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Gods Will Be Watching Review

Hey, everyone! It’s Invent A New Genre time! I have hereby decided that Gods Will Be Watching is an opaque, point-and-click, resource-management, crisis-management, ethical adventure. Or an OPACResMaCrisMEA for short. It’ll catch on, I’m sure.

It’s also a game I haven’t actually finished, which goes against IncGamers review policy and probably means Paul is going to shout at me once he reads this. There’s a good reason for this – which I’ll get to later – but it also makes giving a definitive verdict a little bit tricky. Nonetheless, I shall do my best.

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This screenshot sums it up pretty well, really.

Gods Will Be Watching puts you into the weary shoes of Sergeant Burden, an aptly named chap who routinely finds himself in horrible situations that he has to crisis-manage his way out of. This inevitably involves picking options from a menu to choose which actions are taken next – and, if you’re lucky, you’ll survive long enough to pick another option. Complicating matters is that this usually requires a balancing act, and to prevent things from just being a maths puzzle, you’re never quite given all of the information.

The game is divided up into (I believe) six chapters, each of which offers a different horrible situation. The first, for instance, puts you in charge of a hostage situation: your team of terrorists is trying to hack into a group of systems. A bunch of hostages are sitting on the floor. A team of guards are gradually encroaching towards you. Your job is to successfully hack the systems.

Problem one: if the guards get into the room, you’re dead. Problem two: if you lose all of the hostages then the guards will just rush into the room and kill you, because there’s suddenly nothing stopping them from doing so. You can fire at the guards to force them back… but doing this makes the hostages nervous, and nervous hostages are more likely to make suicidal breaks for freedom, forcing you to kill them. So you need to carefully balance the team’s time between hacking the systems, forcing back the guards, keeping the hostages calm, and generally making sure this powder keg of a situation never actually explodes.

This is by far the simplest level of the game. It took me about half a dozen attempts.

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Shouting at the hostages will certainly put a stop to any clever escape attempts, but it might cause them to try a suicidal one.

That’s at least partially intentional, too, because the game deliberately keeps information from you and forces you to figure things out as you go along. For instance, there’s no numerical indicator showing “HOSTAGE MOOD 3/10” to warn you that they’re getting a bit scared. Instead, you have to judge it by their animations: if they’re lying down, relaxed, then you’re probably being a bit soft on them and they’re going to try to escape. If they’re clutching their knees and rocking back and forth then they’re probably a bit too scared. Etc.

Each level has its own unique quirks and twists. The second level, for instance, has you and a colleague being tortured and trying to survive long enough for a rescue. If you don’t give up information, then you’ll be tortured – possibly to death. If you give up too much information, then your captors no longer have a need for you and will just dispose of you. So again, you have to carefully balance how much you give away so that you’re not burned/bludgeoned/teeth-ripped-out-with-pliers to death, while also making sure you don’t give away so much that they just off you. You have to watch the animations to see what condition your characters are in, and note what implement the torturer is choosing to use in this particular session. Some do more damage than others. Some have a “cooldown” period, giving you a free turn or two every now and then. And so on, and so forth.

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The overarching story isn’t going to win awards, but it’s vaguely interesting and keeps the attention. It’s just a shame that it’s entirely stuck to rails and doesn’t react to character deaths, and the like.

All of which is pretty clever, and seeing what the next level has in store is a pretty big draw because each of them play with the basic resource management mechanics in a quirky new way. I suspect that you could pretty much narrow each level down to an algebraic equation if you had all of the information – but as you don’t, they never really feel like a maths puzzle. They feel like a conundrum you have to semi-blindly feel your way through, gradually getting a better and better grasp on what, exactly, you need to focus on at any given moment.

This is all wrapped up in a lovely pixel art aesthetic, which doesn’t exactly minimise the horror of what you’re going through. It gives you subtle little visual cues as to the health and mood of your charges, looks gorgeous, and is minimalistic enough that you’re never distracted from the important bits and pieces.

Where Gods Will Be Watching starts to fall apart, oddly, is between its levels. You often have ethical choices: the fourth level, an updated version of the game’s free Flash prototype, has you trying to survive in a hostile environment for a few weeks. You can opt to kill people off so that you need less food, and characters can wander off into the wilderness to die if their mood gets low enough… and this has absolutely no impact on the long-term effects of the game. They’re all alive again on the next level. The second level, where you and a colleague are being tortured? Your colleague can die! And then he’s alive again on the next level, with little more than a handwave from Burden of “huh, I thought he was dead.”

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The torture level is far, far more horrible than you’d think, considering the low-fi graphics. And yes, failure to confess may well lead to poor Jack losing an arm. (Which will probably be back by the next level anyway, so…)

This lack of narrative coherence makes the ethics of the game feel considerably less important. Suddenly, you’re trying to keep both characters alive on the second level because that’s a “Challenge” (an optional objective) of the game, and not because you actually like the characters. It doesn’t matter if one of them dies, because it has absolutely no bearing on the long-term events of the game. He’ll come back to life anyway, so who cares? I suppose that this in itself says something – if life is indeed that cheap and unimportant, are you still willing to go to great lengths to save it? – but it’s a message that the game doesn’t really stick to, so I think I’m just reading too far into that.

There’s also a lack of mechanical coherence, which isn’t as big a problem but which nonetheless annoys. The third level has a strict time limit, and your job is to schedule everyone’s tasks in half-hour time blocks. This guy does research, this guy does digging, this guy takes a rest. On the fourth level, where you have the exact same crew and are basically 10 minutes in the future from the third level… only one person can take action at a time, and everyone else just sits around and does nothing for that time block.

Like I said, this isn’t a huge problem because the game never really pretends to be a simulator rather than a set of puzzles with different concepts and constraints, but when those two situations are right next to each other it does feel a bit wonky. The game would almost work better as a series of entirely stand-alone situations, so that there’s a reason behind the lack of narrative and mechanical flow between each challenge, but I suppose that might break things up too much. It’s also possible that the end of the game offers some reasoning behind why everyone is mysteriously back to life again on each level, but, as mentioned above, I never finished it.

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Each level offers unique challenges and unique twists on the balancing act formula, and seeing what you’ll have to deal with next is quite a compelling lure to finish the current level.

The reason I never finished it is simply “level five.” This has you trying to explore and escape a desert planet in a manner akin to old Vietnam War game Lost Patrol. You’ve got to scout ahead, avoid or capture enemy camps, take on enemy patrols, and carefully manage everything from time to stamina to water. It’s not spectacularly well done (if anything, it’s time-consuming and repetitive, and it’s full of instant death) but it’s a nice enough idea. Fleshed out more it could almost be a stand-alone game… which it kind of was. Like I said, there was something very similar called Lost Patrol back in 1990.

On my fifth attempt, I was pretty sure I’d nearly made it to the end. Then, as I moved to the next screen, the game crashed with an OUT OF MEMORY error. My next two attempts ended in failure as I blithely walked into enemy camps or ran out of time, but my next attempt looked like it would be successful… and then the game crashed with an OUT OF MEMORY error. This happened again the next time I came close to success, about three attempts later. At that point, I’m afraid I gave up: as noted above, the level itself isn’t the fastest to complete and it’s quite repetitive anyway, and I really can’t be bothered spending another three hours and six or seven attempts just to see if I can somehow avoid the bug this time.

Gods Will Be Watching is an interesting experiment, and one that generally works quite well. It has its issues – the way your consequences don’t follow you between levels, the regular typos and grammatical issues that detract from the settings, the fact that some of the levels are a complete pain in the arse rather than an enjoyable challenge – but there’s certainly enough of interest here that I’d say it’s worth a look, particularly for the asking price of £6.99. Just make sure you know what you’re getting into. The gods might well be watching, but it doesn’t look like they care too much.