I think the least realistic thing about Ready Player One was the suggestion that anyone in the future is going to give a damn about the eighties. I say that largely because we seem to be the ones obsessed with the eighties, and if the usual way these things tend to go holds true, our grandkids are going to be too busy emulating stuff that hasn’t even been invented yet for anyone to give a damn about He-Man or Transformers or whatever.
But in the meantime, we just can’t get enough, can we?
The latest brick in that day-glo colored wall is an episodic indie title by the name of The Outpost Nine. Episode 1 was released today, and while it might not bring anything terribly original to the table, it at least knows its way around atmosphere and making its player abundantly paranoid.
Gameplay-wise, you’ll dance between a somewhat text-based adventure game style, and a visual novel, both of which feel like a good choice for something so steeped in the past. These moments of adventure come at you like climaxes to various storytelling moments, and I thought the rhythm of it all flowed pretty well. The mechanics follow the slowly mounting tension of the story well: even if I’m pretty sure I’ve read this story before.
Episode 1 of Outpost Nine takes place on mining facility crewed by eight people. And just like you know the eighties, you know this story. They’re minding their own business when they meet up with a seemingly abandoned ship containing deadly cargo. Enter a dangerous force that can and will kill you and every member of your crew.
A tale as old as time.
But to be fair, it’s not originality that brings us to any 80’s nostalgia-fest. Generally it’s the characters and the atmosphere. Character-wise I didn’t really think Outpost Nine quite hit the mark. On one hand, it’s true that the characters are mostly varied and reasonably fleshed out. On the other hand, the voice and dialect of some of them feels… sloppy. The black guy talks like most black guys talked in eighties movies: probably one of the only things you don’t want to get all nostalgic about. And another character speaks in an accent that is… Russian? Austrian? Is he meant to be a Schwarzenegger or something? There’s no voiceover so it’s hard to tell, exactly. And I am not suggesting this game needs a full voice cast: that would most likely ruin the atmosphere that Outpost Nine works hard to build.
The atmosphere is pretty solid. There’s a sputtering, glitchy quality to the interface that made me think of a lo-fi Alien: Resurrection. It’s all glowing green monitors and inappropriately cheery computer welcome screens: that feeling of technology attempting to continue its friendly functionality even as death looms around the corner. It makes you uneasy: I like that. The music and low drone of ambient noise compliments these visuals very well: it’s simple, spooky, and effective.
However, not all aesthetics are created equal.
At first, you and your crewmen are represented by still profile shots: green and grainy. These were terrific because they set up a level of realism without requiring the designers to go haywire designing representations for these characters that might throw the atmosphere.
And then you find out that they totally went ahead and did that.
I don’t know why the designers of Outpost Nine decided to go with two different visuals for each character: one realistic and spartan and the other… well, kinda cartoony. I have no issue with simple indie design, but these character models really undercut the mood that they were going for here. And for some reason, they’re all constantly in a state of bouncing up and down. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded these models if I didn’t have their profile shots to compare them to, but that begs the question of why have two representations in the first place? There were never any moments where one or the other simply wouldn’t work. This was a clashing aesthetic which kept bugging me, which you don’t want in a tense horror game.
Admittedly, that’s a minor enough quibble, but it’s relevant when your entire goal seems to be setting the proper atmosphere.
Episode 1 has two chapters within it, and plays for around an hour. I’ve read that there are going to be three episodes total, and if that’s the case, I’m going to have to humbly request that the designers put a little more into future episodes. I don’t know: splitting up an already short horror experience into three hour long chunks feels like you’re going to lose the oomph factor after a while.
But for those of you looking for something unique and spooky, I can reasonably recommend you give this one a look. Outpost Nine doesn’t have a ton of polish, but that’s part of the charm, I suppose. Hopefully we can expect a little more in future episodes. Just like the crew waiting to find out whether or not they’re going to die at the hands of some nightmare creature, we’re just gonna have to wait and see.