Volume Review, Analysis, and Critique
The first time I messed up, the first time I got caught, the alarm music made me jump out of my seat. We critics too rarely speak about music or plain old audio design because it is so easy to get lost in it. So let me state it right at the start: Volume’s audio is all-around top notch. From the ambient music when you are hiding to the voice recordings — everything here is excellent. You might expect as much from a game named Volume, but getting audio design up to this level is no easy task, so kudos to Mike Bithell and his team for that.
Volume is greatly reminiscent –willfully so– of the Metal Gear Solid VR Missions (1998). In a simulated setting, you are tasked to run around stealing stuff before getting out (hopefully without being seen). It is a typical stealth affair, but what makes Volume stand out is how its levels are designed to be puzzled out. From the top down perspective, you can generally figure out how to exploit the predictable AI to make your way through the level silently. Visual indicators make it clear when your actions will be heard by enemies, ensuring that —in theory— nothing is left to chance. In theory.
In practice, Volume can get a little finicky. The game is never hard, but it can be somewhat frustrating since —more often than not— getting seen means you are done for. Part of the problem is that sometimes a few pixels of difference in your actions will make a guard look right instead of left. Often guards would jerk about —causing their vision cones to dart in all directions— trying to find a route back to their starting position after you directed him away from there. Couple these problems with technically interesting gadgets, which need to aimed with the right stick, and precisions starts to be lacking.
Again, the game never —really— gets hard. Its puzzle-like nature means that there are usually only one or two clear solutions to a problem. You can trial and error your way out, but just observing is more than enough to get the right idea. Experimentation rarely worked in my playthrough, and while checkpoints are frequent and respawns are instant, I often had to wait for my abilities to recharge after dying, which felt exactly like waiting through a loading screen. Volume’s levels work like intricate mechanical systems, but sometimes it feels like the tools you have are not the best to work with them. Actually, the levels tend to move perfectly until you go in and mess them up, as if they were not meant to be fiddled with at all.
This robotic perfection makes sense, as the story involves messing up a tyrannical government. The game takes place in a virtual simulation, but it is quickly evident that your actions in it have an impact on the world outside. That being said, these effects never manifest in-game and the society you are supposed to be changing with your anarchistic sensibilities feels completely absent. There is an obvious comparison between the antagonist’s fascist world and our own contemporary society, but the interplay between the two never develops in interesting ways. Your character and you, the player, are completely set apart from this world, which makes it hard to care about. In a way, it is not that different from Bithell’s previous effort Thomas Was Alone (2010). The latter was minimalistic and about making interiorized characters out of shapes; Volume is supposed to be about the outside world — one that does not actually exist in the context of the game. It becomes Volume’s biggest problem: the game feels disconnected.
Volume stands as an idea —a good idea— that never completely materializes. Going back to the sound design, it is still top notch. This expertly made audio work is an example of why Volume remains in my good graces. The game is packed with craft. Successful or not, the labour and thought put into the game make it stand out; there are glimpses of this that appear throughout, enough that I would recommend the game, but I still prefer thinking about Volume than getting down and playing it.
- YouTube blogger Charlie McDonnell is the protagonist’s voice actor. While I found his voice a little annoying at first, I kind of came around to it. I think the character is somewhat nerdy, so I guess it all fits
- On the opposite side, Andy Serkis plays the villain. He is good, as always.
- Also, Jim Sterling.
- There is a distinct lack of women in the game story. Only one —as far as I remember— is heard, and she has the smallest role in the game.
- The artistic and visual design is simple but quite effective.
- Volume can feel very similar to Klei’s Mark of the Ninja (2012) in concept, but the two games end up feeling different. They share ideas, simply.
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