This modern-day take on the Robin Hood story takes the puzzle genre and infuses a huge amount of stealth into it. Drawing on obvious influences from another, larger, stealth series, we take a trip into the Volume…
Mike Bithell’s ambitious follow-up to Thomas Was Alone sees him and his team ditch the 2D quadrilaterals for a heavily stylised 3D world that immediately invokes memories of the classic Metal Gear Solid VR Missions. Deceptively simple, Volume’s levels all maintain this distinctive style throughout, with narrative credence given to it by tying it to the rather limited abilities of the in-game AI, Alan. Alan has created a ‘Volume’ containing a number (100, to be exact) of VR recreations of properties belonging to Guy Gisborne, in order for you, Rob Locksley, to infiltrate and steal from. These infiltrations are being live-streamed over the internet to a growing number of viewers, in order for them to potentially recreate the heists in reality.
Gameplay wise, the game draws a number of other cues from Hideo Kojima’s classic franchise. The camera is top-down, and the enemies you encounter have very obvious cones of vision. If you enter it, they’ll spot you, and a timer will start up that counts down to them firing their weapon at you. It’s Stealth 101, but it’s so well done that it doesn’t feel contrived at any point. In fact, Volume’s pacing is nigh-on perfect. Each new element is introduced to Locksley at just the right point in the story, new gameplay mechanics sneak into the fold almost as stealthily as you intend to be as you make your way through the Volume. One of the core abilities is that of hugging the wall and edging your way past the guards across the level. As long as you’re crouched at that height, no enemies with an obscured line of sight to you will spot you. The instant they turn a corner and lose that obstruction, they’ll see you. And boy do you know about it! The enemy’s vision cone will turn a bright shade of pink, and an immediate crash into a high-tempo, panic inducing track that will surely get your blood pumping as you attempt to find a way to outwit your AI foes.
On that note, the soundtrack is absolutely sublime. Complementing the gameplay perfectly with the aforementioned panic inducing moments when you get caught, all the way back to the calm and somewhat dulcet orchestral overlays on top of an electronic background. It’s as if Nine Inch Nails’ tour bus crashed into the London Philharmonic at times, and it is an absolute treat. My only slight niggle with it was that the theme running through some of the latter levels had the same chord progression as Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”, which I then couldn’t remove from my head! The soundtrack is backed up by some solid voice acting from the returning Danny Wallace as Alan, with Andy Serkis at his scenery-gnawing best in full-on panto villain mode.
With all of the positives, there are a few negatives that stack up as well. First off, there’s the story. Whilst it’s admirable to attempt to pull off a retelling of a classic folk story, Volume’s main storytelling is done through the mission select screen, which I found to be a bit of a letdown. One of Thomas Was Alone’s strengths was the way that the story developed through the voice of Wallace’s narrator, whereas Volume feels like you’ve been thrown into this world without much rhyme or reason, and you’re left to figure an awful lot of it out yourself. There were points where I felt that there could have been a bit more exposition in the character interactions, and I didn’t really feel too invested in the story. I mentioned that some of the voice acting is top notch, but sadly Charlie McDonnell’s performance as Locksley falls somewhat flat for me. Whilst I appreciate the parallel between the real life YouTuber and the in-game live streamer, the performance feels very forced, and almost like it’s been read straight from a script without much rehearsal. It’s a shame because Charlie is a likeable guy, but there’s only so many times you can hear the same oddly stilted delivery of “You’re welcome, internets” before it starts to grate.
The other main problem that I had with the game is how easy it is to manipulate the enemy AI. Up until around 75% of the way through the game, I was rarely having much of an issue getting through the levels. If you get seen, it’s surprisingly easy to get out of trouble. All you need to do is break the line of sight with the enemy, and their timer resets. If you can make it to a checkpoint during this time, you’ll be absolutely fine. When you respawn at the checkpoint, the enemy positions all reset, but you keep any of the items you’ve looted throughout the level. Quite often I found myself hoarding the gems in the level, getting spotted and running into a checkpoint just to respawn with them with no enemies around, allowing for an easy escape.
Easily one of the standout features of the game will be the user generated content. Volume’s level editor was used to create all of the simulations in the game, and the full range of tools are available to everyone from the get go. If the game finds the community, there is a huge potential for Volume to be one of those games you keep coming back to.
Even with its flaws, Volume is a hugely enjoyable puzzle game, wearing its influences proudly on its sleeve. Near-perfect pacing, a wonderful soundtrack and deceptively simple gameplay, Volume will have you creeping back for more to try and top the leaderboards on as many levels as possible, and maybe even create a few more as well.