Unlike many of the other demos I’ve played these past few days, Conscript is something of an anomaly to me. Despite its worldwide popularity and influence, I do not have much personal experience with Resident Evil, nor games of its type. Specifically, survival-horror. This game, which takes heavy inspiration from the Resident Evil series, is not something I would generally be intrigued by. However, the sheer scope of its premise and deeply psychologically twisted imagery was enough to win me over. I didn’t even discover it initially—I have my brother, who does enjoy survival-horror, to thank.
This context is important going forward, because it sets a precedent that I’m not completely familiar with the ins and outs of the genre. As an admission, I did struggle mightily to get the hang of this in the first half-hour or so. It’s one thing to witness horror, surviving is a whole ‘nother Hell in and of itself. Not to say Conscript doesn’t prepare you; loads of weapons and items are supplied in the early portions of the demo. What ended up hampering me for some time was trying to find how best to make use of them. Combining my own inexperience and some “intriguing” design choices, the demo ends up being both exhilarating and frustrating.
Conscript is available to play as a free demo between October 1-7 during Steam’s Next Fest. A “2022” window has been provided for a full release.
Story – War… Is Hell
Following a lone French soldier during the Battle of Verdun in World War I, he goes searching for his M.I.A. brother while trying to survive imminent death. Explosions, gunfire, gas, and more, his situation is not one to envy. The demo opens to his writing a letter home, only to once again be dragged into the rampage of intense human conflict.
Such isn’t much to keep one going, at least for a while. Conscript‘s demo better emphasizes an ongoing story through player progression and visual storytelling. As one makes their way through the trenches, they’ll come to find antagonistic commanders, fellow troops cowering in fear, and miles’ worth of corpses. All one needs to know about the story is written in blood, deftly showcasing one of the deadliest wars in human history.
As for the player character himself, Andre, his circumstances certainly make him a sympathetic character, though not much about him is really expressed. The game is not one that will enthrall with character charm and crucial development, at least not over the course of the demo. What’s at stake is what’s on offer; to get a soldier home safely during a crucial, agonizing point of human history.
Gameplay – Fight or Flight
Not to compare it too much to its clear inspirator, but those fondly familiar with the Resident Evil games will have no trouble hopping in to this. Many aspects are clearly taken into consideration when it comes to gameplay design. Saves require a consumable item each time; storage space is cramped, and organization is essential; ammo and key items both take space in storage; a merchant sits around save points and will upgrade your weapons, as well as sell you things; playing conservatively is recommended, as ammo is limited throughout the map. I’ve heard of all of these aspects in theory, but I’ve yet to truly take them into consideration, until now.
Conscript proved a difficult demo to play through, for a few different reasons. One was simply the act of rewiring my brain to play as it intended me to. Sometimes it’s better to run, sometimes you need to think closely about the items you pick up and how they correspond to progression. It’s survival-horror, though also features elements of action, stealth, and puzzle gameplay. Kind of like… you get it. Death was a frequent visitor in my playthrough, trying to fiddle with weaponry and adjusting to the myriad of button inputs required. Let’s just say that if I had an audience, they may have thought I’d never played a video game before. But I strove for improvement!
Generally speaking, one will be traversing through trenches and brown-gray environments while playing. Interacting with crates and shelves and notes left behind, there’s a lot of material to look out for as one investigates each room. At one point, after gathering some blunt weaponry, enemies will start coming into play, though from what I could tell, killing isn’t totally necessary (at least all the time). One can (sometimes more easily) run away from them and continue progressing through the journey. Puzzle elements don’t come into play until later on, though they’re generally intuitive enough to figure out so long as you have the correct items.
I will note now that this demo ended up the buggiest game I’ve played during the Next Fest thus far. Enemies would occasionally quit chasing me and simply stand in one place, only turning in my general direction. On three separate occasions, I glitched out of the map and ended up running around in pitch darkness, causing me to have to reset once. Booting the game up one time legitimately crashed my laptop. This is on top of really noticeable framerate issues when there are are many enemies onscreen. The demo warned that bugs would be present upon starting it up, but holy moly…
Combat in itself was also pretty unspectacular. Even the act of combat requires holding down one trigger, then pressing another, which took considerable effort to get used to. Many of my deaths were a result of getting overwhelmed, with my offensive efficiency completely shot. It was at this point that I figured it’d be best to take on one, maybe two people at once, and run if more. Still, I never felt completely within a comfortable position while in combat, hoping that my relatively inaccurate aim (my advice: don’t play this on controller) would take down enemies in one or two hits.
A lot of what is provided in the demo doesn’t really prepare you, either. Some sheets near the beginning will allude to specific things, but others are complete trial and error. When receiving ammo for the first time, I had no idea that you could reload your weapon by using the shoulder button while it was equipped. Without knowing how to restock, I had to discard valuable ammo. I had no idea that using all of your stamina would prevent you from using more until the gauge refilled. And I had no idea that you have to pump the rifle / shotgun in order to fire it again, which also led to a few deaths. Eventually, I got used to having to account for these aspects, but it certainly doesn’t speak well to accessibility.
As a final negative note, there was a point in Conscript, near the very end, when I actually had to look up a video guide of how to progress. I had been running around aimlessly, not sure of what to do. It turns out, I had missed a door somewhere because it blended in with the environment surrounding it. Nothing is more deflating to immersion than thinking that you’ve explored everything and there’s no way out, only to discover that the answer was just under the nose. Even realizing near the beginning that certain things were actually continuing trench pathways was somewhat of an issue. More clear markers for entrances and exits would be highly appreciated.
Some of these complaints are my own fault, which I’ll acknowledge as due to my inexperience. Even still, playing through the demo allowed me to sharpen (albeit slowly) my skills with an unfamiliar genre. And by the end, when shedding the disappointment of my own ignorance, I found myself really enjoying the cycle it provided in terms of gameplay. With a better grasp on what to expect and how to handle it, I was somewhat let down by the demo’s ending screen just as I got comfy. I’m almost tempted to go back and replay it just to see how much better I could do.
Graphics & Audio – Explosive Content
While discussed in part earlier, much of the content of the Conscript demo is through visual storytelling. A natural progression of the tides of war, with a lot of dark imagery present through destruction, screams, and warm bodies. Its specific aesthetic is from a top-down perspective, with very pixelated, but detailed sprite work making up muddied environments and war-torn figures. Animation is a key detail here, with a lot of progressive action occurring while one plays. Explosions from only feet away, and bullets whirring in the distance. There’s a lot of horrific detail at play.
Much of the central soundtrack is simply ambiance and, er, war noises. Some respite is provided in rooms with save areas, with a quiet, serene tune playing as a light blue flame glows. It’s a stark contrast, which allows the player to breath and appreciate the haven, just before returning to destruction. Though frankly, most of what I remember are the explosions and the rumbling of earth shattering through manmade weaponry. That’s probably what Andre would say, too.
Another key aspect is darkness. Given the time period, there isn’t a lot of electricity present, which ensures that much of the trenches and pathways that connect the areas are bereft of light. It’s an isolating, creeping feeling of dread that comes with darkened traversal. Especially with a note found early in the game warning you that attacks could “Strike from anywhere,” it’s all the more terrifying to know something could pop up at any moment. Or, more frequently, explosions occur and jump-scare you. Always the damn explosions.
Conscript was previewed via a demo available on Steam.