Review: Volume

A sterling sophomore entry into the Bithell Games back catalogue,Volume blends stealth, puzzling and occasionally pulse pounding action with an intriguing retelling of a classic British legend.

Developer: Bithell Games
Publisher: Bithell Games
Reviewed on: PC
Also Available On: PlayStation 4
Release Date: Available Now

BRB-Score-4

The story of Robin Hood has been told in very many ways across a lot of mediums over the years, from word of mouth storytelling of the originals to the various cinematic retellings, and now it is the turn of videogames. Volume, produced by Mike Bithell, creator of indie smash hit Thomas Was Alone, is a futuristic reimagining of the Robin Hood legend.

In the year 2045 Guy Gisborne, CEO and founder of Private defence company Gisborne Industries, staged a (relatively) bloodless coup over England using soldiers trained in his virtual reality simulators, the titular Volumes. 9 years later and Rob Locksley, son of a wealthy family, reactivates one of these now defunct Volumes and it’s A.I. Alan, and the neofeudalist equivalent of Twitch.tv streams himself stealing from the simulated homes and offices of Gisborne’s most powerful supporters in the hope that it will inspire the oppressed people to rise up and try the same thing for real.

Since even imitation theft is looked on poorly by totalitarian governments, Gisborne immediately sets out to track down which Volume Locksley is using and bring him to justice.  And since totalitarian governments tend to be quite good at the both surveillance and morally ambiguous justice, Locksley and Alan only have a few hours to finish all 100 simulations and get out before the soldiers arrive and put the metaphorical hammer down.

Comparisons to Thomas Was Alone are probably inevitable, given its popularity, but Volume is very much its own game. Rather than a simple two dimensional platformer, Volume is a full three dimensional isometric stealth game.  The basic goal is pretty simple. You are dropped into a simulation, you need to collect all of the floating jewel icons which represent the various valuables contained within, and then you need to make it to the exit. Levels are timed, with leader boards to keep track of the speed at which you complete your challenges and allow you to compare yourself to the other players of the game.

Just walking in and taking everything would be too easy, each level is replete with guards, traps and other obstacles for you to overcome. The guards all have Metal Gear Solid style vision cones and being spotted will trigger a countdown until they fire and kill you. Breaking their eye line for long enough will reset the guard, allow you to try getting past again. You die in one hit, but there are plenty of checkpoints scattered across the levels frequently enough that this rarely gets frustrating.

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Enemies come in a variety of flavours. Pawns are your standard enemies, with a limited range of vision and a single shot that takes a while to fire. By contrast, dogs have a massive range that spreads out 180o degrees but can not harm you directly. Instead they bark, which summons other enemies, giving you a longer window to make your escape.  There are a several other types of foes in Volume, each of which needs to be given different considerations and strategies to avoid successfully.

By default Locksley can walk, whistle and duck into cover. The walking speed is a thing of design beauty, a stealthy crouched shuffle that moves just fast enough to outpace the guards, but just slow enough to cause genuine anxiety when you are only millimetres away from being spotted and soundly beaten by a roaming Knight. Whistling allows you to get guards attention and then sneak by them when they come to investigate, or sneak into a different position if you do not have enough time to get past entirely.

In addition to those basic skills you will also find gadgets in the levels that you can use to aid your progress. These mostly serve the purpose of distracting the guards or luring them away entirely like the Figment and the Bugle, or stunning them temporarily like the Blackjack and the Folly. Each of the gadgets has a cool down timer so timing is vital in using them correctly.

Much like Thomas Was Alone (I told you comparisons were inevitable) Volume adheres to the philosophy of using a few mechanics and executing them well. There is no open world in Volume, in fact the entire game takes place in a room 31 meters square. There is not hundreds of collectibles to find and dozens of meaningless side quests to complete. Just get in, get out and try not to get killed.

It is extremely satisfying, you feel like you have cracked a puzzle each time you make it to the exit. I am not always a fan of stealth games, I tend to find them frustrating and the slow pace gets on my nerves. But with Volume the speed of play is just high enough to enhance the tension and pacing, and the fact that you can at any point reset to the last checkpoint reduces frustration further. The load time is also very short, so you will not have to stare at the same loading screen over and over again should you find yourself get repeatedly murdered by the same Rogue.

Even if you do find yourself stuck on a particular challenge or enemy, you can rest assured that you will not get tired of the visuals. Volume’s art style is an excellent blend of realistic environments with fantastic science fiction designs. While Locksley and the world outside the volume are dingy, grey and generally rather bland, the interior of the virtual space is a whirl of brightly coloured polygons and triangular patterns. Everything in the Volume environments seems to be composed of triangles, from the environments themselves to the objects and enemies within them. Even the most generic enemy design in Volume is more interesting than the foes that most games can manage, and indeed they are probably some of my favourite enemy designs in any game. Just by looking you can know exactly what type of enemy it is, what its abilities are and how it will behave.

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Considering that the story of Volume is based on one of the most famous stories in English history, the game does a very good job of making the core elements and themes its own. The relationship that develops between Locksley and Alan is the core of the character development. They initially start off as begrudging allies and by the end are something akin to friends. Locksley in particular grows over the course of the story, initially convinced of his own moral superiority to Gisborne, his new found fame goes to his head in a very immediate way, until later events force him to consider the consequences of his actions.

The last time a character in a video game was forced to think about the consequences of their decisions in such a unsympathetic way it was Captain Walker in Spec Ops: The Line and although Volume does not get anywhere near as bleak as that particular excursion into the heart of darkness, there is still some interesting points made by all the characters about the nature of free will and whether or not the ends justify the means. Also hidden in the levels are notes, emails and records of chat conversations that form the background lore of Volume. Given the format, these do a good job of telling us about the world and its inhabitants, without falling into the trap of having every single person leave behind an audio dialogue for no discernible reason.

The when it comes to the world building however, the heavy lifting is done by the voice actors. National identity is something which pays a key part in Volume, and there is no doubt that it informs an awful lot about the game itself. Every member of the voice cast has some kind of regional British accent, and while it may seem like a small detail, it does a lot to the game’s atmosphere.

Danny Wallace, the narrator of Thomas Was Alone, returns as the voice of Alan, and brings what could have been a dry role to life with some genuinely heartfelt delivery. By contrast Charlie McDonnell’s performance as Locksley leaves a lot to be desired. He sounds just a little too smug and disinterested to make Locksley easy to like, and whilst those are qualities the character inhabits to a tee early on, there’s a lack of sincerity that makes his later dialogue grate slightly against Wallace’s earnestness.

The role of Gisborne is played by Andy Serkis, and he does an absolutely spectacular job. Gisborne is by turns intimidating, sympathetic and downright frightening. Given that he probably has fewer lines than any other major character, it says a lot for his performance that he remains such a standout.  The game’s story leaves it pretty open for a sequel, so hopefully we will get more of Serkis in this role and hopefully more of him in videogames in general.

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But for all the praise I have to pile on Volume, it is not without its flaws. Although the controls are mostly very tight, there can be some occasions where gadgets will misfire or can be placed in just the wrong place to cause some serious annoyance. Likewise, the game’s hit boxes can be sometimes be a little too far around Locksley, meaning that a shot that you should have dodged will still send you back to the check point.  But those are relatively minor problems, and as the loading times are so low it is difficult to hold it against the game too much.

A bigger problem is the game’s length. Volume has 100 levels in the story, and that is simply too many. Story content and interactions are only delivered every few levels and although the game paces out the addition of new mechanics to try and keep things interesting there just is not enough of them to go around.  When there is that added context for the action it is all the more enjoyable, but it feels too much like the game has 100 levels because that’s what Bithell Games decided sounded good rather than there being 100 excellent level designs in the bank. There is nothing wrong with it in practise, it just becomes a little difficult to play for any length of time when there is nothing interesting added to keep your attention. However, the game itself does not seem designed for hour upon hour of play, and there is even an achievement for just playing for 20 minutes solid. Even with all of the extraneous levels, the game still clocks in at around seven hours, so you will not lose days to it.

Exciting stealth game-play
Fantastic voice acting
Beautiful aesthetic
Occasionally frustrating
Runs a little too long

Despite my complaints, there is no doubt that Volume is one of the most original, engaging and enjoyable games released this year. Bithell Games are going from strength to strength with each release and if this trajectory continues then their next project will be something very exciting indeed. Volume is everything a good video game should be, and with the addition of a level editor and a burgeoning online community there is likely going to be even more content coming out of it as time goes on. If there is only one neo-feudalist steal puzzle game you play in 2015, make sure it’s Volume.

Review copy provided by Bithell Games.
Official Game Site

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