Episode 5 - Ultimatum
Here we are at The Descendant's grand finale, Ultimatum, and I'm sad to say that the series goes out not so much with a bang as a damp squib. All the tension built up by recent episodes is squandered in favour of a plodding last-act opener that jumps straight into exposition overdrive as it tries (not entirely successfully) to tie off all the dangling plot threads and set up a moving conclusion. There are some dramatic moments, to be sure, but also a heaping helping of startling revelations and confused motivations.
Where last time we were thrust straight into the action in trying to escape a burning fire, this time we flash back to Donnie's time as a Janitor on Ark-42. The all-clear has been sounded, and it's Donnie's job to help wake up the Descendants. Jumping back and forth between his past work there and his present efforts in Ark-01, it's potentially a clever way both to draw parallels between the two and give players a tutorial on how the resuscitation process is supposed to work. Unfortunately, what we actually get is mostly busywork: reading numbers off a clipboard, looking things up on a chart and playing spot-the-odd-one-out. With everything going according to plan at Ark-42, for the most part at least, it's also pretty relaxed and that feeling bleeds over to the present day. It's as if all the problems he's overcome to be there never happened and this is just another routine mission.
On the upside, the Descendant chamber does make for quite a spectacular environment: an enormous tank, several stories high, full of cryopods and robotic mechanisms, it's all a sci-fi fan could want. That's just as well, though, as it's identical in both Arks – down to the last bolt, as Donnie remarks – and also pretty much the only setting you'll see this time.
If the slow introduction was all about taking a breather before the twisting, turning, action-packed finale kicked in, that would be one thing. But literally as soon as it has built up to this episode's only tricky puzzle, all the pent-up story points come flooding out in a couple of extended cutscenes that throw out bombshell after bombshell in a headlong rush to the end. Most of it seemingly comes out of nowhere, too, and frankly left my head spinning. Looking back over previous events, much of it at least makes some sense in retrospect, but perhaps the most central plot point feels like it was lifted straight from a Bond villain's bumper book of evil plans. To me, it was totally out of place and would have needed a whole lot more foreshadowing to make it palatable. On top of that, having spent four episodes establishing the lead characters, some of the motivations they finally reveal at the end don't gel with their behaviour up to that point.
Episodes of The Descendant have never exactly been feature-length, but this time you're done and dusted in little more than half an hour. And even that's composed of about twenty minutes of fairly routine gameplay followed by a quarter-hour of frantic wrap-up. Some of the narrative strands I found most interesting are just left dangling, or at best addressed only vaguely. And one new point is raised, seemingly only to be left unanswered.
That's not to say the Ultimatum experience is a total loss. There are some stirring words mixed in with the monologuing, and we at last get a decision with consequences beyond tweaked dialogue, leading to three variant endings. Donnie's final speech, in particular, is powerfully done and made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. There's also a fun (if easy) little arcade game to break up the cutscenes. It just feels like such a missed opportunity, and came as a personal disappointment after all the hopes I had for the grand finale. That said, some of that is probably down to my own eagerness to read more into what was going on than was actually there. In any case, the series' slow start now makes even less sense than it did; that would have been the perfect time to lay the groundwork these final scenes so sorely needed to have any impact.
Now that we've reached the end of the journey, The Descendant looks more than ever like a mixed bag. One definite highlight throughout has been the glossy, cinematic production values: it looks and sounds great, especially after the mid-season change of voice cast. The dramatic angles, often moving dialogue and stirring music are worthy of Hollywood. Gaming Corps also deserves praise for being so willing to polish their game along the way, releasing regular updates that didn't just fix bugs but also added graphical upgrades and even new areas to already-released episodes.
From there on, though, things get a lot more uneven. The characters took a long time to establish themselves, relying on behaviour rather than background to fill in the details, but they came to feel like (admittedly flawed) friends. Good-hearted Donnie bickering with smoothly political, enigmatic Randolph. Pragmatic, determined Mia. Silas wrestling his demons but trying to do the right thing. It’s just a shame that some of their personalities slipped a bit in the end. The story started slow and seemingly straightforward before growing into something apparently more interesting, only to be sold short by its ending. The puzzles, too, proved rather variable, ranging from little more than excuses to give the player something to do to more organic action-oriented tasks and some neat logic puzzles.
Overall, despite the rough edges I'm glad I played The Descendant. It feels like the product of a studio that's learning as it goes along and – limp conclusion notwithstanding – improving steadily. The story could have been more original, the puzzles more substantial and the pacing better, but it also had some genuinely emotional moments and flashes of brilliance to go with its polished presentation. So long as you set your expectations accordingly, you’ll probably find that Ark-01 is venturing into.