System: PC, Switch | Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: No Code | Reviewed On: PC
Go to tapedeck. Press record.
Back into the fractured minds of No Code I went. A more 'woke' individual I emerged. Wow. What a game to be associated with. No Code and Devolver Digital have quickly become one of my favourite developers/publisher double act over the two games I played that were released under them as partners. I also appear to be working backwards through their short catalogue - check out my review of their latest game 'Observation' HERE.
The guys at No Code have clearly got a knack for the surreal and disturbed, and are able to twist the mind to their will using their freakishly gripping, page-turner storylines. You simply get lost in their games, until completion. Thereafter, you are left with your jaw on your lap, in silence, wondering what the hell you have just experienced.
It's going to be hard to segregate this review into clear sections where gameplay, mechanics, audio etc. are concerned (not that I do that anyway HA!), because of how the game is laid out - so I'll do whatever the hell I want, as always.
You are thrown through four extremely immersive episodes which are, in turn, different from one another in terms of format, but all carry the underlying theme. Each one, different in story, different in gameplay, and different in style with a crescendo of all three episodes prior, in the fourth. I say immersive, but not in the sense that you are submerged into a game that stimulates multiple senses. I mean that you are pulled into the stories told and the way they unfold before you with surprisingly minimal visual stimulation. Again, I have to emphasise the skill No Code seem to have acquired in being able to do this.
Episode One - you are facing some standard 80's era equipment. Equipped with only your keyboard you are set to navigate a story which unfolds on the CRT screen in front of you, typing commands to control your imaginary character in this episode. Luckily this is fairly linear with only a few commands which will progress the preset story, but that's not the point. The point is that the story carries you - like Kratos carries his son; like it's nothing.
You reach the end and you believe the story is finished with only a minor twist, think again. The story restarts but is much more sinister in tone and described in a way that will make your hairs stand on end. Suspense is built in a fantastically exhilarating way until you are faced with yourself and some confusing but effective words on the screen before you. The episode ends and as far as gameplay goes, it's minimal; as far as mechanics go, it's minimal; as far as audio goes, it's minimal - as far as the story goes and the impact it has on you, it's maximal. Somehow none of the other aspects matter, even in the first episode.
Episode two - you are in apparent control of a scientific experiment on an 'artefact' recovered from an unknown crash site. Again you are faced with 80's-esque electronic equipment and are able to interact with them as such, following instructions from a manual from the same era, displayed on a CRT monitor, and the voice recordings of a lead scientist.
Through x-ray, infrared, and other modes of stimulus, you are tasked with making the artefact live, and by that I mean you make the heart, beat. The 80's music behind everything builds the suspense as the experiment progresses and suddenly, point & click format ceases to exist - it's just you and the artefact. The twist in this episode is a bit surreal and changes the format somewhat. You end up using the format used in the first episode to progress a memory which appears to be sci-fi in nature but can be interpreted in many ways. In this episode, however, the story you progress on the CRT screen with similar commands to episode one appears to be completely unrelated. It's not until episode four that you realise the relation it has to the bigger picture, which will be explained in brief later on.
Again, as far as gameplay goes, it's minimal; as far as mechanics go, it's minimal; as far as audio goes, it's minimal - as far as the story goes and the impact it has on you, it's maximal.
Episode 3 - Here is where a little more cognitive stimulation comes into play. The function of this episode delves deep into the code-breaker sleuth within you. Again, you are given even less instruction on what to do and are left to rely on familiar attributes from this episode's predecessors. The aim is clear, the method is not, but using your memory of aspects from before, you will cotton on quick. It's maybe best not to leave much time between playing each episode.
You are expected to submit signals through a system; a system just as rudimentary as in the last two episodes, following the 80's electronics theme. But it's not as simple as you may think. I spent a good deal of time before I realised that the TAB function which takes you to some equipment adjacent to your point of view, was still available, as it had been in the last episode. From here, it was revealed that I had all I needed to break the codes and cyphers laid out in front of me.
I believe this was the most enjoyable and the most engaging of the first three episodes, having to make cognitive leaps to reach solutions to the coded trails to submit signals, for what seems to be no apparent reason.
As you work through, you can feel the story fracturing into a suspenseful climb and it makes you keen to carry on to the end. I actually lost myself in this one, losing a good amount of time to the abyss. There was something more about this one though, and it plays right into gameplay diversity. All is not monochrome. The gameplay changes as you are thrown away from the workspace you were facing and out into the open blizzard, and are forced to control your silent character in the first person through snowy terrain. This sudden and unexpected layering of another texture brings you right out of the sense of security you thought you had and into a game that delivers the unexpected - I mean if you didn't feel that already.
And yes, that screenshot is as blurry on the game - you're in a blizzard.
The gameplay of this part of the episode is so simple, you cannot get it wrong, with the same limitation on controls. As you work to restart generators for the other two outposts sending signals, No Code go to work on your fear. It is enough to speed up the old ticker. But, there's was something else working its way to the surface during the latter half of the episode, for me anyway, and I just couldn't distinguish what it was. It was a realisation that all is not what it seems, confirmed by what came at the end. I won't spoil it, but the twist was actually really decent and perfectly executed by the developer.
Gameplay - minimal (but more than previous; mechanic - minimal; audio - minimal; story and impact - maximal.
Episode 4 - This is where it gets interesting. The three seemingly unrelated preceding episodes paint an underlying picture that something isn't quite right and that the activities you carry out are, instead, something entirely different. This episode ties the rest of the puzzle twists together in a crescendoing big reveal whilst not making it obvious.
You are thrown back into the format of each chapter, doing the same tasks but with more urgency and tension and the game makes you piece the entire thing together like a sinister jigsaw. You realise that there was a horrible accident that was your fault and that each episode is basically a distorted analogy describing you battling to regain consciousness. Combining all gameplay formats experienced leading up, into one mega suspenseful episode was a great play and did exactly what I believe No Code set out to do.
One of the most notable aspects of this game, for me, is the vibe - ultimate 80's suspenseful thriller-vibe with an epic 'Stranger Things-esque' theme tune to suit. As you know, we at SkyPunk, love everything 80's. More variety in the gameplay wouldn't go amiss, however, the story is where the game is and I believe it is the way it is, as linear as it is, to ensure that you are not distracted from the story for one second...so that may be a moot point.
The execution is beyond brilliant and the way in which No Code has written the entire game is commendable. The horror and thrill felt throughout can only be attributed to complete mastery of the genres and the amazing creative minds on the development team. With only a few short games in their catalogue, it's extremely easy to see that No Code, with the help of the established developer/publisher Devolver Digital, is going to be extremely successful going forward. Stories Untold and Observation have been two of my most awe-inspiring plays of the last decade.