Note: Since time of writing, this game has been enhanced and re-released on PC and iOS with HD graphics and full voice-overs. This review is based on the original iOS release.
Ah, the 1970s. Time of free love, bandanas, mustaches and bell-bottoms. War abroad and activism at home. The Cold War heating up. And a janitor named Joe who's quietly getting on with trying to save the world, cleaning up the biggest mess of his career. After ending last year's impressive free first episode on a cliffhanger, Danish developer House on Fire is back with the second (and concluding) commercial installment of The Silent Age, available now for iOS and Android. Can the sequel live up to the early promise and send the series out with a bang? The answer, for the most part, is yes – episode two may be more of the same, but that's no bad thing.
It's 1972, and Joe's a Vietnam vet who's now working as a janitor for the mysterious Archon National Defense Services. Not that anything's very mysterious in Joe's life, as he stolidly goes about his business, unfazed even by the drums of almost certainly toxic chemicals that are stored in his "office" (supply closet to you and me). Archon needed him to help them out, you see, and he obliged because that's just the kind of guy he is. They even gave him an award for it that he proudly displays on his wall. Life's good when you just keep your head down and don't question anything.
Until, that is, the janitor who does the top secret labs downstairs goes missing and they ask him to take over that job as well. (Just think of all the extra responsibility! Of course, they can't spare him any more money or give him a fancy title, but they're sure he knows how it is.) Down in the lab, everything's spick-and-span. Apart from the mysterious blood trail... leading to an old guy who takes a break from dying just long enough to tell Joe that he's come back in time to save the future, but got shot before he could complete his mission. Could Joe take the man’s handy-dandy pocket time machine and go visit his “present” (future)-day self to explain things?
Now, most people would be freaking out right around this point. Dead guys, time machines, only you can save mankind? It's a lot to cope with. But not for Joe. Not even when security arrives and finds him standing over the dead body, leaving him to try explaining all this to the police. Joe just gets on with things as best he can. Did his experiences in 'Nam make him this way, or was he just never a very curious person? Regardless, he makes a refreshingly understated change from your usual protagonist, being neither a gung-ho, super-confident hero nor a mousy type who never asked for this and spends the whole time in denial. He just takes it all in stride and gets on with the monumental task at hand.
That pocket time machine turns out to be central, both to Joe's quest and the game. Once he gets it charged up, it allows him to jump between his present in 1972 and the time the mystery traveller came from, 40 years in the future. (Which, by no great coincidence, happens to be pretty much the present day for us.) The world he jumps forward to, though, is very different than ours: it's a post-apocalyptic wasteland, deserted, broken and decaying. That old guy wasn't kidding about it being the end of the world!
The game makes much of the contrast between these two worlds: the vibrant, richly-coloured ‘70s and the grey, abandoned future. Pretty much every location you visit is accessible in both time periods and can be switched between at will, with a whoomph that sounds like an old-fashioned flashbulb. All the same fixtures and fittings are found in both versions, but where in the ‘70s they're shiny, new and well-maintained, in the future they're rusted, smashed and weather-worn. The fact that they're otherwise so similar, with the same objects in more or less the same places, gives an eerie sense that whatever killed the world, it happened fast.
The graphics and sound really help to underscore these differences and build atmosphere. The visuals in particular are delightful, in an understated, highly stylised way. Crisp and smoothly animated, they forswear detail for smooth gradients, creating a look that's clean and simple without being bland. There are also some nice environmental effects, such as showers of rain and dust motes swirling in the air. This is a very stylish version of the ‘70s, too: the time traveller's house in particular, when you eventually find it, looks like something out of a coffee-table architecture book, or the lair of a Bond villain. I almost expected to open the living room door and find the Rat Pack hanging out, drinking scotch and singing by the fire. Otherwise, Joe spends most of his time in austere, institutional settings such as the Archon offices/labs, a police station and a hospital. Of course, this wouldn't be an adventure game without a few detours into unexpected places; there's also a sewer, oversized ventilation ducts complete with a giant spinning fan, and a secret room or two. Not to mention a hip and funky ‘70s bar.
Aurally, you get sporadic ambient background music (usually serving to build up the eerie mood) and sound effects such as rustling, wind and rain. There are exceptions (such as that funky bar) but generally the soundtrack is effective without pushing itself forward too much, setting the mood without distracting you from the task at hand. It is noticeable, however, that quite a lot of it has been recycled between the two episodes.Continued on the next page...