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Wot I Think: psychological investigation FPS Get Even

A true original

"Style over substance" is traditionally considered a negative epithet, but in Get Even's case it succeeds precisely because of surface-level showiness. What it does with paranoid mood, cut-up storytelling and most of all its nightmare-fuel sound design absolutely excuses a central plot that plays out like Days Of Our Lives doing a cyberpunk episode.

"More than the sum of its parts" would be another appropriate summation of this part first-person-shooter, part storytelling-through-exploration in the vein of Gone Home. Get Even [official site] a police procedural, it's a psychological fable, it's a horror game, it's a loosely cyberpunk stealth-action game.

Individual elements, such as wonky stealth, a ridiculous gun that shoots around corners, an asylum filled with spooky slamming doors, rusty wheelchairs, clapping monkey toys, murderous psychopaths quoting Alice In Wonderland etc and a head-mounted doohickey which enables the user to relive and redirect memories, should absolutely have BUNKUM stamped all over 'em. Almost no aspect of Get Even sounds defensible when considered alone.

And yet. Layered over asylumballs and a plot which begins promisingly as an attempt to resolve a kidnapping and bomb threat but devolves into outlandishly soap operatic futurecorp wars is a whole lot of style.

Get Even works hard to be disorientating, wilfully messing with its player's head in terms of level layouts and fragmentary dialogue in the pursuit of a situation where you never know what's real and what's illusion. A scene can switch from lethally frantic to balefully still in the blink of an eye, and any character might dissipate into the crystal polygon shapes that denote a tech-generated phantasm at any moment.

The asylum - a place of bewildering size and design that you return to in between each 'mission' - is menacing not because of the grab-bag of horror game tropes it contains, but because it has little interest in even trying to be convincing. Each new section of it is like the ghostly whisper of a nightmare you had three nights ago; it is every game asylum (including Batman's) cobbled into a shifting jigsaw of grotesquery.

Its tangibility crumbles as you try to focus on it. Sounds and spoken phrases repeat and loop and grow in urgency; even the inmates behave like broken machines. There are genuinely frightening moments - relentless banging upon the doors of a sealed room as a guttural voice intones 'THE PARTY THE PARTY THE PARTY' - but, more than anything, it's the sense of wrongness that makes this click. The flickering sense of reality and unreality.

On either side of these sections, there's investigation or action. The action can play out as stealth or violence, but there are storyline consequences for each approach. Get Even knows how to tease and tempt, too - offering powerful weapons as rewards, daring you to use them even as a mysterious advisor/tormentor figure named 'Red' balefully warns you that there will be repercussions for too much violence.

Alas, the game stumbles at making either method satisfying. Stealth is a matter of finding absolutely specific paths, enemies exploding into full-alert, all guns blazing status if you veer off them, but hide in a vent or behind a vending machine for long enough and they will drop, mechanically, back into passivity. It's a frequently infuriating experience.

Combat is less irritating, less try-and-repeat, but the robotic nature of enemies robs it of satisfaction - plus the game's open, repeated commentary that you should avoid killing makes doing so feel like a mistake. Get Even includes something called the Cornergun (a major element of the plot, as well as the action), which enables you to perform remote takedowns without sticking your head into danger.

It's a powerful tool, with upgrades unlocked as the game wears on, but barely needed here (not to mention that its usage is actively discouraged). I must say that I admire the work put into creating and including it in Get Even - there is, I think, real boldness in giving the player something massively over-powered then telling them not to use it.

There is an experiment named the marshmallow test, designed to test the potential intelligence of children. Have one marshmallow now, or three marshmallows in twenty minutes. But that marshmallow will sit on a plate next to them until the timer is up, its pink sweetness tormenting those sugar-desirous tots for every moment. Those who can wait it out in favour of a greater reward will do well in their lives, or so the theory goes, while the instant gratifiers may struggle to achieve parity. That is the Cornergun. Except, of course, it requires buying into the idea that wonky stealth and a 'good' storyline pay-off is a better result than easier action and a 'worse' denouement.

The story. Ah. Get Even begins as a race against time to rescue a kidnapped girl, tied to a bomb. From there, reality distorts, and the line between realtime and memory blurs. It delves into virtual realities, corporate espionage and police procedural. The latter is the more interesting element, involving a hunt for criminals and possible copper corruption in the UK Midlands town of Bromsgrove (a childhood haunt of mine, disconcertingly, although sadly Get Even casts Cockneys and gruff Northerners instead of the thick Brummie accents it should).

Trying to piece together what really went on with the kidnapping is alluring, all the more so for the frequent diversions into psychological uncertainty and the visible switching of scenery and characters as memories fade and self-contradict. Clearly, I cannot spoil the outcomes, but the degree of silliness Get Even ultimately opts for is a real disappointment. Daytime soap dynastic chest-thumping and conspiracy theories, family sagas and double-double-crosses; total nonsense conveyed with inappropriate pomposity. Get Even's atmospheric, unsettling triumphs are squandered on the rocks of breathless babble.

I recommend it nonetheless. Get Even might not stick the landing, but it works so hard to be to distinctive - there's so much craft in here, as a disturbing psychological experience, as a basic investigation-puzzler (involving scanners and UV lights on your smartphone), even as an oddball shooter, if you go down that route. Real ambition, with high-end production values attached - unusual but solid and moody voice acting, effective visual trickery, sound design that haunts. Even the ultimate truths of its story fail because they try to do far too much rather than because they lazily handwave anything away.

Get Even is a true original, of the kind we all too rarely see made with this degree of gloss, and I found it deeply interesting for all its stumbles.

Get Even is out now on Windows via Steam and Humble for £25/$30/€30.

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