The Uncertain: Episode 1 – The Last Quiet Day review
Despite some rough edges and questionable puzzle design, this first of three planned chapters for The Uncertain should hold your interest and leave you anxious for the next episode.
With recent talk of the possible future of artificial intelligence by high-profile celebrities such as Elon Musk, The Uncertain: Episode 1 – The Last Quiet Day is particularly relevant for modern times. The first adventure from small Russian indie studio ComonGames tackles its subject matter in an interesting way, told not from the perspective of mankind facing a robot uprising, but rather from that of a robot struggling with questions of identity and freedom in a post-apocalyptic world populated entirely(?) by machines. This first episode sets the stage for an intriguing sci-fi trilogy through its use of interesting locations, beautiful graphics and dialog choices, though it’s undermined somewhat by clunky controls and questionable puzzle integration.
Set sometime after the middle of the 22nd century, when humans became extinct and robots took their place, a new society has formed under the guidance of USS Robotics. Intent on not repeating the mistakes of their predecessors, there is just one problem: the more progress they make, the more they behave like humans! It soon becomes clear that all is not as it appears, and a small group of rebels is working to uncover the truth behind this seemingly idyllic world order. Will you join them and jeopardize your peaceful life of solitude?
Players control RT-217NP, or RT for short (Artie – get it?), a self-sufficient robot whose primary mission is unknown but who has a knack for electronics, a fascination with mankind, and a desire for independence from the corporation in charge. Content to operate largely off the grid, he has set a task for himself: to scavenge old devices to create new items that are useful and efficient.
The game begins with RT living in a cottage close to a large city. As you begin exploring, you will immediately notice that the navigation system has some issues. Using the WASD keys to move around proves to be quite cumbersome because each scene has a fixed camera that can cause confusion when you move from one area to another and the angle changes. This issue persists throughout and can be quite frustrating depending on where you are and what you need to do (in particular near the end when you need to dodge deadly lasers). Another issue is that your character walks very slowly, a problem exacerbated by the backtracking needed for some puzzles, although you can run a bit faster by constantly pressing the Shift key. The mouse is used for interaction, with available hotspot actions displayed in a wheel that was clearly designed with consoles in mind. Not surprisingly, even on PC The Uncertain works much better in every respect using a gamepad, as movement feels more fluid and RT runs simply by pressing hard enough on the analog stick.
From the beginning, RT endears himself with his quirky view of the world. The icons on his face change depending on his circumstances (low battery when he needs to recharge, musical notes to play music, etc.), which gives him more personality than your average bot. He looks at a bathroom door in the cottage and says, “That room is very strange. I never go in there,” or at a painting and wonders why humans don’t render everything in photo-realistic mode. These humorous observations persist throughout the story and make the character very fun to play. In addition, you learn that RT has modified his docking/recharge station to not accept automatic updates, an important point that shows another interesting side of our hero.
Soon after you solve a few early puzzles, there is a cut scene showing a space shuttle crashing outside your house. Upon investigating the wreckage, you will discover the truth regarding humans – they are not all dead! It turns out the USS Corporation has been covering this up, and when the police arrive on the scene, they threaten to disintegrate you for exposing the secret before you’re spared by an event that disables everyone, including you. You awaken some time later in a hospital with a medical bot at your side. This is where the story really begins, as you learn that you are not the only robot that knows the truth about humans and are recruited by a group whose goal is to save as many people as possible. Since you do not get the routine updates and are not known to the authorities, you are a valuable asset to be assigned missions to help achieve their goal. This will lead you to a variety of interesting locations such as an informant’s apartment, an abandoned nightclub, and ultimately an underground human laboratory.
After you join the resistance, you will meet and work with other characters including Gregory (the leader), Abigail (second in command), Patrick (a repair robot) and more. In general the acting is well done, the voices having been altered to sound mechanical with just the right amount of distortion. Each bot has their own personality and their names are very personal for machines, which of course is the point. Dialog is done via a wheel that provides the appropriate options depending on the situation. However, a conversation can end abruptly before you have gone through all the choices, and when you try to reinitiate the discussion you can’t. In my various playthroughs I tried different dialog options, which provided more insight into the plot and/or characters but did not significantly impact the plot.
There is, however, one key decision point (made clear when you come to it) that, while not changing the final outcome, does open an area that you cannot access if you make a different choice. Since there are no save game slots (the game uses an autosave system to record your progress following certain key events) and the results of this choice are not revealed until near the end, there is no way to restore a save just before this point to explore the other option – you need to restart from the beginning. Although the episode is relatively short at 3-5 hours, I don’t think many gamers will have the patience to replay the entire game just to access one additional scene.
The tasks are quite varied and range from matching opposite symbol pairs to traditional inventory puzzles, unlocking codes, arcade-style sequences, and some mini-games. For the most part the obstacles are well integrated and some of them are quite fun, but the challenge level is fairly low. The only time you might get stuck is if you miss key information, such as the code to a locker that is located in a different area. Unfortunately, many of the puzzles are either poorly clued or not clued at all, which can be frustrating. For example, there is a music puzzle that requires you to think outside the box in order to get the proper sequence of notes. The code is not difficult once you find the tune, but it is easily missed and there is no indication that what you end up doing is required. Other puzzles require brute force, where you are given a partial code and need to try all possible combinations to get it right. While not difficult or particularly time-consuming, it would have been a lot more engaging if additional clues were hidden to arrive at the correct answer.
You can die in The Uncertain, but it does not impact your progress – you simply “reboot” at the spot where you made your mistake. The only impact I could see is that if you die even once, you will not unlock one of the Steam achievements with no way to retry without playing through the entire game again.
There is an arcade sequence that can be annoying, as it seems to be inserted simply to pad play time. This involves maneuvering an Aerocar to evade obstacles and avoid being hit by enemy fire. It is easy to make a mistake, but if you fail you simply get to try again. However, once you know there’s no penalty involved, it feels less rewarding later on to get through these safely the first time. Later in the game the puzzles become much more traditional, with a fair bit of exploration (there is little up to that point) and logical thinking needed to progress. Fortunately, this location represents a fair chunk of the experience and offers much more challenge.
The inventory system is fairly standard and displays what you are carrying in a white silhouette on the left side of the screen. There is no ability (or need) to view or manipulate acquired objects or combine them. Using an item is very simple: once obtained, it will automatically become one of the choices in the interaction wheel for the appropriate hotspot. One curious design choice is that in most cases you cannot pick up an item until you know you need it. You can look at it, but RT will say something like “I don’t know what that does.” Only after you understand its purpose can you add it to your inventory. While this approach eliminates the need for a large inventory and the “try everything on everything” trick to solving problems, it can add a fair bit of backtracking since in some cases the item you realize you need is several scenes away.
There is a hint system that can be toggled on and off via the settings menu, but I would have liked to see this system used to offer more help. Hints are very basic and either give you your next objective or offer a brief description of what to do to solve a puzzle. Of course, if puzzles were properly clued to begin with, there would be no need to turn on hints to be told how to solve them.
The developers have done a great job in producing an excellent visual presentation. Backgrounds are detailed and rich, while cinematics and characters are crisp and nicely animated throughout. As you explore the world you’ll see rusted out Aerocars, derelict buildings and debris scattered about, while inside buildings are remnants of human beings, including notes and audio logs. Sound effects add to the atmosphere and are appropriate for each situation, while the music is original and fits nicely with each location. The mood is serene with soothing melodies comprised of a mix of synthesizers, piano and drums. It can get a bit repetitive in some areas, but that is a minor point.
I played the Steam version and had no technical issues. Along with the episode itself, free DLC that came with it included an art book and soundtrack. There are 32 achievements, some of which are quite funny and others you just acquire through the course of playing. There are also several Easter Eggs relating to other popular video games, which are hard to spot and therefore very rewarding when you find one.
I really enjoyed playing The Uncertain’s debut episode. RT and the other characters grew on me over time, and the premise motivated me to keeping playing to see what happened. It finishes with a pretty good cliffhanger that really grabbed my attention and left me wanting more. There is clearly room for improvement in some of the design choices and lack of challenging puzzles, but this is just the first of three planned episodes and ComonGames have already stated they will address the movement system and camera view, improve the writing, and provide additional enhancements in Episode 2. This seems to be a dedicated group of developers, so I hope they can deliver as this is a series that looks to be well worth playing to the end.