Congratulations on your new job, you’re the new manager of an apartment building! Don’t mind the old guy being dragged out the front door, I’m sure you’ll do a much better, a more loyal job than he did. You don’t answer to your tenants, you answer to the state.
Beholder tasks you with spying on those living in your building, using cameras and peeping through keyholes to get a glimpse of their lives, rifling through their belongings looking for contraband, and then reporting it to the state, either as a character profile or to turn them in for violating the laws. Of course, as you get to know them a little and learn the situation their in, maybe you’ll let things slide and try to help them out instead?
This balancing act is at the heart of Beholder, and at times it can make you weigh up whether you want to do the morally right thing or look out for your own skin. It’s reminiscent, in some ways, of Papers, Please or the great German film The Lives of Others – the Dreiman family in Beholder is surely a reference – as you peak into other people’s lives and decide their fates. However, it only hits those heights rarely, and the game soon becomes something of a grind in which I struggled to really care about the characters.
Many of the characters are simplistic and superficial: an evil war criminal under an assumed name, a chemist working on secret weapons for the state, a doctor who simply wants to find love. They stay in your building, you report on them, rifle through their stuff, possibly try to help them in some ways, and then they are either arrested, die, evicted or simply up and leave of their own will. With a silhouetted art style, they can be easily mixed up, and when it comes time to report on the them, I invariably forgot their names.
Some of the most memorable tenants are in the building as you start working, and I genuinely didn’t like being ordered to spy on one couple, digging up or planting evidence so they could be arrested. Instead I tried to help them escape the authorities and to flee the country, which eventually came back to haunt me with the next phone call from the Ministry, and with the news report that the ship they were on sank and everyone died.
There’s always multiple solutions to a problem, so you can fess up to a murder attempt instead of performing a hit, rummage through the building for signs of arsenic, or head to the trusty black market dealer who always manages to sell you what you need. You might be trying to help a particular tenant, but you’re also trying to follow an order from the ministry and probably help the local resistance as well, meaning there’s often two or three timed objectives at once in the corner of the screen.
All too often, you’re doing things out of the goodness of your heart, and on the first play through on regular difficulty, having enough cash and reputation as a government worker can be difficult. You can earn more from snooping and reporting, but deciding to help someone out tends to leave you with less money than you started with – getting $500 in return for a $690 bottle of wine, for example.
That becomes a problem because your family are an overwhelming burden on your resources. Patrick’s tuition costs an arm and a leg, your wife Anna comes to you with bills and concerns for your daughter Martha. and if you don’t have the tens of thousands of dollars in time? Well let’s just say I gave up on saving them long before they actually died…
Learn the ropes, and on a second play, keeping your family alive will be easier (especially if you sacrifice your morals), but there’s limited appeal to stepping back into this bleak world. The art has a lovely chalk drawn style to it, but what it depicts is dank and depressing. It feels as though almost every possible outcome is dark and twisted just for the sake of it, and while that can be humorous at times, there’s rarely any light at the end of the tunnel.
It all comes to a head with a final evaluation on your performance by the state, leading to one of several endings depending on your performance. You can also try and skip town if you think you’ve stepped over the line a few too many times, but either way, you’ll see a cutscene that’s determined by your actions and choices leading up to it.
The jump from PC to console has given the game a few kinks with its controls. Though it’s a side-scrolling game with its antfarm-like presentation, there is a depth to the scenery that means you can sometimes be positioned just a little awkwardly to interact with items or bump into the scenery unnecessarily. There’s other problems as well, such as certain options in the menu actually affect the menu behind as well, and the amusing manner in which tenants will protest if you burst in on them, but will be blind to you unlocking their door just as they’ve left or the fact that you sprint out of their flat so as not to get caught as they come home.
Across the board, there’s a lack of polish to the game’s scripting and translation – Warm Lamp Games hail from Siberia, Russia. Carl and his family speak to one another like they’ve met for the first time, there’s sound-a-like typos in some of the subtitles, and other niggling issues that should have been picked up on.
Beholder is an intriguing concept and thematically rather strong, as it twists and exaggerates a Cold War totalitarian surveillance state into the form of a video game. However, with a sequel on the way, we hope that Warm Lamp can improve on an idea that’s rather rough around the edges but is dying to be fleshed out further.
Version tested: PlayStation 4