Review copy purchased.
I THINK what I like most about Quantic Dream games — apart from the surface level “choose your own adventure” mechanic — is their ability to take a completely mundane act like washing dishes, and turn it into the insidious, bone-chilling creep a cow must feel inching up its sweaty neck at the abattoir. There’s none of this artificial grinding business like the Sims. Maxing out mood meters? Not a chance. In Detroit: Become Human, or what I like to call The Young and the Restless: Android Edition, every ounce of dramatic potential is squeezed from uncomfortable crevices without the option to neatly delete a character and start afresh. Its themes are bit too realistic. How could you not feel terrified when Kara, an AX400 class android, is ordered to de-grease a stack of ceramic plates or face the latent, possibly psychopathic wrath of her human master? Detroit might lack Heavy Rain‘s thrilling whodunnit backdrop and the mysterious psychic aura of Beyond: Two Souls, but David Cage’s latest endeavour — an epic power struggle between humani sanguinis and Thirium 310 — still has enough narrative oomph to ferry you through its more pedestrian chapters.
For returning fans, Detroit‘s multifocal narrative approach will be a welcome sight. It won’t be long before you’ll know which one of the three android protagonists — Kara, Markus or Connor — speaks to your heart, and from a design viewpoint, using different perspectives to try and shake up a game’s dynamics and appeal to a broader audience is always a smart idea. However, if you felt impossibly vexed controlling Jodie, Aiden or Ethan Mars — hook right, turn 180, tap the back triggers, press X to Jason — you’ll be dismayed to learn Quantic Dream’s legacy of awkward PlayStation controls has survived.
They’ve always been a little unorthodox, but in 2018 you’d expect some level of refinement, especially since Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn achieved a smoother result three years ago. Nevertheless, navigating Connor through an asphyxiatingly tense introduction is just like coming home to a cheesy, haphazardly plotted film you’ve come to appreciate. You have to admit the controls are unique. Graceless, but unique. It’s either that, or you begrudgingly accept that Quantic Dream is clinging with Taurean audacity to cumbersome design in an effort to stay ‘on brand’ — and that’s fine too. We are gamers, we will adapt. Resistance is futile. Harder though is ignoring the volatile motion controls, which, bless their heart, don’t always seem to register but are humane enough to allow a wide margin of error. If you’ve been blessed with the reflexes of Speedy Gonzales, of course, these issues probably won’t matter, and you can always switch to ‘Casual’ mode for slowed down QTEs (far less anxiety inducing). So, let’s move onto Detroit‘s shiny new additions — some of which are certainly worth spoiling in this review.
Detroit expands the typical gameplay repertoire of simple exploration and QTE mastery attached to Rain and Souls with something an eensy bit special. For Connor, working as an investigative assistant at the city’s police department comes with certain…perks. Like, being able to rewind events that transpired at the scene of a crime (cool), and, if he spots enough stray clues, an option to stitch the sequence into a whole (awesome). Connor ain’t no Time Lord, but as far as androids go, the RK900 model is a damn fine piece of work. It’s incredibly surreal to watch Bryan Dechart (Connor’s voice actor) doing a playthrough with a character made in his image. A character who, mind you, is programmed to hunt down its own kind if they display ‘deviant’ (aka signs of consciousness) behaviour.
Surely that’s where the argument of what it means to be alive ends? A man-made creation that lacks the ability to make complex moral decisions, or, at the very least, fails to demonstrate a capacity for free will cannot ever be or become human, right? Well, according to android creator and CyberLife CEO Elijah Kamski, it’s actually a choice: “Decide who you are. An obedient machine…or a living being”. The only problem is, if androids disobey their programming, or dare to claim organic status, they’re essentially putting a laser pointer on their foreheads. Deviants are gunned down. They’re disassembled so inspectors can sniff out errors in their biocomponents. Retrain the machines. But ultimately, it’s the player who is being trained (or tricked, depending on your viewpoint) into believing androids are just as ‘alive’ as humans are.
The anti-android sentiment is shockingly palpable when Markus (Jesse Williams) is meandering through Greektown plaza. Dude’s just there to collect some paint, but the preachers and protestors won’t have it. Their aggression is Rag’n’Bone Man justifiable since androids have technically scooped up most jobs and made humans obsolete, and your heart absolutely bleeds for the guitar-strumming busker who’s trying to sell “music with soul”. If that’s what 2038 looks like, it’s a bloody depressing picture (opt out now). Still, it’s nowhere near as depressing as the vortex Kara’s (Valorie Curry) been sucked into. She’s a cookie-cutter housekeeper, quietly acquiescing to Todd, her boozed-up human overlord, and Quantic Dream’s infatuation with interactive film — born all the way back in 1999’s The Nomad Soul — ensures you’ll have a pretty reduced level of agency over the whole thing. Manual jumps? Nope. Unscripted actions? Don’t count on it, Bella Goth.
From a cognitive perspective, hooking the joystick to take out the trash isn’t exactly demanding, and there are elements of Detroit that hover perilously close to walking sim territory — but don’t be fooled. Things escalate quickly. Very quickly. Protecting Alice from her raging father requires rapid decision making and a good set of DualShock reflexes, and the uneasy realism of Detroit’s themes turns ‘game over’ into a much more frightening concept — particularly since failure can attract permanent consequences. Since this is a Quantic Dream game, traumatic subjects are pretty much guaranteed. Like horrors and psychological thrillers, darkness is usually part of the allure, and the frenzied electro-beats and discordant cellos in the OST make the atmosphere absolutely crackle with suspense. But nothing is set in stone. As with Life is Strange and its many episodic cousins, your choices determine whether Kara gets beat into a cyber pulp or escapes with Alice on a late night bus going anywhere (OK — it’s actually headed for the depot, but it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts). Plus, this time around, Quantic Dream has upped its game with an interactive flowchart that tracks your decisions chapter by chapter, tempting you to explore the uncharted. By completing more of Detroit‘s pathways, you’ll be rewarded with ‘points’ that you can spend on unlockable items, but unlike the exploration element, using up these virtual reward tokens isn’t quite as stimulating. Regardless, the narrative tree is a thoughtful innovation that could easily become standard in the genre, and can only improve — perhaps with the addition of extra checkpoints — in future.
Detroit’s adherence to film doctrine results in some wonderful climactic moments — crooked benefactors, random police probes, outwitting border control — which naturally beget lower wattage filler scenes. Sadly, they’re generally lacking the silent awe we’ve been spoiled by in Quantic Dream’s older entries. Compare Connor’s rather meh zen garden chats and Kara’s theme park adventure with Jodie’s interview. Or the way Heavy Rain makes you feel like you’re teetering over a slippery clifftop when Ethan and Shaun are at the park, desperately trying to resemble a normal family before everything crumbles. Where’s that haunting fragility in Detroit, fam?
In isolation from more critical junctures, the narrative spark can get dim. Precious few instances — Gavin’s visible contempt for Connor, Markus’ art session with Carl, Kara putting Alice to sleep — manage to really hit the mark. You might even find yourself in a mindless reverie, agitating for the screen to teleport straight to the next chapter. Cage isn’t often lauded for flawless storytelling. In fact, some would argue Detroit‘s invocation of sensitive topics like the Holocaust or the civil rights movement is inappropriate, and in many cases — some of the slogans offered during protests, for example — I would agree.
That said, the core of Detroit‘s narrative is about android rebellion. It’s a battle between red and blue. Blood and chemicals. Organic versus inorganic. If you were delighted by the way iRobot and Blade Runner poked at what it means to be sentient, it’s very likely you’ll appreciate Detroit‘s overarching thesis, too. Sure, the cast’s fiery, impassioned voice-acting might not be enough to plug the holes of what can sometimes be a flat script — Hank’s stiff, repetitive closing line in the DCPD (Detroit City Police Department) when he’s forced to work with Connor is a chief example. Yeesh. Nails on chalkboard. But, in defense of the Dream, the emotional delivery in bigger scenes — Markus marching for freedom, Connor’s point blank morality tests, Kara’s escape from secluded strongholds — is tear-inducingly good, even if the writing quality doesn’t always keep up. It’s evident Quantic Dream wants us to feel sympathetic towards the tenacious three, and thanks to excellent MoCap, noticeably enhanced facial rendering, and poignant crescendos, it’s hard not to play along.
Environmental lighting and shadow effects feel much more natural, and little details like the individual, crystalline rain droplets that cling to Connor’s face, or the fantastic worldbuilding in Carl’s and Zlatko’s mansions and recreations of Detroit streets really deserve massive praise. The accompanying score, which is the combined effort of three different composers, unifies so harmoniously you’d never suspect it. Connor’s themes switch between customised guitars, unplugged string instruments and intense electronic beats that adrenalise almost every encounter, while Markus is paired with minor chords, booming echoes and ambient orchestral voices to symbolise his determination. What both these suites lack is a unique stamp. The motifs are there, but they won’t ravage your soul. They don’t burn like the excruciating birth mark of Heavy Rain that was envisioned by the late Normand Corbeil. Only Philip Sheppard‘s vision of Kara lets listeners peek through the windows of that same forlorn place. Sheppard calls upon Detroit‘s motif frequently, using dormant pacing to create a gentler mood, but most importantly, he takes the melody in new, unexpected directions that are largely absent in the general soundscape.
Final Verdict: Imperfect, but good. Buy on sale.
Despite its superior visuals and lofty goals, Detroit: Become Human doesn’t come with the same brilliant sheen of Beyond: Two Souls or Heavy Rain. By aping the blockbuster model, Quantic Dream shocks and thrills, pulling the exact combination of heartstrings required to evoke compassion during climactic scenes, yet in doing so, inherits flaws that assure intimate moments are deprived of matching emotion. In the end, it’s not a genius script or exquisite soundtrack that is Detroit‘s only saving grace, but a strong sci-fi premise and Quantic Dream’s ability to elevate the mundane with heavy, controversial and gripping themes. If you’re a narrative nut, it’s definitely worth playing — but as a fellow fan, I’d recommend holding off until sale time.
WHY YOU SHOULD PLAY IT:
- You are generally drawn to narrative adventures
- You enjoyed Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, and are thirsty for more
- You have an interest in AI, technology, human rights, or the meaning of life
- Improved facial rendering
- Choice-based twist on ubiquitous sentient AI theme
- Flowchart feature boosts replay value
- Good dramatic quality in bigger scenes
- Inconsistent motion controls
- Musical themes can be generic
- Quiet moments often lack narrative spark