Welcome to the digital afterlife - looks a lot like Tron.
Imagine yourself walking through a dark forest. No, better than that, you’re walking through an acid-trip memory of a dark forest. The only sound you hear is that of your own footsteps through the thick layer of dead leaves that blankets the forest floor and that’s when you realise you’re completely lost. As you stop to get your bearings you notice that those rustling footsteps didn’t stop with you; someone else is walking right next to you and getting closer! You run, looking wildly around for the supernatural hunter that has you in its sights and you see… nothing. But the sound of footsteps continues. A wonderfully tense moment is killed with the revelation that the sound you hear isn’t someone else nearby, they’re not even your own steps, it’s just a recording playing on a loop with no actual danger at all. As the illusion is destroyed, you relax for a moment. That’s when the demonic school girl jumps out.
Master Reboot is a psychological horror puzzle game from Wales Interactive and on first inspection it does look very interesting. Death is not the end when cloud saves make it to the human brain, allowing for digital backups of your life’s memories. So while you may be rotting in the dirt, you can rest safe in the knowledge that your family is walking through a simulation of your teenage years. You enter the game by crashing onto a beach and from there it’s up to you to work out where to go and what to do. The lack of handholding (with the exception of a few on-screen pointers) is actually an interesting touch and it works for the most part because the actual gameplay mechanics are very simple; run, jump, crouch are all bound to their expected keys and are pretty much all you’re going to need. It is a shame, however, that the story is presented with just as little developer hand-holding. There’s an opening in-game video that presents the concept of the cloud to you (though frankly the steam description goes into more detail) and each level is punctuated by some comic-style artwork but you’re mostly left to finding collectable clues in order to understand the deceptively complicated plot. It’s a little like trying to play Bioshock where the story is told entirely through the audio logs except there’s no audio and you have to piece together the plot points through photographs and hospital records. Whoever wrote the story no doubt thought it was all very clever, but unless you’re willing to put time into hunting out these ducks and interpreting the hidden meanings then the story is going to be mostly lost on you. It’s a shame, then, that the ending assumes too much prior knowledge in order to make any sort of satisfactory sense.
The invisible wall sneaks up on you as though punishing any desire to explore.
Unfortunately, you need a lot of persistence in order to do much exploring in this game. The levels tend to be a lot smaller than they appear; that huge forest you’re in the middle of suddenly becomes claustrophobic when you encounter a wall that only becomes visible just before you walk into it. Feeling your way around the limits of the level in this way is extremely counterproductive and more than likely will have you wanting to stick to the path as much as possible rather than explore every corner for exposition. The horror aspect of the game is also an excuse to rush through some of the levels because this game can be genuinely unnerving. However, it does so in ways that are as likely to anger the player as they are to entertain them. It’s possible to distil the scare mechanics into two main types: the background activity and the jumps, and both are overused to the point of rendering them impotent. The first time you hear a child’s laugh with a considerable dose of reverse reverb it’s a little unnerving, but here you’ll hear it more times than in a dozen playthroughs of F.E.A.R.. The jump-scares are just as frequent, leading you to a feeling of annoyance when you realise the button you want to press is behind a locker so yes, as soon as you press E a dark haired girl with evil eyes will jump out and try to kill you. Yes, the end result is a feeling of unease and paranoia but that underlying feeling of manipulation from such cheap tricks makes the experience more frustrating than it should be.
This is a shame, too, because there is a degree of fun to be found while playing the game. The levels are split up into memories; themed areas accessed through a central hub. Completing these memories usually revolves completing a series of puzzles. Most of those involve finding an item of some sort but some of them do get a little more involved. Occasionally, though they can take the abstract nature of the game world a little too far, at one point you’re required to startle a bird so that it uses a sonic boom to dislodge the next item. Then there are the simple combination lock-style challenges which are easier and quicker to solve through a brute force attack than attempt to figure out legitimately. Platforming sections are also spread liberally throughout and while some games have proven that platforming can be done well in a first person game, this is not one of them. It becomes particularly annoying at the end where the platforming is timed and one missed jump results in the level becoming impossible to complete until the timer runs out and you restart the section.
Sometimes the building-blick simplicity of the artwork enhances the experience. Other times it just feels unfinished.
Each of these levels is visually distinct and the art style that looks like a dream set in the Tron universe works well, it just seems a little inconsistent. For example, It’s unclear whether the evil schoolgirl antagonist is supposed to look like a wooden mannequin or if that’s a sign of this game’s lack of polish. Most of these memories are bookended by comic book-style sequences which are nicely drawn but stylistically conflict with anything seen in the rest of the game. Late in the narrative one of the collectable clues gives an in-universe explanation for them, but that’s just a cop-out for not putting more time and effort into creating more compatible art work.
And that, more than anything else, is the main problem with Master Reboot; it doesn’t feel finished. For every one thing this game gets right, it seems to throw up two or three glaring mistakes. It’s a niche title that I do hope can find its audience, but given a few more months of development and play-testing, this could be a competent release for even the less forgiving gamer. What we have instead, however, is a game with an exciting premise that fails repeatedly in the execution.
Anatidaephobia is the fear that a duck is watching you, apparently.