Review: Desert Child

Desert Child (developed by Oscar Brittain) is a slick little game. It has screens of beautiful environments, popping with color and packed with tiny little scene-setting details. The pixelated character art is simultaneously impersonal and diverse, suggesting a cosmopolitan, integrated, yet ultimately anonymous urban life of the future. Storytelling is subtle but memorable, from background elements like the partially destroyed moon or grafitti on a mecha-turned-lifeguard post to pithy newspaper articles you can purchase from a paper boy (how delightfully, absurdly anachronistic that you walk around this future cityscape with a high-tech mobile device but get your news from good old print papers). The soundtrack is incredible, often appropriately atmospheric but frequently edgy or funky or weird (purchasing the many, many tracks from the record store became an early priority). And the plot and themes of the game pull heavily from sci-fi and anime classics, with a special reverence for Cowboy Bebop.

It is short, though. While I took a hiatus from the game midway through, and only played it a little at a time, it only took a handful of hours to get from start to grand prix victory credits. The story is simple: you’re a hopeless hoverbike racer with ambitions to win the big championship race and maybe find a way off a slowly dying Earth. Most of the game is spent in a cycle of slow wealth accumulation and expenditures. Most of that time, you’re barely breaking even, as you have to pay for food, repairs, upgrades, and races. The odd jobs pay better than the races, but to get ready for the championship, you need to practice your racing, and racing is simply more fun (the adrenaline rush that the protagonist gets from the experience is captured well, and racing is absolutely the most exciting and intense element of a game that is otherwise deliberately slow-paced). At first, time seems a factor, but there’s really no rush to get to the grand prix event (I actually lost the first time, without penalty, and proceeded to lose a second time before finally finding a bike mod buildout and race style that better served me; I had much more wins than losses in the standard races and so never had to worry about bigger strategic thinking before then). As a result of the mellow pace, I settled into a slower but steadier routine, focusing more on odd jobs like kangaroo herding, pizza delivery, and weapons testing runs, accumulating cash that largely went to the bank. With the interest accrual of savings, it made more sense to just keep enough on me to keep myself fed and my bike in working order through the next race. This broke the cycle of poverty in the end and made it quite affordable for me to pursue the grand prix as many times as I needed (why exactly does the grand prix allow multiple runs without some sort of game over?).

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I don’t know if perhaps there are different endings or things to explore after your first completion of the game. My impression is that that’s not really the case. There didn’t even seem to be that many mods to customize my bike. I earned most of my mods by participating in the bike theft mini-game whenever I encountered an unattended ride (this mini-game was a clever way to have a game mechanic reinforce the theme of grinding poverty met with ambition; there are other ways to get bike parts, but the temptation to steal, and the cost of honest purchases of parts, is so great that eventually my restraint melted away).

I haven’t said much about how it plays yet. I actually enjoyed most of the game modes. Races were great fun and felt rewarding to attempt (with some level of risk, since you’ll accumulate hunger and bike damage, and even when you win, the pay-out’s not great). The other odd-job mini-games were fine but uneven; pizza delivery offered a huge payout and was soothingly simplistic, while on the other end of the spectrum, I never could find success with the bounty hunter jobs and quickly gave up on them. My favorite non-race mode was weapons testing, using a borrowed rail gun to take out a variety of enemy drones. But I also enjoyed walking around the different screens of the big city, getting “burgers” (the ubiquitous term for all food, from ramen to pizza) at little shops and stalls, and admiring the scenery set to funky music.

Desert Child is a little game, but it’s a cool game. If you come to it for an atmospheric, bite-sized good time, you’ll enjoy yourself. Don’t expect something incredibly deep or lengthy, though! This game’s more about style than layers of substance, and it works.

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