When Dead Synchronicity: Tomorrow Comes Today first appeared on Kickstarter, Fictiorama Studios expressed their desire to deliver a dark and mature adventure game in the likes of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream and Sanitarium. Lofty ambitions for a first-time indie developer, but as it turns out not only does the game live up to its promise—it’s violent, bleak, and at times flat-out disturbing—it goes above and beyond expectations, proving itself a worthy modern genre classic, though with a few rough edges. It succeeds at delivering an epic dystopian science fiction tale that’s truly thought-provoking. You’ll be faced with making immoral choices, but it’s the rational thing to do in a grim, post-apocalyptic land where the concept of right and wrong is completely turned on its head. The setting is brilliantly realized and filled with fleshed-out characters that feel like they belong; it immersed me into a sad, forgotten world that I wanted to learn more about, and possibly even make a difference in.
Following the tried-and-true amnesiac premise, you play as Michael, a man who awakes with no memory of who he is or where he’s from. He rouses in a world long after its collapse due to what is called the “Great Wave” – a giant explosion that happened alongside a series of natural global disasters, wiping out much of the population and all electricity, sending the world back to the dark ages. Michael soon meets a man named Rod, who claims to have found him unconscious and has been taking care of him ever since. Rod informs Michael of a disease that has overcome the planet since the Great Wave known as the “dissolve”, which causes people to become tremendously sick and inevitably dissolve entirely into blood and mush. Rumor has spread that there is a cure for the disease, and if Michael can obtain it from a hospital where the dissolved are taken, then Rod promises to help Michael discover his past and who he was.
The journey first begins in what appears to be a junkyard that has been turned into a refugee camp for survivors of the Great Wave with nowhere to go. Surrounding the camp are hostile armed guards assigned to maintain order. The camp is ostensibly meant to keep those inside safe, but in reality it is something of a concentration camp, leaving many of its inhabitants uncared for and forgotten. Areas of the camp are separated by walls constructed of trash and demolished cars, all of which is surrounded by barbed wire and giant concrete watch towers. No one is allowed to leave unless bearing a special bracelet that indicates you work for the guards, which often means being an informant about what’s happening in the camp, including keeping watch over those who may be housing a dissolved. After helping someone in the camp, you receive one of these badges, allowing you the freedom to leave whenever you please, though at the risk of being seen as a mole.
Outside of the camp, stretched beyond a dried up wasteland, lies an unnamed city that Michael must reach. You’ll explore the city’s streets, the remains of a collapsed church, the grotesquely haunting “suicide park,” underground sewers, and a barely operating hospital. Each environment has a detailed history that can be learned by conversing with its characters. Along the way, you’ll often be interrupted with visions of Michael, most of which appear to be in the past but some of them set in the future. They occur upon entering more than half of the locations: the environment fizzles out, warping and transforming the surroundings into a cleaner pre-Great Wave version of itself or an even more degraded iteration. These visions left me intrigued about their meaning, but they happen far too frequently, and will repeat if you stand idle for at least 30 seconds. The visions have very little variation to them, leaving Michael repeating the same “I think I’m starting to lose my mind” line, every time, and though the dialogue is skippable, there’s no way to entirely bypass the vision. There is a clue later in the game that justifies why they occur more than once, but it would have been better if they repeated less frequently and with more variation.
The characters of Dead Synchronicity are much like the world they inhabit: sad, worn down, and filled with stories to tell. Everyone has a past, a life before the Great Wave, before becoming something else entirely once the “new world” began. Like the crazy homeless man who was once a wealthy businessman, or Ramon the former writer who is now a hilariously cynical man trying to survive. Most sympathetic and saddening of all the characters is easily Rose, an adult woman with the mind of a child – a coping mechanism to help deal with the faded world. Rose calls you “Mr. Sleepyhead” and claims to know who you are. When you find her she is being held captive by thugs, who use her regressed mental state against her and prostitute her out to those with money to pay. Her plight presents a quest to gain access to her to learn what she supposedly knows about your past, and possibly even help her escape.
The voice acting is diverse, with each character conveying a distinct personality, but sometimes feels forced instead of fluent and natural. The one character who seems to struggle the most with consistency is unfortunately the protagonist Michael. I found Michael’s voice to be too confident and abrasive for his small frame and fairly gaunt stature. I never got used to that voice coming out of him during my entire playthrough, which continually took me out of the experience. Michael’s performance is also frequently uneven, like when he goes from extremely angry to calm within a single line of dialogue.
The visuals are one of the game’s most impressive features. The stylized hand-drawn look is original and distinctive, simple in some ways yet complex in others, and sometimes extremely disturbing. The illustrated backgrounds, filled with muted reds and browns and grays to suitably represent this devastated world, are gritty and realistic, in stark contrast to the geometrically designed, Spanish expressionistic character art; the combination of styles makes the overall aesthetic much more memorable. Animations are minimal and usually only consist of a few frames. At first this lack of fluent animation seemed lazy to me, but eventually it began to fit the deliberately cartoony character design, to the point where I stopped noticing entirely.
Interacting with this bleak world is simple and intuitive. Left-clicking allows you to pick up items and talk to characters, as indicated by the shape of the smart cursor over hotspots, and right-clicking allows for observation. Michael’s observations are often metaphor-heavy analyses of the world around him – even mundane items like a door, for which he explains its struggle to stand and exist in a world crumbling around it. Such attention to detail goes a long way in supporting the richly dystopian atmosphere. The inventory is represented by a briefcase icon in the upper left corner, which can be opened either by clicking it, or by scrolling down on the mouse wheel or swiping down on a trackpad, which I found very user-friendly. Viewing the inventory fills most of the screen, visualized like an open briefcase. Many puzzles consist of combining several items together.
Aside from being able to highlight hotspots by holding down the spacebar, there is no hint system in Dead Synchronicity, but the notebook is extremely useful. As you progress, it will automatically fill up with important events and objectives, making it a great alternative to keep track of everything that’s happening and what it is you should be doing.
Puzzles are mildly challenging rather than brain-breaking; logical and almost entirely inventory-based. Many items you collect serve multiple purposes, but will finally be discarded when they’re no longer needed. Sometimes, however, the purpose of an item is unclear, and it can linger in your inventory for the majority of the game before finding a use, which is illogical and doesn’t fit the serious nature of the story. The game does a good job of making everything feel as though it belongs to this world, so holding onto a broken street sign for nearly eight hours just seems strange. In fact, there are some items that I never did find a use for, which makes me wonder if a replay would reveal things I missed the first time around or whether they’re simply red herrings.
Many of the choices you’ll have to make will feel wrong and immoral, but are completely necessary to further progress in a world where ethics are no longer a concern. In many cases, the choices available result in jarring outcomes that change the world and characters around you in some shape or form. One puzzle in particular forces you to do things to a dead body that you certainly won’t feel proud of afterwards, however necessary it is. That sounds dreadfully wrong, but in the context of this broken world it is entirely appropriate, and really the only thing that can be done. “You gotta do what you gotta do” is a recurring line among survivors when justifying how to live after the Great Wave.
At the end of a substantial 12 hours of gameplay, I was left with a feeling of gratification I have not had in quite some time from an adventure game, or any game for that matter. The revelation of Michael’s past is surprisingly unpredictable and remarkably personal in nature, completely defying my initial assumptions of an expected and more conventional twist. Learning his background makes the protagonist seem deeper, better thought-out, and even more devastatingly sympathetic than before.
The ending of the game left me cheering, but also curious for more. The developers have said that Dead Synchronicity: Tomorrow Comes Today is just part of an epic saga, and the door has clearly been left open to pursue the idea. Even without a sequel, however, this game can stand entirely on its own merits, finishing with an ending that is concise but also open for interpretation. The game does bear some signs of a first-time developer still learning its craft, but overall Fictiorama Studios have started out on a high with their debut and established themselves as potential force in the genre. I am eager and ready for whatever they have next up their sleeves.