Take me straight to Episode 5!
Episode 1 - Aftermath
"No-one was surprised when the world ended. There was only one thing that no-one expected: that the world would one day start again."
These ominous words set the scene (and the tone) for Aftermath, the first installment of The Descendant, a post-apocalyptic episodic adventure from indie Swedish developer Gaming Corps. From the cinematic camera angles and overlaid titles of the opening scenes to the "Next time on The Descendant" trailer at the end, this is designed to be a television series in game form. That means we get slick production values and atmosphere aplenty, but also limited interactivity and a TV show length. Add in a predictable plot and one-dimensional characters so far, and after the first of five planned episodes, the series is off to a slightly shaky start.
As apocalypses go, this has to be one of the trendier ones: with mankind having failed to listen to the warnings, global warming has irreversibly messed up the environment, causing crops to fail, riots in the streets, crumbling governments, escalating international tensions and, ultimately, nuclear war. If only they'd found a way to work terrorism in there, we'd have a full house of contemporary worries. Fortunately, the politicians had just enough foresight to build a network of bunkers called Arks before the bombs dropped, where the lucky few would be held in cryogenic stasis until the radiation had died down and the world was habitable once more. Comprising a mere 4000 of our best and brightest (and a few politicians), these are the titular Descendants, a second chance for humanity. Watched over by sophisticated automated systems, each Ark also has a couple of Janitors, human technicians who can be woken from stasis whenever a serious problem arises.
Fast forward three hundred years or so, and it's time for the Arks to wake up. Most of them do, but one (Ark-01) stays stubbornly silent, so a two-man team is sent to look into it. As the story develops, the action jumps back and forth in time between these investigators in the present and Ark-01's two Janitors about three years after the bunker was sealed. You play as both Donnie, a former Janitor with a chip on his shoulder who’s now an investigator, and Mia, Ark-01's resident engineer. While Donnie makes his way into the Ark in modern times, Mia is awakened in the past to deal with a malfunction that threatens the sleeping Descendants. Add in a hint that this particular Ark's overseeing AI is an advanced but not-quite-finished prototype and you have pretty much the whole plot, at least of this episode. Just as things are starting to get going, with Donnie and Mia both making worrying discoveries, the credits roll on a cliffhanger ending.
Graphically, The Descendant looks great, particularly considering its small development team. Using the Unity engine, its 3D graphics have been given a lightly cel-shaded look that lends them a comic book feel, particularly for the main characters. At times, you could be forgiven for thinking that the four leads were filmed live and post-processed to make them fit in: the natural movements, lip sync and detailed textures make it hard to tell otherwise, at least during the cutscenes.
The environments aren't as detailed overall, and can look a bit clunky when they depart from their primary diet of shelves, tables and other simple shapes, but they still work pretty well for the most part. The biggest downside is that you spend essentially all of Aftermath in a utilitarian bunker, running around corridors with bare walls and concrete floors, with only pipes and stacks of boxes for company. The Janitors' main hub room manages some posters on the walls, and some deliveries from the "Surveilalot" security company raised a smile, but the setting as a whole feels a bit bland; thankfully, the closing trailer hints at more variety in the future.
Making up for this blandness, we get unusual angles and panning cameras during the cutscenes that really showcase the developers' cinematic aspirations and do genuinely add to the drama. Unfortunately, when it comes time for you to take over, those same cameras can get in the way: they're out of your control, and while they swing round or cut to a different viewpoint in an attempt to give you a better look, it doesn't always work. If you go in a direction the game expects, everything looks good, but if you don't you can find yourself walking into the camera with no idea what's in front of you, inching forward a step at a time until the angle finally swings round to show you where you are.
It also doesn't help that your movements feel awkward. Other than a few keyboard-based Quick Time Events, the controls are purely mouse-based – left-clicking to move, interact or look as appropriate – but your character’s response is always sluggish. Perhaps it's just because of the fluid movement in the cutscenes, but when you're in control the characters walk painfully slowly (or at most at a gentle jog, in times of crisis) and move mechanically by comparison. On occasion, I saw my character stand totally still and rotate on the spot through some kind of programming magic rather than turning naturally. Even in the heat of dealing with urgent issues, Mia moves at a languid pace, undercutting all the game's efforts to build tension.
Music is used, as in a film score, to emphasise significant moments rather than as a continuous background. As a result, much of the time you just have environmental effects for company, or at most a gentle ambient track. It only comes to the fore when events are at their most tense, awed, or frantic, when it breaks into pounding drums, urgent strings and guttural brass. It's very well done, as is the voice work, particularly during the cutscenes. Some of the isolated comments, such as when you look at objects around you, come off a bit flat and unemotional, but overall the four leads turn in a solid, professional performance.Continued on the next page...