Having been very excited based on the early demo build of point-and-click adventure Dead Synchronicity: Tomorrow Comes Today [official site], I couldn't wait to get my hands on the finished version a year later. But can it live up to its promise? Here's wot I think:
Dead Synchronicity doesn’t have an ending. That seems important to state up front, since everything I experienced during a game of mixed quality is retrospectively coloured by this knowledge.
I mean, it doesn’t go on for infinity. It stops at a certain point. But that’s it – it just stops. Nothing resolved, an inventory full of objects, character relationships unresolved, and most of all, the main plot just abandoned. It doesn’t have an ending – it just stops happening.
And that’s one of a number of massive shames about a potentially thrilling point and click adventure. Set in the aftermath of a mysterious, apocalyptic event called The Great Wave, you play as Michael, a man awaking from a coma as a “Blankhead” – someone who’s lost his memory since the event. (And yes, eye-rolls at an amnesiac playable character, but they do quite nicely narratively justify it.) Most of the world’s infrastructure has been wiped out, power, communication, all gone. And Michael finds himself in what he quickly recognises to be a “concentration camp”.
The use of that phrase is the first hint that this is going to be a game with darker overtones. And boy does it live up to it. Dead Synchronicity is, at times, deeply disturbing and macabre. In this world many are afflicted with a disease, known as “The Dissolved”. So-called because after their elongated times spent in deep trances, their entire body begins to break down on a cellular level, and they, well, dissolve. Michael has been looked after by a couple, who are hiding their young son infected with the disease. The ruling army forces will take away any sufferers, and murder any concealing them, so that’s a high risk situation. Especially as they’re all living in an encampment from which they cannot leave, with scant supplies and the constant oversight of barbaric guards.
Your role, as Michael, is really to help out the locals. In traditional pnc adventure style, you quickly find yourself needing to get some morphine to get some money to get access to talk to someone, and to get that you’ll need some broken glass to dig a hole to access a park that’s blocked by foliage... Unlike traditional adventures, the person you’re trying to speak to is a mentally ill woman, with the mind of a child, who’s being forcibly prostituted by two thugs in the camp.
Like I said, it’s dark. At one point you find yourself mutilating the corpse of a dead man, in order to frame him for a murder you caused two children to commit. Very dark.
And often, very well written. While the prose occasionally tumbles from florid to bright purple, and far more-so by the end, it still stands out as pleasingly deep and involved.
That said, some of the characters are bizarrely badly conceived and written, most especially the camp’s main baddie, Hunter. As someone with whom you’ll have a complicated relationship of tentative allegiance, it’s a real shame that he’s not more convincingly frightening. Although it’s fair to say that a big chunk of this is due to some horrible miscasting, his voice a threat-free British accent, stumbling over the word “dude” in every line like a bemused dad.
But the real problem in Dead Synchronicity is the puzzles. It frequently gets them about as wrong as they can be gotten wrong.
At one point you have two separate locations you can’t access because you don’t have a light. The room the game starts in features a portable lantern. Michael won’t take the lantern, because it will leave the empty room too dark, he says. A room with a door open to the daylight outside.
At another, you need to find film for a camera. Except, you can’t. Despite the game having asked you to take a photograph, led you through a convoluted series of puzzles to reach the point where you have a camera, and then revealed that even after all you’ve done you’ve still got to find film (my notes read: “No FUCKING film in the camera”), looking for it is the wrong thing to do. You have to solve something else, something seemingly far less pressing, for the game to move on to the next chapter, reveal a new location, and then just drop film on you from the sky.
There’s a very problematic lack of flow. Solving a puzzle far too often results in revealing that there’s yet another previously hidden obstacle, rather than delivering you a new location or item that helps with another chain of puzzles. Get a manhole cover open and, even though Michael sodding well goes down the hole, he then crawls back up demanding a light. Finally get a light, again locked behind a chapter change, and he still bloody refuses to go anywhere because he doesn’t have a map. Argh! It’s so incredibly demoralising getting negative feedback on completing a puzzle.
There are also a lot of dead ends in the script. You’re specifically asked by one character to speak to her father, and despite knowing where he lives, the game won’t let you talk to him. Another character begs you to return to her with information on a loved one, and despite gaining it, she never appears again.
And it’s a proper shame, because where the game does remember to finish a character’s arc, it tends to do so with gruesome mettle. It’s morbid tone is all-pervasive, and the mysteries behind what has happened to the world are made more real in these personal explorations.
Michael is also extremely well voiced. Provided by Jeremiah Costello, sounding spookily like George Clooney, his quality work gives a lot to the game. Most of the rest of the cast is strong, too, with the exception of Hunter, and some of the children. The music, while intermittent, is strong too. And while animations are spare, the style and presentation is utterly superb.
So it’s such a galling shame that the game lets itself down so badly. A collection of poor puzzles is frustrating (one in particular required me to email the developer to get past), but forgivable in this lovely daft genre. But not going anywhere – that’s not okay. This isn’t the first chapter, and doesn’t end with a “to be continued”. That’s it. The story, everything you’ve invested in over its ten or so hours, isn’t going anywhere. It announces what needs to be done to save the day, prepares your character with a process of self-realisation, establishes the plot threads that will lead to an eventual dénouement... and then stops.
Much like this review.
Dead Synchronicity is out on 10th April, via Steam.