French video game designer Paul Cuisset may not be a household name, but many gamers are likely familiar with at least some of his work that spans the last 25 years. Though best known for 1992's Flashback, a "cinematic platformer" similar to Prince of Persia, some may also be familiar with his earlier work on traditional adventure games, including Future Wars and Cruise for a Corpse. His latest title, Subject 13, marks a return for Cuisset to his adventure gaming roots, one of the many acclaimed designers who have made their way back to the genre through Kickstarter.
The homecoming isn’t altogether triumphant, however. The game certainly has some highlights, such as an excellent hybrid control scheme that successfully merges immersive first-person puzzle-solving with third-person navigation, and a soundtrack that is highly atmospheric. Unfortunately, it is also marred by several problems that prevent it from rising above mediocrity, including a lackluster story and poor voice acting, along with a selection of puzzles that, while mostly fun, are nothing adventure gamers haven't seen before.
The plot revolves around the experiences of Franklin Fargo, a physics professor who has decided to end his life after his fiancee was tragically killed in a mugging. Upon starting a new game, players are greeted with a dramatic if somewhat cliched sequence: from a submerged vantage point, we see Franklin’s car crash into the water, and watch as he slowly descends to his would-be grave, a locket photo of his late fiancee sinking slowly with him… until a flash of light surrounds his body, and he disappears. Moments later, he wakes up in a strange mechanical pod, as a voice greets Franklin and simultaneously leads players through a basic tutorial.
You’ll soon discover that Franklin is on a now-deserted island for the unknown purposes of the being who's now acting as his guide. While the overarching goal is to help Franklin understand how and why he was brought here (and ultimately how to leave it), I was eager to delve into the game's other promising mysteries, such as the identity of the disembodied voice and what it wants with Franklin, and the purpose of Hexacorp, the research organization that set up shop on the island some years ago. Indeed, there are several aspects of the plot which seem to have been inspired by one of my all-time favorite TV shows, LOST. However, for a game that touches on such diverse themes as the nature of destiny, the role of choice in our lives, and cause-and-effect, the way it unfolds is simply not that interesting, and the few hours it has to tell its tale are simply not enough time to build up the mystery to a satisfying degree.
In addition to containing well-worn tropes, such as casting early doubt on the true fate of Franklin's fiancee, the writing in general is uninspired and even awkwardly worded at times. The way backstory is handled also leaves a negative mark on the overall storyline. Essentially, you can collect voice recorders scattered around, which contain notes and memos from several past Hexacorp employees that provide insight into the nature of the island and their work, including the tension between them and the island's native inhabitants, a Mesoamerican-inspired people called the Hunapu. Most are optional, though some are collected automatically upon completing certain activities, like solving a puzzle. If you wish to refer back to them at any time during the game, you can simply click the notepad icon and a list of all recordings found, sorted by date, appear for easy navigation.
In general I support this storytelling technique, because it fills in extraneous detail that would otherwise be impossible to show yet isn't ultimately necessary. While this does happen in Subject 13, there are issues with the way it is executed, such as a disconnect between the pacing of the main story and the extra details provided by the "testimonies," as the game calls them, leading to moments of anti-climax. For instance, by the time a major plot point regarding Franklin's arrival on the island is revealed, it has already been well-established by fairly obvious hints provided in the backstory, depriving a significant revelation of its intended impact. The game also tries to raise deep philosophical questions, but simply fails to so in any meaningful way. By the final act, the story leaves several questions behind even as it answers others. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it would help if the answers given were actually satisfying.
Better interweaving of the backstory with the main plot would have alleviated these problems somewhat, as would fleshing out the characters more fully, but even these improvements would have been undermined by the voice acting issues. While the actors have pleasing enough voices, the delivery of their lines is terribly flat for the most part, and does nothing to help transcend the underwhelming script. Perhaps more problematic is that there are two voice actors and five distinct roles to fill, three male and two female. While it is common to have one actor performing several roles, usually the actor will affect a different voice for each character. Not so in Subject 13. While the female actress does an adequate job of changing voices for her roles, Franklin Fargo and another male character heard in the voice recorders are audibly indistinguishable from one another.
Gameplay begins in first-person, which is a bit surprising for a game billed as a third-person adventure, but it establishes Subject 13's hybrid first-person puzzle-solving/third-person navigation control scheme, each sharing the same core features in a fairly standard point-and-click interface. The opening moments provide a taste of how puzzle interaction will occur throughout the game. During first-person sequences, you can use mouse-based gestures to turn items around (while holding down the right mouse button), press buttons, or apply another object to it from inventory, in addition to being able to zoom in on important details, such as a lock on an old trunk that requires manipulation before inserting a key.
Once you exit a close-up, you are taken to the third-person mode where navigation takes place. These scenes are viewed from a semi-fixed vantage point, and use the same basic techniques to interact with the environment, including the ability to slightly shift the camera to get a better look at something, like a computer terminal in a corner of the room. Holding down the left mouse button over a hotspot brings up a contextual menu for options such as looking at, interacting with, and zooming in for a closer look. When selecting objects that are particularly far away from Fargo's current position, the developers had the foresight to make him automatically run to close the distance.
I found the hybrid perspective to be a great compromise between the immersiveness of first-person and the nausea-avoiding advantage of third-person movement. While some gamers might find the constant shift in perspectives to be off-putting, for those like myself who suffer from motion sickness it is a great option that allows greater puzzle interaction without sacrificing accessibility.
As a final note on the controls, the inventory sits in the lower left corner of the screen, and provides one-click access to any item currently in your possession. Clicking on an object fades the screen to a first-person view similar to that used for puzzles, with the item shown on a darkened background. From here, the same methods of interaction apply, allowing closer inspection and manipulation, including combining another item with the one currently displayed.Continued on the next page...