Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Quiet Man - Silence Rings Dullest

During the underwhelming Square Enix press conference at E3 2018, one title which stood out to me was The Quiet Man, a game where you play as a deaf protagonist in a setting that illustrates this by forcing the player to play with no sound. I found the concept very intriguing and looked forward to playing it, especially once I found out it would be released only a few months later. Not even the fact that it was designed to be played in one sitting or the fact that it was digital-only (I prefer to buy a physical copy of a game whenever possible) stopped me from buying it on PSN shortly after the actual release. Unfortunately, for a game with such an intriguing concept, it manages to fail at nearly every possible level.

The premise is rather simple. Over the course of a single night in New York City, a deaf man named Dane embarks on a quest to find and learn the motives of the mysterious Bird Man, who has kidnapped a songstress. The way this story is presented, however, is the first chink in the game’s armor.

I’ll preface my criticism by saying that I absolutely love the concept behind the game. The idea of playing as a deaf protagonist through a soundless experience that forces the player to interpret what’s going on is actually very fascinating, seeing as it hasn’t been done before. I also loved the idea presented in the reveal trailer where the game blends live-action and CG cutscenes into a unique hybrid experience, since the last time I saw live action cutscenes, I had played Twisted Metal (2012) and Quantum Break and felt that the idea could be further perfected.

With that out of the way, I have to say that the very thing that got me interested in the game was ultimately the story’s downfall. The first transition between live-action and CG is near seamless, but every other time it happens it’s painfully obvious and a bit jarring, mainly in part to the quality of the graphics. At first, I didn’t think they were necessarily bad and kind of accepted them. As I played further into the roughly three-hour experience, however, I couldn’t shake the general lack of polish that permeated throughout. Hair has no semblance of movement during the actual gameplay and Dane seemed uglier and less emotive than in the live-action segments. The same can unfortunately be said for the other characters and enemies, mainly during combat.

Only the first transition to CG is even remotely effective.

The live-action cutscenes are shot well enough and presented in a non-linear order that at least presents some semblance of a mystery involving Dane’s past and the death of his mother, which also fuels him in his search for the songstress. However, the pacing is a little rushed and some twists within the last chapter, from what I could determine, come out of left field and make little sense, including an event I won’t spoil that involves a supernatural element that is never hinted before or seen after it happens.

Additionally, the line in the game’s description that mentions a “motion picture like experience” isn’t kidding, since the game is mostly live-action and CG cutscenes, with gameplay nearly non-existent to the point where I wonder why Square Enix and Human Head Studios didn’t just film and release a live-action arthouse film. At least a “silent” film with a deaf protagonist would make more sense based on the story they were trying to tell, I think (more on that in a bit).

Speaking of the nearly non-existent gameplay, it’s very unpolished and completely unsatisfying. Gameplay is divided into two segments: brawler-inspired combat and running through excruciatingly linear hallways. The combat segments are dull and repetitive, with nothing but fighting multiple waves of the same enemy types before going into another room with yet more waves of enemies or fading into another cutscene. Worse yet, the controls are never explained to you unless you go into the very minimalist and wordless menus, where everything is presented as neon signs. The game seems to otherwise rely on trial-and-error and from what I could tell, the player can perform simple jabs, kicks and holds, all of which are boring to perform due to a general lack of depth. There is also a dedicated run button and another combat-based action (R1 on the PS4 version) that I still have no idea how it actually works.

Two additional mechanics are either poorly explained or are never alluded to at all. One of these is a Focus mechanic where a blue light seems to creep up the side of the screen with each successful hit on an enemy until it hits the top, at which point you can activate it with a dedicated button. When activated, Dane can basically whale on an enemy and guarantee a victory unless the enemy is strong enough to break through it. Unfortunately, I have absolutely no clue how to activate it consistently, made worse by the near-lack of any real control over which enemy Dane targets with this power, a must in some of the larger enemy waves towards the end of the game. The other poorly-explained mechanic is the ability to perform an environmental takedown, a feature that I only knew about from looking at the game’s trophy list and which I had absolutely no clue how to perform.

You can apparently do this, but you're never told how.

What doesn’t help the repetitive nature of the combat is that, outside of specific fights, the enemies are nearly indistinguishable from each other, even after a patch which added additional costumes to help give the illusion of visual diversity. In reality, they’re still either hand-to-hand combatants or wield simple weapons like a baseball bat and a machete. The fights can also get very frustrating, as the encounters are made more difficult than they really need to be, even on the supposedly lower difficulty setting, since the difficulty ramps up not from enemies with more unique power sets, but from spamming them within the same confined space and hoping the player can endure it. Confounding this is the fact that, as part of the presentation of the story, the screen will occasionally flash with images representing Dane’s thoughts during combat, temporarily affecting the visibility of the stage.

Outside of combat, the player is merely running through hallways in segments so short and linear that you wonder why they didn’t just make them into short cutscenes, especially since at least once these segments exist solely to transition between cutscenes. I guess they were trying to provide some illusion of player agency, but if that’s the case then they really dropped the ball, since it makes the game feel a bit more lifeless than it already does.

The biggest downfall of the game, however, lies in the very thing that drew me in, that being the idea of playing as a deaf protagonist in a silent game. The silence permeates everything, from cutscenes to the “gameplay” between them. I didn’t mind the idea of trying to interpret what’s going on, however the story seems to rely so much on dialogue that thanks to the muffled noise, combined with some odd camera angles during some cutscenes, it becomes nearly incomprehensible and I stopped caring after about halfway through the game. The silence also makes the world feel very empty during the “gameplay” segments, including during the combat, which manages to feel even more hollow.

While the game is meant to played silent, the game tells you that there are still subtitles and sound is still there, but only when something is meant to be understood. A good idea in theory, but in practice it only applies to the very beginning of the game before Dane gets into a fistfight with gang members and the very end where you hear the songstress sing for the first time (it’s also here that you realize that all of the titles and descriptions for the game’s Trophies are song lyrics). In other words, it’s a near-useless feature that makes you question whether or not you actually turned the subtitles on in the options menu.

If the above issues weren’t enough, The Quiet Man is marred by a number of technical issues that provide both frustration and unintentional humor. Combat animations are so abrupt that it often seems like Dane and/or the enemies are teleporting during a beatdown or when the player can whale on an enemy as they’re getting up for another round. The hit detection is also a bit hit-and-miss, since Dane is able to hit enemies when they’re several feet away while in Focus Mode. During a beatdown, it’s also completely possible for enemies to clip through objects or Dane’s torso.

Outside of combat, but also in combat at least once, I noticed that thanks to the game’s hit detection, it’s possible that while the player is running, Dane can go into super slow motion or outright freeze completely in places when attempting to run against a wall or when running into two enemies who are directly next to each other. Another technical note is that while the game’s physics aren’t broken, there are a few instances that seem to come out of The Matrix and in at least a couple cutscenes, enemies are thrown around with no real sense of weight to the motion.

A more general note is that Dane seems to be really good at parkour, since he uses it a lot when chasing someone, even laughably and unnecessarily vaulting off of a random bald man’s head.

With all of the above said, around the time I bought The Quiet Man, about a week after release, a patch was sent out that allowed players to experience the game with full sound on a second playthrough. This mode, called The Quiet Man – Answered, is supposed to allow players the ability to determine whether or not they had succeeded at interpreting the story. Seeing as how the story was already nearly incomprehensible, I played it anyway to see how the experience differed. The short answer is that it does marginally improve the combat, but only highlights just how terrible the story really is.

To elaborate, the most obvious change during an Answer playthrough was that fights now have sound effects and background music. The sound effects help to actually sell every punch and kick that Dane lands and reveals that not only does one boss fight actually have audio cues, but that same boss and another actually have casual dialogue aimed at Dane that reveals more about their motivations. The music behind the fights is serviceable, but nothing to really write home about, since I’d already forgotten it before I sat down to write this portion of the review. I also somehow found the combat easier during this playthrough, including more consistent activations of Focus Mode, though I’m not sure if I’d attribute this to being able to actually hear the enemies or if I just got better at overcoming/exploiting the broken combat mechanics.

As for the actual story, I felt that it turned out more ridiculous than anything I could’ve come up with based on the “deaf” playthrough. Without spoiling anything, in case you want to willingly subject yourself to this game, it seemed like a story that had a short, simple arc, but was at the same time unnecessarily convoluted. There are so many moving parts in the story that fit together out of contrivance, not helped by the shaky motivations and almost literal Deus ex Machina towards the end of the story. Around that time, I got the impression that the story was written by an edgy teen trying desperately to be taken seriously. This playthrough also contains new content in the form of a post-credits sequence, though how well it resolves the story is anyone’s guess.

Having sound also allows the player to hear the various characters speak for the first time. Among other things, we learn that the name of the songstress is Lala, which sounds very lazy and on-the-nose given her occupation. Apart from this, the dialogue gets pretty corny at times and it turns out that not only is Dane a man of few words, but he also perfectly understood everything that was going on, which sort of undermines the idea of a deaf protagonist, and by extension player, who can’t tell exactly what’s going on and is forced to interpret. The game occasionally reminds players of Dane’s deafness with quick bursts of sign language and gestures of Dane pointing to his ears.

No matter how you choose to play the game, however, the story is overall pretty boring and pretentious. There is an attempt at symbolism in the form of red string to represent the red string in the Bird Man’s “beak”, but it’s poorly implemented and doesn’t really have much of a payoff, meaning that sightings such as a voodoo doll, a dead bird and a pair of sneakers, not to mention a few words written on a wall in red, come off as a giant red herring. As for the game’s ability to act as a cure for insomnia, it should say something that on both playthroughs, I ended up taking a nap at about the halfway point.

Edgy or spoopy? You decide.

As mentioned earlier, the player gets to hear Lala sing at the very end of the game. Here, it’s an original composition by Imogen Heap called “The Quiet”. On its own, it’s actually a pretty good song, but in the context of The Quiet Man, it comes off as pretentious and doesn’t do any favors towards my opinion of the overall experience.

Overall, The Quiet Man is not only a bad game, it’s one of the worst ones I’ve played in a while. The story is awful and convoluted with sound and nearly incomprehensible without, the gameplay is nearly non-existent and when it’s there it’s incredibly dull and broken, the acting is only serviceable at best and, to top it all off, the game makes no real attempt to adequately explore the experience of a deaf person. It amazes me how a game with one of the most original and intriguing concepts I’ve heard in some time could be executed so poorly, with so little actual gameplay that I wonder why they even bothered to make a game and didn’t instead just release a pretentious arthouse film about a deaf person. If they did so and kept the same story, however, I’d still consider it a complete waste of $15, let alone the $13.50 I paid for the game's Limited Edition, available only during the first two weeks of its existence. Don’t bother playing this game unless you really want to subject yourself to one of the worst games of 2018 or if you desperately need content for a YouTube or Twitch channel dedicated to bad games and, if you do, only do so if you can get it for a rock bottom price so you don’t feel completely ripped off.

Trust me, the extras aren't worth it.

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