Episode 2 - Into the Storm
Last time on The Descendant, we were introduced to a post-apocalyptic world where a chosen few were cryogenically preserved in bunkers known as Arks, tended by AI systems and human Janitors. Gorgeous cinematic production values couldn't quite make up for limited plot and character development and simplistic puzzling in the debut instalment. This time, in Episode 2: Into the Storm, the cinematic feel is still in full force, but the characters are a little more rounded, the puzzles are a little more interesting, and the plot, while still slow going, is starting to pick up steam.
Most of the first episode was taken up with Donnie and Randolph making their way into Ark-01, and flashing back to Mia and Silas dealing with a crisis in the water heating system. Only near the end did we start to get hints as to the broader story, and what might have gone wrong. This episode follows the same path, except that now all four main characters are engaged in getting an air filtration tower up and running. Most of the time is spent dealing with immediate practical problems and, again, it's only really in the last 5-10 minutes that we get a trickle of the larger arc, with a two-pronged conspiracy rearing its head. There are hints that the Ark's problems are part of a plan that got away from the conspirators. It's also clear that there are two different agendas at play here, neither as simple as the original mission to wake the Descendants.
Sometime in the future, if and when the complete series has been released and players can binge play the whole story in one go, this kind of steady drip feed could work, but as it stands there's just too little to chew on while we wait for the next episode. All the ingredients are there for a solid sci-fi potboiler, with systems out of control and conflicting interests at play, but there's just no detail to give it any shape yet. We're less than halfway through, and the developers clearly don't want to blow the suspense they're building by giving away too much too soon, but that decision is making it hard to stay engaged.
That said, this episode does a much better job of using all that busywork to let us get to know the characters, or at least their personalities. There's still precious little background information, and what is provided is painfully cliche. (Donnie, who's black, turns out to be a former boxing champion who works hard but has authority issues.) But we get to see Mia and Silas arguing like an old married couple over where Silas put the locker key, and just why they became Janitors in the first place. Was it to safeguard the future of the human race, or just to survive themselves? Likewise, Donnie and Randolph are getting to know each other, with Randolph's smooth politician exterior starting to crack and the chip on Donnie's shoulder slowly slipping off. All four are starting to feel more like real people and less like stereotypes, and their dialogue generally feels more natural this time.
The puzzles, too, are definitely meatier than in Aftermath. This episode is only slightly longer, clocking in at around 75 minutes for me, but there's quite a bit more to do. You're still unlikely to suffer from brain strain, but the goals feel more significant here and even the more routine tasks are enlivened by flashes of character development rather than simply being an excuse to give you control for a bit. Last time, there was only really one notable puzzle section, as Mia fought to get the water heater back online. This time, getting the air filtration tower going is both more complex and something both groups have to do (in different ways). A particular highlight for me was when Donnie had to talk Randolph through a task using a manual found nearby. Listening to his descriptions, looking stuff up in the manual, and hearing his happy cries as my advice worked, it felt like a genuine moment of collaboration.
The air filtration tower is also a fairly interesting new location, with multi-level walkways, hanging cables and huge pipes jostling with computer equipment and shelves of supplies. While not hugely exotic, it's a nice change after the endless hallways and Janitors' common room that made up most of the environment before. Right at the end, we also get a magnificent view of the sunset from the top, making for a memorable ending. In addition, the journey there gives us our first opportunity to venture outside, trudging against the howling wind through a desolate landscape full of abandoned equipment and vehicles.
One drawback of Into the Storm is that virtually nothing can be looked at more closely, aside from the objects needed to continue and a few more scattered around as red herrings. Last time, you could at least look at posters on the walls, Silas's guitar or the mess on the table; this time, nothing. In that whole outside area, for example (the largest single area the game has offered so far), the only things you can interact with are the gate to the tower and a few objects strewn around it. Granted, you're short on air and shouldn't really be sightseeing, but it would still have been good to get my character's take on the surroundings.
There have been a couple of small but welcome tweaks made: characters now walk at a more normal kind of speed, rather than their previous glacial pace, and animations seem a bit smoother and more natural. On the downside, more complicated animations – even something as simple as walking up stairs – are often omitted entirely in favour of a fade-to-black with sound effects. Given the small development team and short development cycle, though, that's perhaps understandable.
Also understandable, if no less of a shame, is the fact that the "meaningful and difficult choices" we were promised have yet to appear. The choices you make are definitely remembered – at one point Randolph mentioned a decision I made in the last episode – but so far they only seem to result in small tweaks to dialogue. A couple of times it felt like I was about to do something significant, but after playing through again and going down the other path, events turned out essentially the same. At another point, when it seemed like I was about to get a pivotal decision to make, the game just decided for me. Your performance on some of the puzzles is definitely tracked and has an impact on the world, but not how the plot plays out. All this is probably inevitable given the logistical nightmare of tracking multiple plot branches this early in the series. I just hope that, later on, all these choices will at least factor into different endings.
All things considered, Into the Storm is a step forward for the series – not revolutionary but definitely evolutionary. The characters are starting to be better fleshed out, there's more to do (if less to see), and it feels like the main planks of the story are starting to slip into place: events are moving forward, just a bit more slowly than I'd have liked. All the groundwork has been laid for a solid and satisfying story to emerge, and I hope our patience will soon be rewarded.Continued on the next page...