Episode 4 - Cerberus
The fourth episode, Cerberus, certainly starts off with a bang. Or rather, a raging inferno that's almost certainly not accidental. Between escaping the fire and dodging the all-seeing eyes of the security cameras, the opening few minutes are action-packed. (They also do a great job of getting the adrenalin pumping with the threat of impending danger and making you feel like you just made it in time while actually being pretty forgiving.)
That sets the stage for a confident episode, and one that builds on the momentum from last time to leave us on the precipice of finally understanding what's been going on in Ark-01. Where previously the cake has been baked with a crispy top and bottom but a rather soggy middle, this confection is much better balanced. While it wisely doesn't try to maintain that initial hectic, breathless pace, there's a steady sense of progress as our heroes approach the heart of the Ark, both literally and metaphorically.
So far, the Janitors' quarters have mostly been the hub of proceedings, but the four protagonists have lately begun to cast aside this (relatively) cosy safety and wander farther afield. Picking up where we left off, this time we're breaking out of warehouses to explore caves, a subterranean monorail and what can only be described as an underground lair. Not to mention being led down corridors that look to have been built for giants and at last encountering the vault door that protects the most precious wealth mankind has left: the Descendants. All too often, previous environments have felt mundane: offices and corridors that could have belonged to any old industrial facility, with only intermittent hints that we're in a secret bunker at the end of the world. Now, at last, things are starting to feel a bit more exotic.
Without wanting to give away too much, it's also finally time for the Ark's all-encompassing artificial intelligence to come out from the shadows and reveal more of its true motives. Unlike the Cerberus of Greek mythology, it's a guardian not so much of the dead as the living, and it has heads and tentacles throughout the Ark. In one of the series' most quietly sinister scenes, a simple text-based conversation on a computer screen, the AI comes across as curious, alien, and coldly rational in its attempt to confront the invaders directly. Has it grown out of control, or merely become what it was intended to be? Is it a threat, or the key to saving the Descendants? And who is the real monster here?
To emphasise that last point, the signs of stress that have been building in one of the Janitors come into full flower here, with some powerful scenes of ranting nervous breakdown that manage to bring out the pain and confusion as well as the disturbed, threatening anger of someone put in an intolerable situation and left to go off the deep end. Or is that all there is to it? Was this part of some twisted plan, or merely a tragic side-effect? Either way, the investment Gaming Corps put into improved voice acting pays off handsomely again here, with performances that are deeply emotional without chewing too much scenery.
Character development also takes a seat at the top table. Donnie and Randolph get to spend some quality time together, as do Mia and Silas (though under rather more troubled circumstances). We learn a bit more about the Senator's history, gain a deeper understanding of Silas's views, and just generally get a better feeling for everybody involved. Mia is still a bit of a cipher, especially given the conflicting hints about her that are floating around, but her essentially decent nature shines through. The situations are still too tense to allow much in the way of banter, but at least these people feel more natural and human than merely (as in the first episode in particular) the living embodiment of stress and grumpiness.
Everything that comes into focus this time, every question that gets answered, winds up begging other questions. An AI running amok is a tired genre cliché, as is the character who gets pushed too far and loses it. Here, though, these issues are both handled in an intelligent, thought-provoking way that sidesteps the obvious. Perhaps by the time the dust settles, one will wind up powered down with extreme prejudice and the other shot or locked away, but it seems unlikely to be as simple as that. Even at this late stage, the story could still go in several different directions, and that's refreshing to see.
The puzzles continue to be straightforward but nicely varied. Escaping the fire turns the warehouse shelves into a small maze, while gaining access to the AI again uses logic puzzles as a surrogate for hacking. In between, you're distracting security systems, piecing together keycodes, tinkering with locks and rerouting the monorail. There's a bit more to see as you roam around, too, with a refreshing number of hotspots that are there for interest and colour alongside the ones you need to progress. While the emphasis continues to be on cinematic storytelling, this instalment does at least take a few tentative steps towards allowing you to find things out for yourself by exploring your surroundings.
Overall, Cerberus really shows this series coming into its own, building on the lessons that have been learned from the previous episodes. The painfully slow start and seemingly bland, cookie-cutter plotting have given way to something altogether more subtle and interesting, with its own distinct personality. The characters, too, are becoming more defined (at least by sci-fi genre standards) and the setting feels less like a half-finished/abandoned factory and more like the last refuge of humanity. The initial struggles to balance story beats with interactivity and puzzles also seem to have been resolved. It's been a steep learning curve, but with the home stretch in sight everything is really coming together, and I for one am waiting with bated breath for the conclusion.Continued on the next page...