Review for Doctor Who: The Lonely Assassins
What do you get when you take one bit character from the television series Doctor Who and have them help players investigate a cell phone lost by another minor character from the same series? No, it’s not the setup for a joke. The answer is Doctor Who: The Lonely Assassins, the latest game from Kaigan Games, the creators of the SIMULACRA series. While it suffers from a distinct lack of the famed title character, which fans of the show are bound to find disappointing, the missing Doctor’s proxy does a fine job of bringing an endearing personal touch to this found phone tale of dangerous aliens running amok.
The game starts in quiet fashion with the unlock screen of a cell phone that has mysteriously shown up in your possession. The silence is quickly broken after your third random attempt to unlock the phone fails when red lights flash, alarms blare, and an ominous self-destruct countdown appears on the device. Fortunately you’re saved from death by fiery explosion when a strange woman, bearing question marks on her lapels, remotely connects to the phone from an undisclosed location to override the self-destruct. In fact, it turns out you’ve been rescued by none other than that thwarter of alien threats to the Earth herself, Petronella Osgood!
Your main contact from that point on continues to be Osgood, a character who has appeared in a number of TV episodes starting with the fiftieth anniversary special. Despite bearing the franchise name, however, The Lonely Assassins has very little of the Doctor in it. There are a handful of photos that can be found on the phone showing the familiar blue police telephone box, the TARDIS; an intentionally grainy video clip of tenth Doctor David Tennant from the episode that first introduced the Weeping Angel monsters featured in this game; and a short voice-only congratulatory message from incumbent Doctor Jodie Whittaker upon completion.
The omission of the Doctor is especially curious given that most interaction with Osgood is done solely through unvoiced text chat and could easily have been with the Doctor instead. To say I found the lack of the Doctor’s presence disappointing is an understatement. That’s not to disparage the involvement of the bespectacled Ms. Osgood, who has a huge fan crush on the Doctor. Petronella is portrayed here as being perpetually amazed by the weirdness and wonders of the universe – even when they’re trying to kill her, as with the case of the Weeping Angels.
The angels are terrifying monsters that instantly turn to stone whenever someone is directly looking at them, but turn your back or look away even for a moment and they make their move. When an angel touches a victim, that person is teleported into the past to live out their days and ultimately die there. Meanwhile, the angel feeds on the wibbley-wobbley, timey-wimey surplus energy generated by all the unlived moments of the victim’s life in their original time period. This information is from the similarly-Doctor-lite 2007 series episode “Blink,” which should be mandatory viewing before playing this game. While The Lonely Assassins does kinda, sorta describe what the angels are and how they work, the information is broken up across various emails, chat messages, and Osgood’s own texts, making it difficult to get the complete picture of what you’re facing.
Although the Doctor is absent and the threat of the Weeping Angels is rather nebulous, what the game does focus on is of decent quality in its own right. The main thrust of the experience is working with Ms. Osgood to investigate the found phone, which belongs to Lawrence “Larry” Nightingale, again from the “Blink” episode. Larry has gone missing and it’s imperative that you find him. As you interact with Petronella you’ll gather clues to piece together what happened to Larry and how the phone came into your possession. You’ll also learn about Osgood’s work with the secret organization UNIT, the Unified Intelligence Taskforce, whose mandate is to deal with the odd, the unexplained, anything on Earth or even beyond.
As with the developer’s previous games, the entirety of your investigation takes place on the phone itself. As such, the tasks are mostly limited to searching its photo galleries, text chat log and emails. Osgood uploads a clue detector app, which aids in your search. When viewing a picture or scrolling through a chat log or email that contains a clue, a button lights up yellow at the bottom left of the phone that can be clicked on to activate. Once that’s done, you must click and hold anywhere on the phone screen and the clue will be detected automatically, without requiring you to identify the specific bit of information or image area that’s important. After a clue’s been identified, it can be sent to Osgood in the chat stream with her that runs throughout the game.
Initially only a few photos, texts, and emails are available to dig through, but more become accessible as clues are submitted to Petronella, allowing her to better recover corrupted data on the phone. Most of the information is simply background flavour that doesn’t provide any hints about Larry’s disappearance, although there are a few fun fan references added in, such as an email chain with one Rani Chandra from the Doctor Who spinoff series The Sarah Jane Adventures. The rest starts to weave together the story of Larry’s return to Wester Drumlins in London, site of the original Weeping Angel infestation. A new owner, one Mr. Flint, has since bought the house and it quickly becomes clear that Larry’s afraid the man will wake the angels left trapped there. Although the complete story is only doled out in small fragments over the course of the game’s three-hour play time, the fact that it’s essentially a sequel to one of the more memorable series episodes really works against any possible suspense. If you have any recollection of “Blink” at all, you will be several steps ahead of the plot the entire time.
Sifting through photos and text isn’t the only thing The Lonely Assassins has to offer, as occasionally more interesting tasks are sprinkled in. One involves tracking down and eradicating a Weeping Angel that somehow goes digital and invades the phone. This mostly consists of using the clue finder to remove it from pictures, texts, and emails, and so largely ends up being not much different than the usual interactions. But there is also a chase through the phone’s web browser that displays a series of pages with logic riddles that must be solved to keep pursuing your quarry. Solving these involves choosing from multiple answers or clicking specific links or areas of the phone; failing sends you back one step in the search. If you fail enough times…well, it’s a good thing you’ve got Petronella on your side to bail you out.
Elsewhere you have to collate scattered facts about Larry’s wife, who has also vanished, to properly search a missing persons’ database for any news of her whereabouts. A similar mining of information is needed when trying to impersonate Larry in a conversation with an archival researcher to get a key bit of video footage released. And late in the game, Osgood gives you access to a network of security cameras that you must move into position to keep an eye on various Weeping Angels so they cannot move. (The game conveniently ignores the angels’ later superpower from the TV series in that if they’re viewed through a camera they turn whoever’s watching them into angels themselves, but I digress).
Beyond searching the phone for clues and a way to stop the angels, most of your time is spent in chat conversation with Petronella. This works like any typical dialog tree, with two or three options of things to “say” to her frequently being presented. Having played through the game twice, I can confirm that the choices generally make little to no difference, although very early on I found it hilarious when one of the dialog paths let me walk away from helping Ms. Osgood altogether, causing the game to restart right from the beginning. While the decisions available don’t have any long-term effect, there’s such a steady stream of them, more so than in many other choice-based games, that even upon replay it feels like they’re making a difference. This is helped by the exuberance of Osgood. Always optimistic and acting as a sort of cheerleader for your endeavours, her lines provide a lot of positive reinforcement that makes the game fun to play.
Events culminate with Petronella going to confront the angels (you can’t because you have to keep working on the phone, obviously). While her progress can be viewed from afar through security camera feeds, I found the climax to be a rather detached experience. This isn’t some slick television production with dramatic angles and fast pacing. Instead you watch the action play out in the dark, low-quality, awkwardly placed video footage. As Osgood is in danger and you’ve built a real camaraderie with her at this point, the ending should feel more threatening and visceral than it does, but it just doesn’t get there. Even so, with a coherent, well-constructed story and a character who feels more than skin deep to that point, the overall tale is stronger than most of what the Doctor Who series itself has provided the past few years.
Much of the game plays out silently, except for the typical sounds of a smart phone when icons and links get tapped. Occasionally low levels of ominous music enter into the background as the angels seem to be getting the upper hand. In a few instances, video or audio clips become available. Most of the actors do a solid job, including Ingrid Oliver and Finlay Robertson, reprising their roles as Osgood and Lawrence, respectively. Mr. Flint is a bit cheesily overacted, though not any more than some of the characters seen over the long television history of Doctor Who.
There is only a single progressive autosave, which became a bit worrisome when I encountered a few glitches during my playthrough. Most of the time the scroll wheel on the mouse can be used to move up or down through the various searchable documents, but a couple of times the mouse wheel mysteriously stopped working. I lost a bit of progress during the Weeping Angel attack as I thought the buttons had been intentionally corrupted because I couldn’t interact with anything on the phone anymore. I chose to quit and restart from the previous checkpoint about ten minutes back, however, and didn’t encounter the glitch the second time. I did run into it again later in the game, except this time by random happenstance I discovered that even though the mouse wheel didn’t work I could still click and drag the background to achieve the scrolling effect.
Upon finishing the game, several summary screens are presented that highlight optional things that can be done and whether you were successful at them or not. While the main story isn’t really affected by completing everything, it’s definitely worth attempting to see a number of post-credit video scenes. These should really have been part of the story proper, as they speak to core narrative points that may leave you feeling a bit gypped if you don’t see them. At least getting everything done should be straightforward enough on a second playthrough, thanks to the knowledge gained the first time around. The only difficulty might be if a glitch is encountered, such as one I experienced that prevented a needed picture of the TARDIS from being recognized as a clue.
This game would more aptly be titled Petronella Osgood: The Lonely Assassins, as its focus on her does the character a lot of credit. Ms. Osgood is definitely the star here, and interacting with her, either matching her enthusiasm, countering it with trepidation, or just being sarcastic, is a lot of fun. While there’s not a great deal of variety in the tasks provided, the brief play time means your found phone investigation doesn’t wear out its welcome. If you’re already familiar with the backstory of the Weeping Angels and are willing to overlook the scarcity of the Doctor, or if you’re not but like the thought of saving the world by snooping through someone’s phone, then this is a nice little Doctor Who-adjacent story and a good way to kill a few hours.