Strap in for Breathedge, a survival adventure game set in the cold vacuum of space. When the spaceship you’re on mysteriously explodes en route to a galactic funeral, it’s up to you to figure out what happened and how to get yourself to safety. With nothing but an immortal chicken and your own ingenuity, craft, scan and float your way to safety and get to the bottom of a galaxy-spanning conspiracy.
Breathedge is out now on Steam.
Story – Gags Imposed by the Developers
Breathedge puts you in the sturdy space boots of The Man, a simple enough fellow who’s transporting his grandfather’s remains to his space funeral when, all of a sudden, the hearse liner they’re on explodes and he finds himself struggling to survive and gradually unravelling a galactic conspiracy.
The story certainly has its enjoyably wacky moments as you progress, but the pacing leaves a lot to be desired. The parcelling out of story beats in classic survival game fashion isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but spending hours and hours early in the game to hit those first few milestones before everything suddenly starts snowballing is a jarring experience. This may be down to the development cycle of the game: the first few chapters have been out in Early Access for some time, so it’s possible there was more of an emphasis on designing them to keep people involved and playing for a longer period of time than the later instalments in order to keep interest in the game piqued.
Note must also be made of the game’s writing – specifically, the avalanche of jokes and gags that hits you the moment you load up the game. I quite enjoyed it to begin with, as Breathedge launches with tongue firmly in cheek right from the start, with amusing Deadpool-esque opening credits and an intro sequence that allowed me to get my character beaten to death before I’d even technically started the game. As time went on, though, I started to get the distinct feeling that the team had decided to go for quantity over quality in terms of jokes.
Much of the humour has a distinctly early-2000s ‘haha OMG so random’ vibe to it which, while entertaining in moderation, arguably misses more than it hits. Many of your interactions involve electrocuting, violating or otherwise injuring your inexplicably immortal chicken companion, you can relieve yourself anywhere with the press of a key, and the fourth wall is not so much a wall as a soggy piece of paper.
The main perpetrator is your suit’s upbeat and condescending AI, which delivers a relentless barrage of comments which are equal parts guidance for the actual gameplay and jokes about piss and game mechanics, all in the style of a pharmaceutical advert voiceover describing the myriad horrifying side-effects of the latest medication to hit the market. This might actually have been more amusing than it was, if it could only learn to shut up once in a while and actually try and let a joke land or a comment sink in. As it is, it’s just a tsunami of words which only serves to wash away the potential nuggets of humour or usefulness.
Jokes are made at the expense of the tropes and clichés of the genre – at one early point you literally have to craft something called ‘Crap Imposed by the Developers’ which turns out to be nothing but a phallic piece of metal – but it never really comes across as satirical or clever so much as trying to score points for being ‘meta’ without actually saying anything meaningful or amusing, before making you do the exact thing that it’s supposed to be mocking.
It’s a shame, because it feels like there’s a lot of potential for weird and silly and surreal humour in Breathedge’s space-age pseudo-Soviet setting – the baby photo of The Man with a full beard made me chuckle, and the various update posts on the game’s Steam page are genuinely quite funny – but too often it falls back on tired gags and attempts at self-effacing humour that don’t quite stick the landing.
Gameplay – Don’t Hold Your Breath
Breathedge is primarily a survival game set in space. You’ll likely be familiar with the core components by now: gather resources from the environment, use them to craft tools and the like in order to gather more and different resources, build bases, keep those food and drink health bars topped up. Breathedge has two main mechanics that set it apart to some degree, though: firstly, since you’re in space, your range of movement is fully three-dimensional and you can float around and knock things around in zero gravity; and secondly, you have an oxygen level that constantly ticks down while you’re outside of your home base. Once it hits zero, you’ll start suffocating to death. Fun!
The natural comparison point in the survival game genre is inevitably going to be Subnautica, in which you crash land on an alien planet and must explore the vibrant and dangerous oceans around you to figure out how to get home in one piece. Similar movement and oxygen mechanics are present in Unknown Worlds’ underwater survival sim, and they arguably do a better job of fusing them into a cohesive and enjoyable experience. Breathedge’s movement is definitely fun, floating from one piece of wreckage to another and sending pieces of debris flying through the void, but the oxygen timer dwindles just fast enough to be annoying, leaving you unable to really enjoy or appreciate the gameplay.
Unlike in Subnautica, where you can swim to the surface to refill your oxygen meter, The Man must hike all the way back to his base (or an oxygen refill station that you must craft and position in a hopefully helpful location) to take a breath, ultimately restricting the scope of your exploration significantly until a decent way into the game.
It should be noted that Breathedge features several game modes, two of which turn off the oxygen meter altogether (though at the cost of disabling achievements and, in one case, the story). What these modes don’t fix, though, is the frustrating frailty of your tools. Item durability and degradation are often a staple of this type of game, and it’s not always a fundamentally bad thing – in Breath of the Wild it encourages experimentation with different weapons, in strategy games like Fire Emblem it factors into the decisions you make on the battlefield, and in other survival games it can introduce a degree of tension and drama when used effectively.
Here, however, your tools are laughably flimsy, breaking after a paltry number of uses, and you can’t repair them, only recraft them. As a result, expect to carry around multiples of your tools, filling valuable inventory space that could have been saved for more useful items. And if not? Hope you enjoy trekking all the way home in the middle of a resource hunt because your handy scrapper broke, rendering you unable to do anything productive until you make a new one.
All in all, the one-two punch of the oxygen mechanic and the fragile tools results in the momentum of the early- to mid-game being all over the place, leaving you running in tedious circles to try and get around one issue or the other and contributing to the dissatisfying pacing of the story. And later on, just when you feel like you might have things under control, the game all but abandons most of the survival game aspects to which you’ve grown so accustomed, switching with little warning to a more linear, story-driven, walking-simulator style of gameplay to rocket you along to the plot’s conclusion.
I have no issue with walking sims – some of my favourite games to date fall into the category – but this sudden volte-face in style and gameplay makes the game seem unpolished and unfocused, and makes the hours spent acclimatising to the resource management and crafting systems of the first parts of the game seem all but pointless.
Graphics and Audio – Gazing Into the Abyss
For all its faults, it’s impossible to deny that the majesty of space in Breathedge is breathtaking. It’s very pretty in a ‘my god, I’m so tiny in an enormous universe’ kind of way, and the way the ship has broken apart, spilling coolant and paint that freezes in place in the vacuum of space, forms a weirdly picturesque and peaceful backdrop to the scene of such a disaster. Music is effectively used throughout: a quiet, calm and almost ethereal melody plays in the background as you explore the wreckage of the ship and the rest of the game’s world, while a stress-inducing motif starts up once you get down to the last few seconds of your oxygen reserves (be prepared to hear that particular musical sting quite a lot).
Everything runs remarkably smoothly considering how good it all looks and sounds, though I found the loading times remarkably long, running to over a minute and a half just to get to the main menu, and about that again to load into the game proper. Having to wait 3 to 4 minutes on a decent gaming PC just to get into the game is a rather tall order in 2021, but thankfully once you’re in there’s very little extra loading beyond that, unless you die and have to reload. So keep an eye on that oxygen level!
Breathedge was reviewed on PC with a code provided by Hypetrain Digital.