When Umurangi Generation released on PC in the spring of 2020, it was followed by a parade of admirers. In its own nonchalant way, it attracted gushing articles from indie gaming press, a Very Positive on Steam and a chunky 81% Metacritic score. Paragraphs of praise were written about its Jet Set Radio-stylings, its angry social commentary and the inclusion of indigenous art. Others just liked that it was Pokemon Snap in Cyberpunk World.
After two years and some DLC, we’re finally getting the kaboodle as a Special Edition, on Game Pass no less. We jumped at the chance to review it, having been tempted by both sides of the proposition. We’re eager to play a game that’s got such a singular voice, and we’re also up for a bit of Pokemon Snapping.
But having played Umurangi Generation Special Edition, we’re a little bemused. Perhaps we’ve been expecting too much from it, or – the horror – we are philistines. Because Umurangi Generation Special Edition does very little for us. It’s an awkward, clumsy little first-person photography game in an admittedly stupendous world. We came out cold.
You play a Māori courier for the Tauranga Express, in a near-future version of New Zealand. Initial scenes have you slacking with your group of friends, tagging walls and lounging by swimming pools. But then it all goes a bit Pacific Rim, as kaiju that look something like bluebottle jellyfish invade. Smaller jellyfish are scattered around the level, and penalties are given for photographing them, presumably because no one wants to be reminded that they are here.
The United Nations lock down cities, and gargantuan robots can be seen on the horizon, powering up and ready to fight. But the populace are under a kind of martial law, one which is overly authoritarian and causes you and your group to push back, even fighting the jellyfish aliens yourselves.
This isn’t portrayed in branching dialogue or cutscenes: you pick up Umurangi Generation Special Edition’s story from a kind of diegetic osmosis, as posters, graffiti and newsreels construct the world in a patchwork. It’s more than enough, and some sequences are pocket miracles of storytelling, as you learn so much from a little. A weary journey back from a firefight on a train says more than pages of backstory could.
What makes this even more remarkable is that Umurangi Generation Special Edition’s scenes are near-static. There’s very little movement in them, which adds to the mood rather than detracts from it. Clearly, somewhere in the world, wars and disasters are occurring, but not here. You feel the same alienation and oppression that the people feel. It’s a sense of ennui that you don’t feel often in gaming.
It’s also a fantastic play-park for photography. With everyone listless and tired, you can scoot around and take photos. There’s a nagging sense of voyeurism, but an equal sense that what you’re documenting is important. Nobody pushes you away: they are too beleaguered for that.
The visuals, while rudimentary and blocky, also sell this futureshock vision of New Zealand. It’s a sad Jet Set Radio, with neon lights and angry graffiti jumbled in with overbearing advertisements. Uniqueness comes from Māori influences, as the graffiti and writing come in indigenous shapes.
But while the world of Umurangi felt intoxicating, navigating it made us feel like we were drunk. Perhaps that’s the distinction from playing it on PC: it’s just not a good partner with an Xbox pad.
Part of the problem is that Umurangi Generation Special Edition has designs on being a platformer. For even core, main-quest photos (there are objectives to meet each level) you will need to jump or climb across ladders, ledges and even the precarious tops of fences. But Umurangi is absolutely miles from being competent in these areas. For inexplicable reasons, pressing jump won’t always mean that you do jump, as there seem to be contextual rules for when it will let you. It will block you from jumping on certain surfaces, and you will end up bump-and-grinding objects in the environment in a desperate attempt to clamber over them.
This is exacerbated by objectives that demand you contort into strange shapes to complete a photo. As you progress in Umurangi, new lenses are unlocked, and some – like the telephoto – require a huge distance between you and your target. It’s fun in theory, but tends to mean that you are tinkering with the game’s awkward physics and platforming in an attempt to find the fringes of the level. We often weren’t sure if we were meant to be in the places that we found ourselves in.
The photo requests can be amusing riddles. Often they’re just a sentence or a single word. Does ‘Kiwi’ mean a fruit, a bird, or a mention of either on a poster? It gets you scouring the level and its texts for clues, which brings you deeper inside its marvellous world.
But it’s just as likely to be infuriating. The task is clear, but getting the angle just so, and the right number of items included within the shot, can be something of a trial. One level, where we needed to get ten solar panels in a single shot, even though we were surrounded by them, was a definite “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink” moment. Couple the contortions with a countdown timer, threatening your 100% completion with failure, and you have something needlessly tense.
Umurangi Generation Special Edition’s twelve levels (eight plus four as a DLC prologue) will skitter by in little more than a few hours, even as you attempt to complete all of its main and sub-objectives. That might be minimal value for an £18.89 purchase, but for the majority approaching this as a Game Pass title, it will be a couple of evenings’ entertainment for minimal outlay.
Pinpointing why we are so underwhelmed by Umurangi Generation Special Edition is difficult. The fiction of its world is nothing short of exceptional, and manages to convey a frothing anger as well as a sense of boredom from its inhabitants. It feels necessary and topical.
But it’s in Umurangi’s determination to make its photography difficult and granular, pushing you to leapfrog around its world in the hunt for the tiniest detail, that it comes unstuck. Its controls can’t support the convolution, and impatience creeps in.
With more confidence in the world it has created, letting you explore and reveal it at a more relaxed pace, it might have been a winner. As it stands, Umurangi Generation Special Edition is stylish, but with an aftertaste of pain.
You can buy Umurangi Generation Special Edition from the Xbox Store