Beautiful Desolation: Fallout SA
I am a South African, and like any good local, I always want our entertainment industry to expand and grow. Sadly there are few local development studios and fewer who use our unique setting and talent. That is however changing with The Brotherhood games and Beautiful Desolation, a delightful isometric adventure game in the vein of early Fallout and Planescape Torment.
In the 1970s Western Cape South Africa, Don and Mark Leslie head to the strange alien artifact (the Penrose) to investigate it and the relationship it has with the SA government. But due to a series of occurrences, the two brothers and a robotic dog (named Pooch) are transported into far-flung post-civilization SA. The three then seek to return home and grow to become friends along the way.
South Africa is rarely explored in the post-apocalypse genre. I am not entirely sure why that is the case. I suppose it might be due to the lack of voices within media circles, South African storytellers are a small group and tend to focus on a limited amount of subjects. It is refreshing to see how the vastly different cultural identities within this potentially great country have mutated and changed.
There is a perpetual sense of wonder in exploring Beautiful Desolation, from the fleshless skull robots who worship strange and terrible gods to the brutish Afrikaner mercenaries who still have a braai now and then (barbecues for you Europeans). The setting I believe is Beautiful Desolation’s biggest strength, The Brotherhood conjured an utterly unique world, something that is endlessly fascinating and encourages the player to keep exploring. I wished the game was longer, I wanted to learn more about this strange new world, to see how the past and the present linked together.
Our three mains all have their interesting character arcs. Mark has to deal with the loss of his wife (who died in a car accident the day the Penrose arrived in Cape Town). Don has to prove to his brother that he is reliable as Mark and Charlize were traveling to Don when the accident occurred. Pooch has to learn how to come to terms with her terrible past. All of these are very neat and are the basis for some great drama. But they are wrapped up in a very anticlimactic way. Don and Mark talk about their respective issues and it gets resolved.
Pooch has a tragic back-story about getting her memory wiped, only dimly recalling her creator’s voice, this existential quandary however just peters out. She just accepts it and moves on. I suppose another issue with the resolution is the voice acting. Which is persistently flat and stiff. One such moment would at the very end when Don and Mark have a heartfelt discussion, ending with a claimant of love for each other. This should have been a beautiful climactic moment, but the tone never changes. They talk as if they are debating which ham they want to get for Sunday lunch.
Some of the plot points
I do wish we could have stayed longer in 1970s South Africa. The Penrose arriving during such a time in SA could have lead to some riveting alternative history. How would have the National Party responded to the presence of aliens? How would have the world reacted to the extraterrestrial presence? But once Don and Mark get sent forward, the past is so far away that it barely matters. The character’s past doesn’t include the Penrose in any prominent way. The Penrose Alliance (set up as a nice juicy alliance between South Africa and the alien intelligence on the Penrose) had loads of potential, but it is never really explored. I think Beautiful Desolation could have been longer, exploring both the rise and the downfall of civilization in SA. It should have been longer as the ideas and themes could have created a true masterpiece.
From a gameplay perspective, there is very little in terms of verity. This is not a bad thing, I would prefer that if the game mechanics are limited, they should be tightly designed. The two main pillars appear to be exploration and puzzles (normally combining two or more items). All of these are perfectly fine…except for the combat.
You have to pay attention to what characters say to sell the puzzles. If you don’t then there is very little guidance the player has towards solving the puzzles. This can be a little bit a problem if you (like most players) have limited time and would play it over a few days. I wish there were some clues or at least a summery without having to trawl through whole conversations. Maybe have the to-do list would say something more than the most basic goal.
There is backtracking, as Mark and friends have to go back and forth to solve puzzles and explore new areas to progress the game. I have no problem with this sort of backtracking as cutting it out would have made the world significantly smaller and shallower. Even though exploration is required, there is not much to be found within each area as very little is intractable. But the backtracking enables various maps to feel alive, as once closed off doors are opened and items become available. The maps are made up of several interconnected paths that do limit interaction with the map, but the ease of navigation more than makeup for it.
For most of the game, there is no combat. And I wish it had stayed that way. Because of the very few times, there is combat, the game is not fun. It works similar to that of the original Final Fantasy games. That being turn-based and minions have a limited amount of actions each turn. The problem is that you have a chance to miss your attack, along with random damage per attack. You cannot heal, you typically have to pick the highest damaging attack along with the highest accuracy each time.
This means that fights can either be absurdly easy or needlessly unfair depending on the random number generator. The boss fights are difficult in a very cheap way. Their attacks are so strong that my units die within a single hit. The boss fights amount to dealing as much damage as possible before your overpowered opponent wipes the floor with you. It’s not engaging because I never felt like I was being challenged. It seemed like I was gambling without the thrill of losing all my money. I skipped the arcade cabinet.
Art style and graphics:
Despite the otherwise bleak subject matter common in the post-apocalypse genre. There is a great use of color. The lush green overgrowth is beautiful to behold, a wonderful contrast between the ruins of the old world and the reclamation of nature. The animations are a little bit of a mixed bag, when talking to people their heads spaz and twitch around in ways that are unsettling for the wrong reasons. But the cut scenes are well animated and shot, the game as a whole looks great graphically.
You know, the more I think about it. Maybe it was a mistake to compare Beautiful Desolation to such titans like early Fallout and Planescape: Torment. Because in doing so it will inevitably come up short. And Beautiful Desolation doesn’t have that much wrong with it. I think that combat should have been removed altogether for a more focused experience.
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