, my overriding impression of Master Reboot is a positive one thanks to its beauty and puzzling story that even now has me putting pieces together in my mind. It’s hard not to compare it with To the Moon, as both feature traveling through memories and putting them together to unravel hidden truths. The difference is that To the Moon is more concerned with heartwarming relationships while Master Reboot deals more with existentialism and the ethical implications of toying with life and death. That’s not to say it ignores its characters, but we get to know them only through documents, so the connections don’t feel as intimate. The result is an eerier game that induces fear more than sympathy.
I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending Master Reboot to any adventure fan because of its audacity and uniqueness, though it does come with the necessary caveat that you’ll need to be prepared for some action gaming as well. While it could have used more cohesion between the story it seems to want to tell and how it plays out, it’s a fantastic experiment in breaking traditional boundaries and expectations, providing more than few satisfying surprise moments in a compact 6-10 hour adventure.