Episode 3 - What Lies Beneath
The latest update to The Descendant brought both a new episode – Episode 3: What Lies Beneath – and some pretty significant changes to the previous two. Gaming Corps really seem to be listening to player feedback, and working hard to both sort out issues and polish their ongoing creation.
The most obvious change hits you straight away: there's a whole new voice cast. All the dialogue has been re-recorded, and the script has been tweaked a little here and there as well. At first this seems like a surprising move, since the previous cast were perfectly competent, if a bit bland at times. However, it soon pays off, as the new actors bring significantly more emotion and power to the table, resulting in much more engaging performances. At times things perhaps swing too far the other way, with even simple comments uttered like they're a matter of life and death, but overall I got a much better sense of the characters' personalities and just how tense and fractious they must be feeling. They felt like real people in a way they hadn't quite before.
In related news, the vocal upgrades have also made the conspiracy that was revealed in the second episode much clearer. We were supposed to overhear the plotters discussing their plans over the radio, but previously everything was too muffled to make out that much. Now it's like they left a door open and decided to speak up a bit, meaning I picked out a number of small but possibly important details that I totally missed before.
Aside from that and the usual bug fixes, there's also a save system of sorts now. Although you're still reliant on the game autosaving, you do get three slots to work with. Each slot, essentially, represents an independent playthrough, meaning you can make different choices without disrupting what you did the first time. In a game focused on the impact of your choices, this is very welcome.
With that taken care of, let's jump into What Lies Beneath. Here, at last, is Silas's turn in the spotlight. Where previous episodes have focused on engineer Mia and her efforts to repair the Ark's water heating and air filtration systems, this time it's Silas's medical skills that are called upon. Through a series of flashbacks, we also get to find out just what Silas was up to while Mia was hard at work; as it turns out he was having quite a torrid time of it! I won't spoil it, but his calm manner over the radio during those incidents belied what was actually going on. The strains of Janitorial life are clearly taking their toll, even as they give Silas's new voice actor a chance to shine. This section also makes innovative use of the QTE system, using it not so much to allow you to make a choice as to allow you to experience Silas's struggle.
This is also, finally, where the four protagonists' pre-Ark lives start to intersect, and we begin to see what their real motives are. On top of that, the Ark's administrators are also called into question when it turns out that Ark-01 was supposed to have twelve Janitors, not the two it actually received. The guys at HQ are even bandying about allegations of treason, when all any of the Janitors seem to be doing is trying to help. Previously, we've seen Donnie undergoing fragments of a rigorous post-incident interrogation. Was that because he and Randolph failed, or because they succeeded too well and uncovered something others would rather was left buried?
This episode's title is well-chosen, as in addition to the hidden motives that are coming to light, Donnie and Randolph spend their time delving into the Ark's lower levels. Randolph is clearly searching for something down there, but what?
This, unfortunately, is where things come a little unstuck. Just as the plot seems poised to reach a boil, thanks to the series' most gripping opening yet, it's all put on pause while you spend the middle third of the episode running around fixing computers and trying to get a keycard upgrade that will let you into the really interesting parts of the Ark. The puzzles here are solid enough, asking you to flip switches, play with wires, mess with circuit boards and, for some reason, solve some simple mazes. The problem is more that it feels like busywork and comes in one uninterrupted block. Ironically, a glitch that (currently) lets you skip most of it when you replay the episode on the same save actually helps the flow of the story.
Initially, it also feels like this section is an excuse to re-use existing locations, as you're sent to the water heating room, the air-filtration tower and the communications room (where the conspirators were conspiring). However, these have all been fleshed out over what we saw before. Even if they hadn't, between Silas's infirmary and the large basement area, there's plenty to explore – at least, so long as you like industrial architecture. The only slight niggle is that as you walk around the maze of corridors, the constant flicking from one fixed camera to another makes it all too easy to get disoriented.
One other place where I feel the episode trips up is during an early puzzle where you're trying to gain more access to the computer. Throughout the story so far, the Ark's AI has been a brooding, menacing presence, waiting to punish you for your interference. Each time, you've been able to largely or entirely evade such consequences by making the right choices (and it's very clear that there are "right" and "wrong" choices). Here, as you might expect, too much tinkering will come back to bite you, but on the other hand it also unlocks some nice insights into Silas's life before Mia arrived. It's a shame, then, that you're encouraged to stay away from them – or at least, replay the episode after you've read it all.
Overall, however, the puzzles here are another small victory for the series. The emphasis this time is mostly on abstract problem-solving, manipulating machines rather than inventory items, but it's definitely a step forward in terms of both quality and quantity. Things started slowly and easily in the first episode, but as time has gone on there's been more and more to do, and the difficulty level has also been rising a little. Not enough to challenge a seasoned adventurer, maybe, but plenty to keep your attention without alienating the broader audience the developers are targeting.
Once over the half-time hump, the pace starts to pick up again. Donnie and Randolph have a narrow escape, possibly because they're getting too close for someone's (or something's) comfort, while Mia wakes up alone and disoriented. As the credits roll, they're all preparing to face the unknown, and quite possibly their destiny. After a slow start, the story is finally starting to clarify, the threads are intertwining and everything is building nicely towards a final showdown.
What Lies Beneath wraps a stellar top and tail around a slightly soggy middle act, and sprinkles it all with some solid puzzling. After being on the fence early on, I'm really starting to warm up to The Descendant, and am now eagerly awaiting the arrival of Episode 4.Continued on the next page...