Video games are often a gateway to other worlds, providing an experience that we cannot participate in ourselves. Whether we are racing through slick city streets or lining up colored gems, each title is a means of escape into another environment. Gamedec, the latest from Anshar Studios (Detached, Telefrag), offers players both an escape of their own as well as an engrossing story that spans multiple realities.
As the titular character, the journey from Realium (real-life) to Virtualiam (inside the games) will be a crisscrossing adventure full of detective work, environmental puzzles, and mundane tasks designed to fit the fictional locales. Try and save a CEO’s son from a prostitution website, or grind out pumpkin harvests to decorate a humble farm. The choices are yours, and the decisions you make will affect how your story plays out.
STORY – DIGITIZE ME, CAPTAIN
There is so much packed into the narrative of Gamedec that I’ll only be able to give a cursory summary before getting into the actual execution but strap yourselves in. Based on the five-part short story series by Polish author Marcin Przybyłek, this interpretation of the series puts players into the role of a Gamedec (game detective) who must enter various virtual reality games to solve cases and uncover mysteries.
The amount of lore that is dropped into this title is absolutely massive, but it’s doled out as a drip-feed; you never get more information than you need at any given time. Once learned, information is at your fingertips, with a large database of content that can be used for reference. The pace at which you learn about different organizations and “enpacs” (NPCs) isn’t overwhelming, but it also doesn’t cause the experience to drag its feet on the way to the action.
Different locales each have a different atmosphere on the surface, but in the end, every area you journey to within “Virtualium” boils down to the same thing: you’re in a large multiplayer game, and other users are not who they appear to be. Take the first major area, Harvest Time, for instance. Essentially, it’s a Harvest Moon MMO, and you must spend some initial time farming to get enough quests done so enpacs will allow you to move on to the next area.
I found this conceit really interesting, because, at the same time, Gamedec showed off the seams of the game it was projecting for me. Harvest Time was a cool little farming episode, but I was quickly in the middle of a large loot box farming operation that used orphans and runaway teens as slave labor. I had to uncover clues and make a decision about who was behind the plot: the friendly sheriff, the runaway player?
The information I learned and the extent that I was willing to research the situation was vital to how I proceeded. To add another layer of meta on top, one character spoke entirely in “leetspeak“, something I haven’t encountered in years. Small side asides and clever writing helped pull me further into the world, ultimately making me care even more about the choices I made.
This isn’t a title for those who want to casually explore a cyberpunk world. It’s closer to a living novel, as engrossing and dense as the works it’s been influenced by. Little touches really show what life could actually look like in a realistic future, with drones hovering outside apartment windows with the sole purpose of advertising to the residents 24/7. Even the mechanisms that allow for virtual play, the couches that allow characters to enter the different games, aren’t reliable. Many that you encounter are damaged or able to be modified to achieve a personal objective.
What was probably most engrossing was the way that enpecs (and realium NPCs alike) seemed to hold their own as characters in ways that I haven’t often seen in narrative-driven titles. Bartenders have backstories. To access a crime scene, you’ll need to orchestrate a fight between a strict police captain and a sick medical examiner. Even an innocuous minigame about working over club patrons to curry favor with certain gangs left me feeling like I’d seen a fleshed-out world within one level of a dive bar.
Gamedec really only failed when it went with the more abstract facets of cyberpunk titles. Getting my consciousness lost within the custom server of artificial intelligence that lived to be a CEOs mistress. Examining a stab wound from the Internet that was so powerful it made a mark in Realium. These were less grounded scenarios that leaned harder into the fantasy portion of the genre.
That’s not to say that more outlandish scenarios weren’t interesting, but I found it much more compelling to explore a world that I could see as a potential continuation of the one we live in right now. That’s just my taste shining through, and in all other aspects, Gamedec sticks the landing.
GAMEPLAY – POINT, CLICK, DEDUCE
If you’ve ever played a Shadowrun title, this game will feel like home. For those who haven’t experienced the seedy underbelly of the future, here’s a quick primer of the genre. Gamedec is an isometric adventure title that relies on player interaction and world exploration to further the narrative. The setting is Warsaw at the end of the 22nd century, granting access to a myriad of futuristic technologies and ideas.
There is no active combat, and the game is controlled entirely by selecting choices and actions like tabletop roleplaying games. The added layers of virtual worlds here grant some different aesthetics that you wouldn’t normally see in a cyberpunk title, but at its core, it’s still clicking around and reading a bunch of text.
That being said, as noted above, the bunch of text is well-written and exciting to read, and engrossing enough to hold your attention. As you play around with your character build (or even run through the game a second or third time making different choices), it’s important to pay attention to the avenues that close themselves off to you as well as the ones you access.
Maybe by choosing a more charismatic upgrade path, you end up losing the ability to hack into or access computer controls that can alter the course of a case. Perhaps the cold, machine-like build you leaned into at first means that it’s harder to sway a witness into talking later on. The variety of routes through the game is large enough that your experience will feel unique every time you play.
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and daisies. With a title such as this, that relies so heavily on exploring every single thing in the world, the cursor-based navigation can be incredibly cumbersome, especially in smaller locations that don’t have very open areas. Oftentimes, I found myself getting stuck on world objects like tables or bar stools simply because the character wanted to go straight to where I pointed, not around the obstacles along the way.
Aside from that, the radius of discoverability is almost laughably small for smaller clues and one-off interactions. Talking to an enpec from a distance was no problem, but to read some graffiti behind a couch, I had to be right on top of it and facing the right direction before the action icon would show up.
Once you get into a dialogue, though, everything works the way it’s meant to. It’s through this medium that things such as combat and puzzles are actually handled. At one point, a duel was handled entirely through dialogue choices, and it was a lengthy one at that! But it didn’t feel like a scripted attempt to express engagement; the situation as important as every other decision I made.
Even balancing the knife-edge of trust when speaking to witnesses feels engrossing enough to be completely controlled by my sophisticated observations (and foolish mistakes). Dialogue trees only further expand as time goes on, with new branches unfurling as your upgrade path progresses. It’s in these instances that it would behoove players to take notes and see what else they can uncover on their next run — it’s as if Deathloop were stretched out to Tolstoy.
My largest takeaway regarding the gameplay mechanics was that playing Gamedec is clear, concise, and not bogged down by extraneous systems to manage or sort through. There aren’t additional layers to keep track of beyond the dialogue trees, just a simple interface that opens up to the larger narrative.
GRAPHICS & AUDIO – ELEGANT, LIKE A LASER KNIFE
If the story is a dense brick of content, and the gameplay is a light framework, the graphics take the middle-ground. While not necessarily the greatest expression of art (even within this genre), the environments and areas that you traverse have a muted sort of artistry that puts the focus on the character models.
I really enjoyed that this view of the future feels like a natural extension of our current world. There aren’t chase scenes aboard hover crafts, but art installations are interactive on a level we don’t currently see. There are a ton of cool future terms being thrown around, but nobody busts out a plasma rifle. The entire experience is rooted in a sense of familiarity that doesn’t get overwhelmed with lofty expressions and gaudy landscapes.
The camera controls are not nearly as useful as I’d have liked. A common problem with isometric views within games is that the viewer must be set at a distance that allows players to see enough of the area. A downside to this, and one that is notable here, is that the span of the camera allows fewer chances to really inspect the surroundings. Character models aren’t particularly detailed, or memorable, even within the different Virtualium games, but if most of your focus is on the dialogue, that shouldn’t be a problem, right?
I cannot express how delightful the atmospheric soundtrack is. Composers Piotr Musiał, Maciek Dobrowolski, Marcin Przybyłowicz, and Magdalena Urbańska have crafted a beautiful, evocative tone that beautifully threads through the entire experience.
Gamedec was reviewed for PC. A key was provided by Evolve PR.