Game: Beautiful Desolation
Release Date: February 26, 2020 (PC), May 28, 2021 (Consoles)
Platform: Steam, Gog, Playstation, Switch
Geek to Geek Media was provided with a review copy of this title.
I grew up as a Nintendo kid, which made PC games at my friends' houses fascinating to me. My mind was blown the first time I saw a cutscene from Starcraft. It was unbelievable that video games could look so good. Then I saw Fallout and was entranced by the isometric perspective. I had no idea what was going on in that game, but it looked so dang cool.
Now, Untold Tales and The Brotherhood are bringing some of that old school, isometric charm to a Nintendo console. Beautiful Desolation isn't an action game, though. Instead it's a quiet, contemplative adventure game that has you exploring a future South Africa years after some sort of robotic apocalypse changed the world. With a focus on story and conversation, this game feels more like a visual novel than anything else, but it looks just like those PC games that captivated me in the 90s.
Holding on to Hope
I'm not terribly far into Beautiful Desolation, but what I have seen of the story has been pretty heavy and dark and intriguing, and I'm loving it. Every situation the main character finds themselves in seems to be worse than the one before. Through it all, he always seems to be just barely holding on to hope.
I want to tell you more about the setting, but that means getting into some details… so if you don't want the first 30 minutes or so spoiled, skip past the next section.
30 Minutes or So of Spoilers!
The game kicks off with your character and his wife heading out to pick up his good for nothing drunk brother from some sort of jam he's gotten into. On the way, a bizarre alien monolith shows up and causes the car to crash, killing your wife. Jump forward ten years, and your character is asking his brother, now a sober pilot, to fly him up to the monolith. Apparently, he's uncovered some secrets that show that this thing has nefarious intent, despite it providing all sorts of technological and medical advancements over the years. If you can just get onto the thing, you're sure you can find proof.
When you get there, a robotic security dog catches you in the act, just as some bizarre pulse of energy throws you all centuries into the future. You awaken to a run-down world populated by machines and mutants. While being transported for interrogation, you get shot out of the air and are separated from your brother, who blacks out while communicating with you over a walkie-talkie. Some robot who prophecized your arrival kills themselves to give you part of their brain in order for you and the mechanical security dog to repair a vehicle in order to rescue your brother and try to find a way back to your time.
It's absolutely wild and I love it. The main character is bizarrely calm about getting launched into the future. It seems like he's holding on to his sanity because he absolutely believes that there is some way for him to get out of this wasteland. My favorite thing about him, though, is that he is not afraid to acknowledge that, even though he hates it here and wants to get home, the wasteland can be beautiful.
Everything Looks Just Right
The visual stylings of Beautiful Desolation are a huge selling point for me. Each of the small areas you visit is densely and impeccably detailed. The world you spend your time in is somber and depressing in tone, but it’s also lush. There are areas with beautiful trees, bizarre creatures, and ramshackle buildings. Unlike Biomutant, this game doesn’t try to impress with high-resolution models or by pushing technical boundaries. Instead, there is a focus on tiny details that bring the whole thing to life.
While you wander around, your character and NPCs that you can interact with are all so small that there’s not much to say about them. Once you enter a conversation, though, everything changes. You get a close-up look at them in a style that looks more like a rendered scene. It’s wonderful, even though most of the beings you’ll chat with are disturbing to see face to face.
As you explore you'll also come across full blown, pre-rendered cinematic cutscenes. These aren’t the sort of things you’d see in a AAA game these days, instead opting again to style themselves after games of yore. They do a perfect job of looking imperfect. Anyone who played a computer game in the 90s will feel nostalgic for them, even though they are brand new.
Walk and Talk
Describing the gameplay of Beaitful Desolation is difficult for me. I enjoy playing it, but there’s not a lot that you actually do. Mostly you wander through environments looking for people and things to interact with. You have an inventory and a journal, and will often need to combine items or use one item on another to solve problems.
What you won’t find yourself doing on a regular basis is getting into fights. You’re character is a sort of investigator/journalist, not a soldier. You solve problems by thinking them through and talking to people, rather than shooting them.
In a lot of ways, playing this game reminds me of the investigation sequences in the Pheonix Wright games. This is an adventure game, through and through.
First Impressions Wrap Up
I am totally engrossed by Beautiful Desolation, but it is not a game I could easily recommend to a stranger. From the graphics to the gameplay, the whole package feels like a relic from a bygone era. This game feels old, but in a way that I love. Just like with Aluna: Sentinel of the Shards, it is those details that had me so interested in it from the beginning.
If you grew up playing games on the family computer, then this might be something special for you. Once you dig into it, there’s a really interesting world to explore and an interesting story to experience.
If nothing else, playhing a game where your primary interaction with the world isn’t fighting your way through it is always delightful!