Paul Cuisset is best known for early-nineties futuristic platforming title Flashback – a game that used rotoscoping to present players with some of the most realistic animation they had ever seen in console gaming. Previously he had designed a series of point and click adventure games, but he isn’t so well-known for his output during the more than twenty-year period following that, with the most recent title he developed being Amy, a poorly-received downloadable survival horror from 2012.
GAME: Subject 13
AVAILABLE ON: PS4/PC/Mac
Now he is back in the designer’s chair with the help of Kickstarter, and teaming up with adventure-gaming stalwarts Microids. Going back to his roots, the new graphic adventure Subject 13 isn’t trying to reinvent the point and click genre, or push forward the storytelling medium – this is a true old-school homage.
Our protagonist Franklin Fargo was an innocuous physics professor, but a tragedy which claimed the life if his fiancée Sophie turned his life upside-down, and after a failed suicide attempt awakens in a mysterious pod. The titular Subject 13 now finds himself alone on a deserted island. Alone that is, aside from the somewhat eerie voice who seems to be within his own head, constantly egging him on and encouraging him to push forward, despite the unknown secrets held by this mysterious island. More of the story is revealed slowly as the player progresses through each of the four chapters (chapter one and two being far shorter than three and four), with the grisly history of the island being drip-fed to us as we discover just why it is entirely deserted.
Although there are some interesting plot beats – such as the internal struggles Franklin faces due to his sense of guilt for the death of Sophie, or the mystery of just who the ominous voice guiding you belongs to – the overall experience is far too short to give the different threads a chance to develop fully and resonate with you, whereby the message of “accepting the consequences of your actions” is undermined by the shallow and poorly-acted characters.
Subject 13 finishes quite abruptly and everything does end up feeling like it was a little rushed – even the closing scene feels like it is a cliff-hanger and more chapters were perhaps once planned? One contributing factor to this could be that much of the backstory is delivered through collectable testimonies scattered throughout each scene. These are entirely optional and often quite well-hidden – which can result in big chunks of useful information being completely missed. Obviously, none of these are essential for completion, but without some of them large holes can be left in the plot.
The gameplay sadly doesn’t step up into the void left by the story and characterisation. There are a few challenging puzzles to solve, but a lot of these devolve into simple sliding block brainteasers, and are just as easy to solve by trial and error or dumb luck, rather than figuring out the correct technique. Even more offensive than that, the final puzzle isn’t even a puzzle – but a fancy version of Minesweeper. I would imagine that most gamers who want to play Minesweeper won’t want to buy a new downloadable adventure game just to do so.
Making it worse, the hotspot system which is supposed to highlight areas you can interact with or examine is poorly implemented. Switching from one hotspot to the next can by finnicky – whereby one keeps selecting the wrong item by mistake – and a host of glitches often mean hotspots don’t appear exactly where they should, or an item behind a closed door will appear even when it shouldn’t. And that isn’t even mentioning the inventory puzzles, where a strange system for picking active items makes it so easy to repeatedly select the incorrect objects to use together.
An extra step has been included to try and increase immersion in the experience, where you are instructed to copy the motions on-screen to complete certain actions. For instance, twirling the analog stick around to turn a key in a lock, or pulling forward to yank a door open. This could be a nice little addition, were it not for the poor implementation once again, and too often I found the key jiggling back and forth rather than turning as it should, the tracking on each motion never seemingly as smooth or accurate as it should have been.
Aesthetically Subject 13 won’t win any awards either. Environments and backdrops are nicely drawn, and the character model of Franklin is fine – but it all feels a little bit dated and unimpressive unfortunately. I don’t ask that a point and click title needs to be visually stunning, but Subject 13 looks like a cookie-cutter late-nineties European graphic adventure. The animation is far from smooth and realistic, and controlling Franklin is a chore as he constantly becomes stuck on invisible barriers around the edges of scenes, for example. As previously mentioned voice acting is poor and unconvincing, which lets down the audio design which is otherwise a rare highpoint, with a thoroughly atmospheric musical score and nice recurring themes that appear throughout.
Subject 13 is certainly not a highly-polished release and its lack of length and abrupt end gives the impression that either this was at one time intended to be a longer experience, or it feels like the first episode of a series. A point and click game certainly doesn’t need to break new ground or be visually stunning, but Subject 13 is disappointing in most respects – even the most basic puzzling mechanics. Kickstarter has brought us some fascinating re-imaginings of classic genre titles, or new, original graphic adventures to play, but Paul Cuisset has regrettably failed to deliver a new classic to add to his resume.