We’ve seen many games bring us stories retelling historical events, and even some that slightly expand on the accuracies to bring us something fresh, however there are few out there that have been bold enough to deliver a completely unique story bound around an alternate history of real life events. Yes, we have Wolfenstein, but Desolate is one other such game that tries to do just that. Instead of frantic FPS combat and cinematic storytelling though, we’re instead treated to a game that looks to compete with the likes of the Fallout and S.T.A.L.K.E.R series’ by introducing survival elements and an open-world environment. How does it fare against those mighty genre-leaders? We grabbed a flashlight and headed into the dark and dreary island of Granichny to find out!
So, Desolate is a game that looks to tell an alternate history of the Soviet Union, and with this players are taken back two years prior to the large and mysterious disaster that radiated and infected the various inhabitants of Granichny Island. Now though paranormal occurrences are kicking up a fuss on the deserted island and with a shady organisation known as The New Light trying to cover things up, it’s time to step into the shoes of one of the volunteers looking to investigate the various anomalies that have hit the island.
One thing that shocked me early on with Desolate was the possibility to jump in with up to three others to experience the game as a co-operative group. Whilst the game can be played solo, exploring the creepy island and learning about its inhabitants is much more enjoyable with friends, but it also takes away from the focus of just how empty this overly ambitious world really is.
At the start of the game players are immediately placed into the tutorial level and whilst I’m not a fan of hand-holding tutorials, the one here does a fairly decent job of showing the ropes, setting up a little bit of the oncoming story without forcing you to rush along. Sadly though, it doesn’t take long before you realise it’s probably going to be the best you’re going to get in terms of focused storytelling, with the prologue telling of horrid experiments that were being done on the islands inhabitants, before slowly but surely pushing the player to find a way to escape the dark and dreary facility.
After leaving the tutorial area players are then let loose in the open-world setting and at first glance it appears as you’d expect, with a fantastic essence of a looming danger, with full exploration of the island’s environments available from the start. As you wander the empty and desolate lands, you’ll soon find yourself coming face to face with the nasty and irradiated creatures that occupy the land, most of which appear to be on a constant mission to kill you. Along with these fowl creatures though are notes that, if read, help to piece together various story elements and reveal plenty of details through diaries and scribblings as to what has been happening on the island.
Disappointingly though, this is as good as things get in terms of a fully engaging narrative experience, with player conversations taking place through small dialogue boxes reminiscent of older Fallout games.
Of course, there is a little more to it all than that and with Desolate allowing access to a full open-world from the off, there is a lot to be learnt through exploration – enemies and their different weaknesses can be found through researching and watching – and this allows the chance to get the upper hand thanks to inside knowledge when in battle. As the game is also playable with up to four-players, the need for research is almost non-existent should you all wish to run in and bash away at the first thing that moves, but should you be playing solo then research on your enemies – discovering the best critical hits and more – has a level of importance to proceedings.
Another important aspect is your personal preservation and like any typical survival game, Desolate has an implemented a system in which players must take care of their physical and mental well-being. It’s a necessary addition and should you ignore them for too long, the effects can become quite serious, with a poor mental state affecting how our protagonists sees the world. Sadly though, Desolate isn’t quite the polished and fulfilling experience it has the potential to be. See, after you’ve seen your first Dorg, Madmen and so on, you’ve seen them all. There’s nothing fresh to come about after the first encounter, and the same goes for everything else you’ll find, with buildings sharing the same textures, and most jumpscares usually predictable. This takes any enjoyment or true horror experience out of the game, instead instilling a level of predictability to the gameplay.
One feature to note though is the crafting mechanic, which is done through the collection of various resources whilst out and about in the world; bringing it all together at the various crafting stations. This allows you to either cook a recipe previously found, craft a weapon or modify your current equipment, and while it’s nothing we haven’t already seen in other games, it works well and is, for the most part, very reliable.
The biggest issue I have with Desolate though is that even though it has multiple aspects of many popular games, it all feels a bit out of place. With horror elements that struggle to maintain any real sense of fear, forced jump scares, predictable enemy behaviour and an open-world that struggles to find things to keep the player occupied, the overarching desire to create the next Stalker is one that unfortunately falls flat.
Graphically and Desolate is again a bit hit and miss. The grizzly and desolate nature of the island is captured well within the design, but this isn’t exactly a game that’s going to see artistic awards coming in plentiful supply. Dated textures see it feeling once more a lot like the older Fallout and Stalker games, and with both of those series providing much more in-depth and generally more fulfilling experiences, there’s no reason you’d want to spend time doing it all over again in a game that’s not quite as well polished.
The guys over at Nearga Games have certainly attempted to provide a determined competitor to the aforementioned blockbuster series, but the lack of meaningful content, piece by piece storytelling and an apparent identity crisis are enough to turn away the fans. Sure the potential is there for something great and with a little more work it could well appeal, however with very little to dictate what it is Nearga Games are trying to achieve, Desolate on PC falls into the category of trying to please everyone, but ultimately failing.
With a budget nowhere near the size of its already successful competitors, this is one that will be easily forgotten when the next big open-world adventure arrives.