The story is told through a blend of in-engine cutscenes (lightly sprinkled with QTEs) and simplified point-and-click adventure sections with an interface that has been pared back to the bare bones. Hotspots highlight as you mouse over them, showing a label and either a hand (for interaction) or a magnifying glass (to look); you can only ever do one or the other, not both. There's an inventory at the bottom left, but that's just for information: instead of applying an item where you want to use it, you simply interact with the hotspot and the object will be used automatically. To further streamline things, objects you don't need right now aren't even highlighted: run into a problem, and a bunch of hotspots appear. You're regularly sent on scavenger hunts around the immediate area, which is suddenly full of hiding places, most of which are empty. You're never allowed to pick up an object unless it's actually useful.
All this makes for inventory puzzles so simple that they're barely puzzles at all. These are mixed in with similarly straightforward environmental obstacles that have you turning valves, flipping switches or doing a little rewiring. The aim here is to help you feel involved in the story, not to tax your brain. Especially when you consider that many of them have to be solved in the middle of quite pressured situations, it just doesn't make sense to have the player pause too long. Instead, you're given busywork to do, running around frantically trying to find the widgets you need while your increasingly anxious partner shouts at you. As a way of building tension, it's actually pretty effective – or at least it would have been, but for the sluggish animations undercutting it all.
The developers promise "meaningful and difficult choices with branching dialogue", but Aftermath really doesn't achieve that. There is only a handful of seemingly significant decision points scattered through the game, each of which has a countdown timer. These opportunities give you the chance to pick an option or (if you let the timer run out) say nothing. The problem is that none of them have any obvious lasting consequences, at least to this point. For example, Donnie can choose to deal with his ex-Senator partner diplomatically or abrasively, but aside from some different dialogue immediately afterwards, they continue to work together either way. Other choices let you decide whether or not to lie to your partner, have Mia pick her field of engineering expertise, or tell your partner off for driving the motorcart too fast. Every time, it's an isolated and fairly minor decision and as far as I can see the plot is entirely linear. That said, I was told several times that a character would remember my choice, so it’s possible that I'll feel the effects in future episodes.
The one obvious way to have a permanent and significant effect on the outcome is to fail one of the puzzles. You're told repeatedly as you're working on it that time is critical, and that turns out to be true: take too long and bad things happen. I'm used to games telling me time is short, but that's generally for show, to build tension without actually having a real time limit. Here they're not kidding around, and there's no explicit timer; you only know you've taken too long when disaster strikes. Even then, though, you still complete the game in much the same way. The effects of your failure are real, but happen off-screen and feel a bit remote. It's also not really a choice, in the sense that the outcome is clearly bad. The only choice here is whether to play again and try to rectify your mistake, or live with the consequences of your actions.
It really would be a case of playing again, too. The game autosaves periodically as you go, but you can only continue from the most recent checkpoint and there's no way to manually save your game. The only way back from a mistake is to start again from the beginning, unskippable cutscenes and all. In that sense, it's perhaps fortunate that you can play through the whole thing in under an hour.
The short length and unremarkable plot could be excused if the time was used to introduce memorable, distinctive characters that we could grow to care about, but sadly we're only given a cast of one-dimensional archetypes. There's ex-Senator Randolph, with a great sense of his own importance and that of the other Descendants (if not so much the Janitors), a typical politician full of eloquent but hollow words. By contrast, Donnie feels he's babysitting Randolph, keeping him out of harm's way while he does the real work. Janitors Silas and Mia are even more abstract, professionals doing a job with only the barest attempt at humour to distract from the ever-present tension. We learn that Silas is liable to crack under pressure and isn't the tidiest when he's left on his own, but that's about it. There's nothing about their backgrounds, interests, or family life, no obvious connections between any of the four main characters, and no reason to think any of the 108 Descendants sleeping in Ark-01 are anything special. We just have the Senator, the Investigator, the Med-tech and the Engineer, with all the depth of Cluedo characters. Presumably that will change over the course of future episodes, but for now they're ciphers, pawns to drive the plot.
To sum up, then, episode one of The Descendant is a glossy interactive TV show, its attractive and cinematic graphics and music undermined by the predictable plot, stereotypical characters, simple puzzles and all-too-short length. The promised branching narrative also hasn't materialised, at least not yet. While the air of unsettling tension that sits over the whole affair helps drive it forward, it also provides little variety or scope for levity. That said, Aftermath feels like the first half of a two-part season opener. If Gaming Corps can pull an eye-opening twist out of the bag in the next one, this series could yet grab my interest, but for now it's just too by-the-numbers to really recommend.Continued on the next page...