The French Revolution was messy, as most revolutions are. In this case, despite mostly positive intentions – the vast majority, 98%, of the population just wanted the same rights and privileges as the 2% of elites – the revolution quickly turned into a power struggle. With King Louis XVI recently headless, the resulting vacuum turned the county inside out as the power hungry jostled for position. The result? The Reign of Terror, in which 40,000 people were beheaded between 1793 – 1794 and at the end of it all, France had exchanged a monarch for a dictator in the form of Napoleon Bonaparte. It is the anarchy, fear and opportunity of this period that We. The Revolution attempts to capture.
As a Judiciary Judge of the Revolutionary Tribunal, the player is tasked with overseeing the court proceedings placed before them. Despite the court room set-up, plentiful text boxes and assortment of evidence to assess, We. The Revolution is no Phoenix Wright. Justice has nothing to do with your verdict. Instead, as you judge over revolutionaries, criminals, citizens and royalty, your objective is to simply survive and try to further your political standing by beheading some enemies.
It’s essentially a resource management sim with a host of metrics to consider whilst in the court room. The different factions of Paris, the revolutionaries, the people and even your own family all have specific expectations of the result of any trial. They’ll lean towards a certain punishment, such as imprisonment or execution, or they’ll demand the accused to be set free. The player must assess these needs, decide upon which faction they will benefit from the most by pleasing, and then orchestrate the case to convince the jury that their verdict is correct.
Truth be told there’s something delightfully and satisfying sneaky about pulling the wool over an entire court room’s eyes, even if it does send an innocent man to Madame Guillotine. To achieve an execution, or any other verdict, you’ll need to asses the notes of the case, often several pages of them, and then link the information you’ve gathered to prescribed topics. Motive, evidence, witness, or extenuating circumstances for example. This is the first misstep taken by the game; there’s far too much ambiguity about which pieces of information should link to which topic. Sometimes you’ll understand what the piece of information means, but you’ll just link it to the wrong topic, according to the developer. On one occasion I was convinced that having someone stabbed should fit into both method and motive, but apparently not.
As you gather evidence you’ll unlock more questions to ask the accused, but botch the evidence linking too many times and you’ll lock the system. This can quickly destroy a trial as each question is calibrated to lead the jury to a different verdict, if you run out of suitable questions to get you a guillotine verdict then the revolution will just have to settle for you dishing out some prison time. Either that or you can ignore the jury’s verdict and send the accused off for spot of friendly decapitation regardless, even if you risk displeasing the jury and losing reputation in the process.
There’s so many bars, metrics and meters to consider in We. The Revolution that things can quickly spin out of control. One moment you’re king of your castle, the next you’ll be face down in the gutter having met a lynch mob. You really should have spent more time pleasing the people, rather than helping your rich pals get out of jail. Developers Polyslash do a magnificent job of creating a knife-edge balance of risk and reward, success and failure. In this way the game is remindful of XCOM. It can pull the rug right out from under your feet and force you to improvise. By the correct use of the limited tools you’re provided, you might just be able to survive.
It’s a shame then that whilst the court room shenanigans and resource management can occasionally thrill and regularly offer a satisfying experience, the hodgepodge of additional mechanics the game throws at you aren’t nearly as successful. At certain points the player has to influence others to their cause, either by charming a crowd during a speech or convincing a political rival in a private conversation. To do this you’ll have to choose a response of either carelessness, humility, aggression or manipulation, to a number of conversational subjects. In theory this mechanic should work, but once again it’s far too ambiguous. Often it’s impossible to know which response to choose, even after spending some precious influence points to determine your audience’s emotional state. You discover that a person is feeling ‘reserved’, does that really help choose between the possible responses? Not only that, but the chosen response often didn’t tie into what the protagonist actually says, creating a disconnect between player and avatar that frustrates.
The addition of a turn based strategy element further into the game doesn’t help matters either. You’ll send agents around a map to gather support or eliminate enemies, but it all feels like fluff, an unnecessary distraction from the meat of the game. Tactical battles in the final third are so simple as to be irreverent, the limited strategic options providing little depth. These mechanics serve to break-up the resource management and court room scenes, but seeing as these are the best parts of We. The Revolution, they really just serve to slow the pace and heighten player frustration.
If you can get through these boorish intervals however, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by an experience that has a compelling and mature (in the best sense of the word) narrative. This is a story that will often stun you with its twists and turns. Each wrapped up in comic book styled and utterly gorgeous polygonal art. Many of the cases are dark and dingy, some of them dealing with the worst parts of humanity. It will make you dig deep on occasion to deliver that innocent verdict for a clearly guilty villain, even if not doing so will surely lead to your own demise.
It is in this that We. The Revolution finds it’s greatest success, transporting the player from their comfortable living room and forcing them to see how far they will go to ensure their, and their families, survival. In its emotional recreation of a fascinating period of history, at once both alien and scarily familiar, Polyslash have overcome mechanical foibles to deliver a compelling video game.