Beautiful Desolation is one of the most bonkers games I’ve ever played. Not in regards to gameplay that is, in that regard this 2.5D isometric adventure game is as traditional as they come. But in terms of narrative, setting and overarching themes, Beautiful Desolation makes even the most far-out brain excretion of David Lynch seem positively sane in comparison.
Things start out straightforward enough. Set in an alternative past, Beautiful Desolation depicts South Africa in the 1970’s. The world is forever changed when a vast – and seemingly alien – structure, dubbed the Penrose, materialises in the sky one fateful night. The technology this mysterious edifice provides fast forwards humankind’s technological breakthroughs to a startling degree. Smelling a conspiracy, budding journalist Mark and his bearded brother Don, head out to the Penrose to investigate. Things go from bad to very confusing however, when they are teleported far too far into the future.
They find themselves abandoned on a post-apocalyptic Earth, one in which the inhabitants have been seismically changed through the power of the Penrose. Mark, Don and the player have a seemingly simple objective then, to get back home. After many hours of gameplay though, it becomes apparent that this seemingly simple objective is anything but.
One thing Beautiful Desolation absolutely nails is its setting. This is a game world unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Filled with mysterious and nightmarish alien species, plentiful decaying corpses of humungous creatures and an absolute ton of sentient robots, this is a world to be relished in its exploration. However, be warned, before you get to scouring the landscape it’s worth nothing that Beautiful Desolation does not ‘do’ handholding.
Indeed, developers The Brotherhood seem to delight in throwing the player in at the deep end with little to no explanation of what’s going on or what they should be doing. This serves as an effective device to make the player really feel like an explorer, as if they are discovering an unusual land for the very first time. Unfortunately, it can also serve to make the game rather inaccessible, relying on a player to be well versed in point and click adventure games from the 1990s to even have the foggiest idea of how to proceed.
Despite deceptive similarities to iconic classic Fallout 2 in its apocalyptic 2.5D isometric visuals, Beautiful Desolation has no real combat. Instead, Mark, Don and their robotic dog Pooch have to do a whole lot of talking and fetch-questing to politically navigate their way through the many rival tribes they encounter on their journey. Whilst conversations are engaging, thanks to the imaginatively weird folks you encounter and a high standard of voice acting, the fetch-questing is anything but. Being told to find a random selection of nonsense named McGuffins isn’t particularly enticing. Especially as you end up visiting the same areas again and again, wandering back and forth in a desperate attempt to find whatever the tiny object is that you’re looking for. Soon the feelings of being an explorer fade to those of having the dullest of all video game jobs; delivery driver.
The problem is exacerbated by this console conversion. All too often you’ll explore an area only to encounter invisible walls that Mark must try and find his way through, like an over-the-top mime artist trapped in a maze. I assume this issue wasn’t one that came up in the original PC version, as the player could just point and click wherever they wanted their avatar to go. But controlling Mark directly via controller is a chore, the game making it overly difficult to explore your surroundings.
The game also has weird rules about what obstacles Mark can and can’t cross. Something as basic as finding your way over a stream can become an ordeal. Then there’s the issue that all too often paths will be hidden from view, causing the player to have to bump Mark against every object, like a learner driver parallel parking for the very first time, in order to uncover the correct route to take. All these factors turn a game that should be about the joys of exploration into a navigational slog.
There’s a number of other problems that this conversion brings. Take the gorgeous and highly detailed photorealistic environments for example. They are absolutely jam-packed with visual delights and would look great when the player is sat in front of their monitor, no doubt. But try looking at it all on a TV whilst sat on your couch for a prolonged period and eye-strain will soon set in. By the time environmental description text boxes have been added to the screen, forget about it, your eyes will be demanding the rest of the day off. That’s mostly because you can’t call up one description box at a time as you explore a location, instead a tap of a button reveals every single text box at the same time. Flooding your screen with a multitude of boxes filled with tiny text is not fun for anyone’s eyeballs.
Controls are clunky and awkward, the game’s HUD doing a fairly poor job of making it clear what button it is asking you to press. Trying to navigate menus and item screens is far too unintuitive, nothing responding in the way that it should, resulting in controller-gnawing frustration as the menu screen closes yet again when you just meant to select something. There are audio irritations too – just why do cut scenes play at an entirely different volume to the rest of the game, forcing a hurried stab at the TV remote to correct the imbalance? Oh, and visual glitches, as all too often the game creaks to a halt and briefly pauses as an animation kicks in. Just another stop-start moment of frustration in a PS4 conversion chock full of them.