If you’ve caught the shutterbug recently thanks to New Pokémon Snap, then you owe it to yourself to play Umurangi Generation, a first-person photography game that couldn’t be more of a stark contrast in terms of style, mechanics, aesthetics and themes. Instead of an on-rails safari photographing cute critters, this game gives you freedom of movement within compact sandboxes set across an urban dystopia in a bleak future in crisis, taking photos as you explore.
While the crisis alluded to within the game’s environmental storytelling is of a sci-fi nature taking inspiration from Japanese media like Godzilla or Evangelion, the imagery can’t help but feel pointedly zeitgeist about our very own reality, especially with the sights of protest, military outposts and even people wearing face masks. Umurangi Generation couldn’t have felt more timely when it was released last year, but arriving on Switch a year later, it’s lost none of its power.
Arguably, on Nintendo’s hybrid console, you’re getting the definitive experience, and not just because this special edition includes the substantial Macro DLC but also supports optional gyro controls. As someone who was delighted with playing New Pokémon Snap almost exclusively in handheld mode with gyro aiming, this also feels like the perfect way to immerse yourself as Umurangi Generation’s game’s courier photographer, although you’ll also have to hold the trigger like in an FPS to actually point the camera. Whatever you opt for, there’s a tactile wonder to using your camera, which you can steadily unlock new lenses to shoot with, changing between them more naturally then cycling through guns on a weapon wheel.
Added to this is the ability to mess with the filters once you’ve taken the shot, so you can use sliders to change the photo’s exposure, contrast, saturation, and more options which unlock over time, giving you plenty of freedom for customising the look of your pictures. By default, they’re also captured straight to your Switch’s screenshot folder, though you can tweak this setting to avoid flooding your system memory.
Yet for all the open creative features offered to you, it’s also surprisingly lax about whether or not you use them. For each level, you’re given objectives called bounties on what you have to take pictures of. These sometimes challenge you to find the right angle or position to get the correct composition, like trying to fit 10 solar panels into a single shot, while also using a long-range telephoto lens. Yet in other situations it’s less about getting the shot so much as it is figuring out where to find the bounty in question, which may be an object, a word or maybe some graffiti. That can be rewarding as you realise how much detail is densely packed into these small low-poly environments, but some objectives are not as obvious as it appears, such as the first time you’re asked to take a picture of a Union Jack.
At the same time, I would also take random snaps and accidentally discover that I had netted one or two bounties without realising. The fact that it’s possible to tick off your objectives whether your bounty is a speck that’s only partially in frame or not even in focus somewhat deflates the goals set out. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re even a competent photographer, although it does make Umurangi Generation easy for speedrunning.
That rough slapdash approach largely does work for a game that has a deliberately lo-fi aesthetic – also channeled through its excellent soundtrack that wouldn’t feel out of place at a dingy underground club’s afterparty – where the urgency and immediacy of the message compensates for its lack of polish. Still, I would’ve preferred being able to move around with a bit more ease. I didn’t realise until late on that you could double-jump, but even then traversal feels sluggish and unrefined when you’re trying to reach certain areas.
That is fortunately addressed in the included Macro DLC, where one of the new unlockables lets you speed around on roller skates, bringing Umurangi Generation even closer to its Jet Set Radio inspirations (you can even graffiti-tag logos of the United Nations, depicted in the game as a neoliberal fascist military superpower). It’s a cool bonus for getting around, though the whole DLC is fantastic as well. It offers four completely new environments, whereas the base game recycles a few in different contexts, and it’seven more explicit with its politics of resistance.
Ultimately, Umurangi Generation is best experienced when you take your time to examine everything at a relaxed pace, the timer in the corner be damned – finishing in under 10 minutes is one of the bonus objectives. Being a relatively short game, it shouldn’t be rushed, as there’s still plenty of secrets and bonus objectives – like all those elusive film canisters – that you’re unlikely to uncover the first time around. Hanging around with your friends, taking in the sights, the sounds, you slowly and steadily immerse yourself in this bleak but vivid depiction of the end of the world where you’re no longer just a voyeur but an activist.