Subject 13 review
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.
There are some moments where you have a choice of dialogue during conversation, which generally fall into "nice" and "not-so-nice" responses, available at the bottom of the screen where captions also appear. I wondered if this feature would provide some semblance of branching gameplay, but it does not appear to, even in a minimal fashion. The only thing that seems to change is the immediate tone of the conversation. There are a few times when choosing one option or another prompts a character to be more forthcoming with information about Franklin's overall predicament, but this doesn't amount to much difference, either. The inclusion of such choices is appreciated, but it's nothing to get particularly excited about.
On the gameplay front, there are plenty of tasks you can expect to engage in as you attempt to figure out the nature of the island and its unseen overseer, such as bringing Hexacorp research equipment back online, bypassing locks and security systems, crossing dangerous chasms, and even operating strange machines that seem to fuse together ancient construction and futuristic technologies. While many objectives seem like work for the sake of work, even the tasks that would otherwise be nonsensical make sense in the context of Franklin playing the role of lab rat to an apparently omniscient being with unknown powers over the environment and its own goals and desires.
You can expect to encounter logic puzzles such as rearranging a toy organ's pipes to unlock its secret compartment and figuring out how to play tic-tac-toe without forming a straight line across the board, in addition to decoding a Mesoamerican number system and tackling several slider puzzles. While the slider is often met with dread by genre fans, Subject 13 puts a twist on the traditional version by challenging you to line up blocks with like symbols, rather than requiring a set position for each and every block. This has the welcome effect of allowing several equally valid solutions. In the end, each of these puzzles can be cracked in minutes, with a minimum of frustration.
There are also inventory puzzles, such as creating a crude magnet. I found these obstacles enjoyable to solve as well, but around the halfway point of the game, an inventory bug reared its head which caused me no end of trouble. This bug has since been patched out of the game, so be sure you’ve updated to the latest version before playing. I spent around twelve bug-riddled hours with Subject 13 the first time around, but when running properly it’s certainly much shorter than that, perhaps five hours or less, depending on how quickly you’re able to solve the various puzzles along the way.
Overall, the puzzles are more engaging than the story, running the gamut from easy to fairly challenging, but most are simply variations of types commonly seen in other titles. One puzzle, however, is a sci-fi tinged enactment of a well-known diversionary computer game not typically seen in adventures. I was initially enthused with its inclusion, but it ended up being a maddening exercise in trial-and-error that took me almost an hour to solve.
The game is divided into four chapters, and transitioning to the next chapter is possible only after solving the current section's final (and typically most complex) puzzle that in one way or another blocks the exit, and is heralded by a warning that any voice recorders not retrieved will be lost for the remainder of the game. The lack of a manual save system was an issue during my first, bug-laden playthrough, because the only way to restore the game to a previous state is to restart the chapter or the game altogether. However, the checkpoint system allows you to pick up right where you left off if you leave the game in the middle of a chapter.
A hint system is available for those times when you need a bit of a push to solve a puzzle. Clicking the icon will reveal a hint about how to proceed, though sometimes the "hint" will direct you to try a different puzzle than the one you are currently trying to solve. Successive clicks provide more information, sometimes culminating in an offer (at least for logic puzzles) to solve the puzzle for you completely. This particular feature can only be used once in the entire game, however, making it ideally suited for a puzzle (if there is one) that you simply can't solve by yourself.
The musical accompaniment is one of the highlights of the game, being comparable at times to the tracks featured in later Myst games, a comparison I do not make lightly. The score could best be described as New Age, with futuristic synth-heavy tracks occasionally accented with ethereal choral tunes that set an appropriately moody, downtempo atmosphere. In general, I found the music pleasant and relaxing, helping to provide an emotional layer that would have otherwise been absent, given the lackluster plot. A strikingly different musical cue is used for the moment a puzzle is solved, in the form of a short violin-based passage. Effects like the sound of an opening door or the tumbling of a lock are generally well done, but not remarkable.
The graphics are quite pretty, especially once the action moves outdoors, where the island's splendor is on full display. That said, there are some noticeable issues like a lack of variety in the locations available. There are really only three different types of locale, including the steel grey Hexacorp complex, the green vegetation and yellow sands of the island, and a jungle-like environment. Ambient animation, such as flying birds or flickering torches, are present in some scenes but sparsely used. In general, it seemed to me that the environments suffer from a sense of sterility and being "unreal." There are huts on the island, for example, complete with the accoutrements of daily living, but they feel more like set dressing than real places, an issue that applies to each location. Things are livened up by the presence of sci-fi mechanisms in places you wouldn’t expect them, but these do little to make the world feel authentic. Given your status as lab rat, it is possible this effect is intentional, a technique I've seen used to good effect in other titles. If so, it ultimately falls flat in this one; rather than instilling unease, it simply feels unconvincing.
The character models, too, suffer from an awkward quality, especially Franklin, whose stilted facial expressions are uncomfortable to watch during in-game cutscenes. Prerendered cinematics are passable, but have a muddy texture and suffer from a somewhat jerky presentation, though they are so few and far between that they don't really impact the game.
Overall, Subject 13 is a somewhat disappointing experience. While some mild intrigue occurs in the form of fairly obvious plot developments, whatever potential the story had is smothered under substandard voice work, uninspired writing and anti-climactic pacing. The puzzles, while plentiful and generally enjoyable, are fairly familiar and easy to solve, save for one which relies far too heavily on trial-and-error. The scenery can be beautiful, while the music and effective use of multiple perspectives are highlights worthy of praise, but ultimately even these better aspects can't lift the title above its basic limitations to reach its true potential.