Developer: Bithell Games
Publisher: Bithell Games
Played on: PC
Release Date: August 18, 2015
Time Played (Steam): 7.4 hours
Paid: $17.32 (Multi-game bundle)
The video gaming industry can be a fascinating place full of continuously changing focuses. Case in point: Volume, a dystopian-themed sneak-‘em-up, comes courtesy of a studio whose last game was a platformer whose emotional story was told through an assortment of colourful rectangles. I think it’s safe to say that there’s a bit of a shift present; iterative follow-up project, this is not. However, that’s by no means a bad thing, and Volume serves as an excellent example of how trying new things can yield thoroughly impressive results.
Volume takes place in a very Orwellian society, in which the entire nation of England has been taken over by a company called Gisborne Industries. The rich keep getting richer, and the poor…well, I think you can guess. The player takes control of Rob Locksley, a young man who, fed up with the system, decides to encourage people to break it. He does so by using a Volume (basically a simulation of reality) to enact countless heists perpetrated against Gisborne’s many associates. Aided by an AI named Alan, Rob broadcasts these simulations to the masses, encouraging them to use the information he’s providing to go out and take similar actions in the real world. It’s an interesting premise, as the player simultaneously feels connected to the events of the world, while also detached from the final results. However, the game does a good job of reinforcing the impact of Rob’s actions through numerous dialogue exchanges between characters at the start of certain levels. These serve to flesh out the public’s reactions to Rob’s antics, as well as providing more characterization for Rob, Alan, and the ever-encroaching threat of Gisborne (the CEO of Gisborne Industries). The premise for each level is provided by a brief text explanation on the level select screen, and various memos are scattered throughout the environments, allowing players to learn more about the events leading up to Gisborne’s takeover.The game’s dialogue exchanges are aided by some mostly excellent voice acting. Danny Wallace as Alan and Andy Serkis as Gisborne are definitely standouts, and there are some great cameo roles by Dan Bull, Jim Sterling, and others. Unfortunately, the only one that didn’t really work for me was that of the lead, played by Charlie McDonnell. Overall, I found his performance as Rob to be largely bland and uninteresting, especially when contrasted with the lively performances given by some of the other actors. It lessened the impact of some of the critical exchanges in the plot, and made bits of humour just fall flat.
The ending of the game was also a bit…odd. I’ll give it credit where credit is due: it didn’t pan out the way I thought it would. However, I found that it just ended up being a bit weak. I’m not really sure what I’d have done differently, and it wasn’t BAD or anything. It just didn’t really seem to fit quite right, and was a bit of a disappointment after what it felt like the game was building up to.Thankfully, the gameplay in Volume is where it unquestionably succeeds. Rob on his own has a very limited set of options at his disposal: he can walk around, press himself against walls (and sneak along them), whistle to draw the attention of guards, and round corners while in cover. However, as the game progresses, new items, guard types, and obstacles are introduced at regular intervals, ensuring that it never really feels stale across its 100 stages. This was a game that had me saying, “just one more level”, even after playing it for about an hour straight. Considering that the stages tend to only last a few minutes (assuming you know what you’re doing), I consider that to be a great success. I mean, there were new mechanics being introduced on level 90, for crying out loud! Granted, there is some overlap in the options at the player’s disposal. The bugle is a noisemaker that can bounce off walls, being remotely detonated by the player at any time, while the OUD flies in a straight line until it sticks to a wall, also being able to be detonated whenever the player chooses. Not to mention that Rob has the ability to whistle at any time to draw the attention of enemies. Another issue is that some of the mechanics end up being incredibly frustrating to deal with; the electrified floor plates that appear later come to mind. However, these problems are mitigated by the aforementioned variety, since if there’s something that’s bothersome, chances are you’ll only have to deal with it for a few levels. There was actually a point where I finished a level and said, “I hope they never do that again.” Guess what? They didn’t.Evading enemies in Volume involves staying out of their cones of vision, whether that means avoiding them altogether, or ducking around corners after they spot you. Later enemies have extended vision cones or can move much faster, making escape a more difficult proposition. The biggest problem I have with them is that sometimes enemy awareness can be a bit suspect. I lost count of the number of times that I evaded an opponent just by repeatedly circling a pillar until they lost sight of me briefly. Also, most enemy vision cones don’t extend around them, meaning that you can literally stand right next to them and have them be completely oblivious to your appearance. Maybe that works in the Volume, but something tells me that the emulators in real life would be running into some problems with that.
When you do get noticed, though, you sure will know. For some reason, the game’s audio hits a massive spike whenever you get spotted by an enemy, to the point where it actually made me jump at times. Maybe that was the intended purpose, but it seemed unnecessary, and a bit of a cheap jumpscare opportunity, if that was even the developer’s motivation for it.
Speaking of sound, the game’s soundtrack, while initially a bit unremarkable, gradually grew on me. Not to the point of me humming any of the melodies or anything, mind you, but it did a good job of complementing the action on-screen. Its airy, sci-fi vibes really put me in mind of the soundtrack from the movie Oblivion at times, which I’m sure means a lot to the vast majority of you.The graphics are another well done aspect of the game. They’re a perfect example of how visual artistry doesn’t require large budgets or even overly-detailed environments. The two-tone colour scheme of each level combines with their simple geometric designs to create a crisp, clean look for things. Some locations are even spiced up with nice details, such as dinosaur skeletons and pillars, just to keep things interesting.
When you’re done the main story missions, Volume also offers a slew of user-created levels, as well as the opportunity to create your own. While I didn’t really mess around with these very much, the creation tools seem incredibly robust, and the one level I did try out was significantly more challenging than anything I encountered in the main game. There certainly seems to be the option for nearly limitless content, assuming that the game’s community stays active.
Speaking of challenge, that was one area where I can see some being disappointed with the main game. While there were some levels that were certainly more difficult than others, the game never really stumped me. I think that part of this may have been as a result of the constant introduction of new mechanics; the game could never get too challenging, as it would make it much more difficult for players to get the hang of the new toys on offer.
Finally, there were some technical annoyances that I ran into, notably while using my Steam controller. The game didn’t want to constrain my cursor to its window, so there were a few times where I ended up accidentally clicking outside of it and having it minimize; the perks of using a multi-monitor setup. It could also be a pain to get the controller to be the active device in the window after Alt+Tabbing out of it, though I guess the solution for that would be to just avoid multitasking while gaming.Minor annoyances aside, I loved Volume. Stealth games are a genre that I thoroughly enjoy, as they offer the adrenaline rush of sneaking past ever-watchful foes combined with the sudden panic of being spotted and having to make a mad dash to safety. Volume perfectly captures both of these aspects, while managing to stay a consistently engaging, interesting experience. It has a few places where it falters, but it manages to tiptoe by these pitfalls and sneak its way into your heart.