Platform: Microsoft Windows, OS X, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita
Developer: Bithell Games
Publisher: Bithell Games
Release date: 18 August 2015 (all platforms except Vita), to be announced for PlayStation Vita.
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Volume is an action stealth game from indie game designer Mike Bithell. Narratively, it picks up where his 2012 puzzle-platformer Thomas Was Alone left off. Sentient AIs play a large role in Volume. Tonally, Volume is distinct. Don’t go in expecting a story as touching as that of Thomas‘.
I was drawn to Volume initially because of its distinct visual style. It’s very abstract, with guards having clear lines of sight and its artificial, maze like environments. Volume appears to be explicitly inspired by Metal Gear Solid (the game, not the whole series), particularly its VR Missions spin-off. Hideo Kojima is actually listed in the thank-you section of the game’s credits.
The artificiality in the design of Volume is effectively justified by the premise. You are playing a character who is, himself, running a simulation. We’ll get to that- for now I’m going to focus on the minor technical quibbles I had playing the game. This will be fun and not at all dry.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Volume is engaging on the whole. It’s a challenging game that requires planning ahead and quick timing. Volume features 100 micro-levels which all can be completed within a minute or so. Technically. However, playing through the first time will likely take significantly longer. It’s about solving a puzzle. Sometimes there will be trial, and also error. Personally, I managed to unlock the ”achievement” for dying 200 times. Despite this, Volume is generous with its save points. I was thankful for this. There was little redoing of extensive sections, solutions always felt close in a way that motivated me to play more. Your mileage may vary, naturally, depending on what kind of challenge you like in games.
However, these regular save points would cause guards to reset their patrols. This felt slightly cheap; there were occasions where I could rush a section, be seen by a guard and make for a check-point. The guard would kill me but it wouldn’t matter because I’d come back to the save point and the guard be reset to their regular patrol. There’s nothing wrong with this as a game-mechanic, inherently. It merely feels inelegant to me. Especially given that Volume is a game that lends itself to a speed-run community; there’s a leader-board at the side of the level select which displays the fastest times. There’s nothing elegant about a speed-run that exploits player death, in my mind.
Aesthetic criticism aside, some of the stealth toys you come across to help you in your heist don’t function particularly smoothly. In particular, the bugle. I hate the bugle. Passionately. The bugle appears a lot in the earlier levels. It’s designed with the purpose of distraction in mind. Throw it and it’ll rebound three times before hitting a wall, finally, and distracting the guards in the vicinity. When directing your throw, if you move just slightly the bugle can end up going in a completely different direction than you intended. Not to mention, it’s demanding to line up a shot.
All of the stealth gadgets could have done with smoother design. Sometimes they hit invisible walls and the line that shows you were they’re going to hit is thin and white. It looks like it could have been rendered by drawing a line in Microsoft Paint.
Ultimately, I wish that Volume played as slick as it looked. That’s not to say that it didn’t deliver for the most part in terms of what I expected from it.
Moving onto the story, Volume‘s narrative is ambitious. It tells the tale of a Robin Hood like figure (Rob Locksley). By watching the simulation, which he’s hacked into, you can learn how to pull off real life heists. That’s the idea. He’s streaming his run through a ”Volume” and hopes to inspire the impoverished to pull of crimes and redistribute wealth.
This game has been out for a few days now. So, I’ve had the opportunity to read other reviews. One of the largest criticisms leveled at the story is that there appears to be a fundamental disconnect between what is occurring on screen and the actual story.
I understand where such criticism comes from, there is, indeed, a large disconnect between Rob playing through the simulation and the larger story. However, considering that something is made of how detached Rob appears to be from the crimes he’s inspiring– this wasn’t an issue I personally found with the game. For the most part. I’d have liked things to switch up near the end-game. For instance, considering that the story focuses on the impoverished and the disenfranchised as well as the effects of Rob’s actions on them, it would have been neat to have a character who belongs to that group feature more heavily.
Volume also explores the effect of sentient AI on society (I told you the narrative was ambitious). Bithell draws a clear parallel between the feelings that some people have about AI and the feelings that some people in the UK, currently, have about immigrants. In one of the levels you can come across this remark from an excerpt of a news report:
AIs present the greatest immigrant risk this country has ever known… Government must clamp down on their creation, and their access to our infrastructure.
Bithell’s treatment of AIs is very similar to their treatment in Channel 4’s recent show Humans. The presentation is less emotive, which you could say is natural result of this being a 3D action stealth game and the real action occurs off-stage, as it were. On the other hand, Thomas Was Alone managed to tell an emotive story about sentient AIs minimalistically. Not that a game need be emotionally affecting to tell an interesting story, the chord Volume strikes might be a different one than Thomas‘ and yet they both might do something for you.
Volume‘s world-building is dense. Scattered snippets of letters and messages found in the levels paint a strange picture. They tell stories of a deeply nationalistic, hierarchical society beset with issues pertaining to technology. Aside from the striking sci-fi, dystopic themes, there’s some humour in this. The gentle kind. Your AI companion, Alan, might kindly tell you that he can lower the difficulty of the guards if you keep failing a section.
In my opinion, Volume‘s a conceptually absorbing game. I want to pick it apart, analyse it but I don’t want to spoil things for you. I don’t think it’s successful in all it attempts, but I feel the game and the relative safety that Rob plays in feeds very well into the central story. Overall, Volume is fun to play and fun to think about.
- Vibrant, clean cut look to it.
- Challenging but not discouraging.
- Ambitious and interesting story.
- Easy to use level designer if that’s something you’re into.
- The bugle hates me. The feeling is mutual.
- May disappoint fans of Bithell’s preceding game.
You’re player character isn’t involved in real violence and plays defensively. There’s no way you can permanently take out a guard although they can take you out. No sharp language, to my recollection, nor sexual themes featured. Not to be recommended if your child is very impatient and has a short fuse, the game-play may frustrate.
Code provided by publisher.