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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A weak week recap

I don’t know that I have much to say this week. We’re still adjusting to Rhodey’s absence in our home. After a week of struggling, we took today to get back to work on getting things unpacked, organized, renovated, etc. Today I tackled some yard work I’d let build up after Rhodey died. The previous owner kept a lovely lawn and garden, but in the months between her death and the home purchase, weeds crept in, and grasses spread like wildfire through the flower beds. So on top of the usual mowing and trimming and pruning, I’m finally getting around to beating back these vegetative invasions. My goal for this evening is to get as many of the books put away as possible. Truly, I don’t know that I’ll get that much done, or that I’ll continue it during the weeknights.

Speaking of books, I’m regaining my appetite for reading–or, really, my focus. I’m still all over the place with partially read books. Last week, I made a concentrated effort to finish A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell. I rather enjoyed it, but my (relatively) increased reading speed was largely motivated by the return date for the library. I racked up a little bit of a late fee there. Plus, it’s in demand, so I’m that jerk delaying someone’s hold. Not the main point: the main point is that Virginia Hall is a fascinating woman, the French Resistance is a fascinating movement within a period of history shrouded by great evil, and there are interesting parallels to today. Not the sort of book I usually talk about on this blog, but given that it helped jump-start my reading again, I figured it was worth a mention. (Thanks, Mom, for the recommendation however long ago that prompted me to place the hold in the first place.)

I still have a pile of books to get through, though. The list:

  • On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, by A’Lelia Perry Bundles (another library loan, and another of those books I don’t normally write here about, but I’m a fan of nonfiction, especially histories and biographies, especially those about Indianapolis and its significant residents, and even more narrowly, the people and culture of Indiana Avenue from its segregationist roots to its thriving status as an African-American arts and business district and its eventual destruction as the result of a complex variety of factors that, in general, don’t cast the city of Indianapolis, the state of Indiana, or IUPUI in the greatest light);
  • Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper, picked up because a mutual on Twitter was raving about it (and I like it so far, largely due to some really wild world-building, but I haven’t gotten very far in, and this in fact started as an eBook library loan but transformed into an inexpensive purchase when the loan expired);
  • Star Wars: Bloodline, by Claudia Gray, because (1) Star Wars, (2) Leia, and (3) Claudia Gray; and
  • Star Wars: Tales of the Bounty Hunters, one of the old Expanded Universe short story anthologies and an impulse buy for nostalgic reasons while at Half Price Books for something completely unrelated.

Oh, also, I haven’t even started it, but Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters, recommended by a friend when I admitted to a lack of familiarity with this Daoist text (having only read the Tao Te Ching in college), is another book in my pile and another library loan.

I haven’t played any video games, old or new, familiar or unfamiliar, lately. Haven’t really been in the mood. I haven’t even hooked up the Switch in our new home yet. I’ve kind of been getting into the mood for mucking around in a Grand Theft Auto game. Before the move, I was playing Desert Child on Switch (which had been perfect timing, since I finally watched all of the Cowboy Bebop series), and I’m starting to feel the desire to get back to that. But I just haven’t had much of a drive to play games. Similarly, I haven’t really watched any movies lately, other than going to see a showing of Jaws in IMAX at the Indiana State Museum on Wednesday.

What’s everyone else reading or watching? Any recommendations that might tie into any of the above?

Here’s to a better week than the last one. Hopefully next week’s post, and my general mental state, will be more focused.