Mike Bithell’s first game, Thomas Was Alone, gained a lot of attention when released in 2010. A relatively simple game, but an extremely engrossing and unique narrative as well as some delicate but distinctive twists on gameplay and visual design made for a wonderful experience. Because of this many, myself included, have eagerly awaited the release of Bithell’s next game, Volume. Much more complex than it’s predecessor in almost every respect, Volume has far more content to offer players, but may fall slightly short of it’s lofty ambitions.
Visually the game has a very clean and pleasant aesthetic, using vibrant colours and blocky digital shapes to build it’s environments. There is little technically impressive about the game, but the distinctive visuals help detract from this by firmly avoiding realism and rarely straying from it’s more abstract design. Environments can at times suffer as a result, with the narrative placing you in a huge variety of different locations but only the smallest of details representing this. Museums, banks, homes and warehouses are all represented with the same mostly featureless blocky designs adorned with a rare few, decorative, but easy to miss items. It seems a clear choice has been made to focus on ease of gameplay, an understandable choice but one that can at times detract a little too much from the narrative.
The gameplay itself consists of stealth themed puzzles, using a limited set of tools and abilities to sneak past patrols and collect items dispersed throughout the levels. There are a small few actions the player can take but each of these is utilised in a variety of very interesting and clever ways, with more gadgets and environmental puzzles introduced throughout. Certain levels even come with a choice, allowing you to pick one of the multiple items available, the choice of which can alter the puzzle’s solution in fairly drastic ways. These tools along with interactive items in the environment and a number of enemies each acting in unique ways keep the game feeling fresh, something new being introduced frequently enough that you never quite grow bored of anything whilst each item feels well explored and utilised.
The most intriguing, and somewhat conflicting aspect of Volume is in the story. A very unique and exciting plot in which the protagonist plays a vital role in what is essentially a rebellious uprising against a future England ruled by oppressive rulers. The story sets up a beautifully well-realised world full of intriguing characters with well written dialogue. Narrative is largely told through narration, a small group of characters talking over gameplay with more world building and backstory filled out in text found throughout the environments. Though the story is very enjoyable, the way in which it is told can at times feel heavily disconnected from the gameplay. Interacting with certain items and being spotted by enemies causes narration to stop and levels are often much shorter than the conversations characters have. When this occurs the last piece of dialogue is repeated so that you never miss out on any, but it can be very distracting and at times frustrating when it occurs multiple times in a row.
The previously mentioned disconnect between narrative and level design is largely easy to dismiss, but at times stretches believability a little too far. There are a few examples where you find texts that show you the impact your actions are having, but these are sadly rare and it’s not always easy to imagine from dialogue exactly what is occurring outside of the warehouse where the game takes place. The narrative talks of grand political uprisings and world changing events and often does so beautifully, but far too often it’s easy to lose track of.
Outside of the narrative, the game offers a number of reasons to return, with worldwide and friends rankings for time getting through each level and a very simple, but well-designed level editor that seems to have a lot of potential for some interesting levels created by those more talented budding designers. With support from developers this feature could offer quite a lot of replay value for those wanting to indulge in stealth puzzle genre on a more regular basis, but we will have to wait and see just how much variety can be gained from the tools available for designers.
Mike Bithell’s first game took a very abstract and simplistic design and brought it to life with narration alone. Many aspects of Volume are vastly more complex, but sadly some feel slightly underdeveloped. The story is still very good, and these issues would most likely be inconsequential was this not the case, and gameplay proves to be extremely well paced and consistently enjoyable from beginning to end. Volume is a very well crafted and fun experience, and in the end all problems the game come down to wanting more. Wanting to see more of the world and experience the events through more than sparse narration and text alone. The game is still most certainly one worth experiencing, and is quite likely one of the best puzzle games released on the PS4 since launch.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game.
- Replay Value