By Nick Benefield / December 17th, 2018
|Release Date||December 11th, 2018|
|Genre(s)||Racing, Simulation, Action-RPG, Indie|
|Platform(s)||Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC|
|Age Rating||M for Mature|
About one month back, I wrote up a quick news article about the impending release of a game called Desert Child. The press release described it being a “hoverbike racing adventure”, taking inspiration from other works like Cowboy Bebop and Akira. Prior to seeing that news piece roll through, I had never heard or seen anything about this title before. I read an interview that we did with the developer back in July and walked away eagerly anticipating this game. I knew immediately based on that interview and upon watching the trailer for the game that I wanted to play it when I had the chance. I went into this one expecting to have a good time, but I didn’t expect it to resonate with me as much as it did.
It took less than 30 minutes of playtime for me to determine what my overall thoughts on this game were. Even then, with each passing moment I grew more and more enamored with it. Nearly every aspect of this game struck a chord with me. From the gorgeous, Amiga-inspired art style to the entrancing lo-fi hip-hop soundtrack, nearly every element matched my interests to a T. The humor especially was right up my alley. While it is very difficult for me to contain all of the excitement that I would like to pour out into this review, I will hold back a bit. I believe that much of what makes this game so special is how unexpected many of the features and sights are. It’s the type of game that you really need to play for yourself to get the best experience.
Without spoiling too much, you start off as just an average dude on Earth. It’s some 50+ years in the future, so naturally you hop on your hoverbike and race into town. Once there, you encounter a woman on a much nicer bike than yours. She’s impressed with your racing abilities and suggests that you head to Mars to become a career racer. So just like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall, your initial goal is to “get your ass to Mars!” The build-up to actually get there is pretty short though.
The majority of your playtime will be invested once you get to Mars. From there, your next and final goal will be to compete in the Grand Prix race. The race isn’t cheap to enter though, so you’ll need to earn your way in by taking various jobs. You can work as a pizza delivery boy, herd space cattle with your hoverbike, hunt down outlaws, and even hack into a bank vault by taking part in a very unexpected (but welcome) surprise racing sequence. These are but a few of the options available to you, but I’ll keep things brief to avoid spoiling too much. Aside from simply raising money, your other focus should be to upgrade your bike. Each successful race earns you power cells. These are used to power various parts that can be added to your bike. Some parts increase the amount of damage you can take while others increase how much you can deal. All of these parts can be purchased or stolen and then added to your bike to increase your abilities during races. The weapon on your bike is fixed though, as this is a choice that is made at the beginning and determines your game difficulty.
One positive that should stand out right away is the art design. As I touched upon, the graphics are done in a way that is very representative of what one might expect from an Amiga title. The graphics make heavy use of pixel art, but not in the usual 8-bit or 16-bit style. In addition, the animation is quite fluid. A number of the character animations used when NPCs are viewed up close in shops seem to be rotoscoped. This caught me off guard and I really appreciated it. Even the backgrounds are animated nicely, with wonderfully done parallax scrolling in some parts. And perhaps the biggest appeal for me came from the wide variety of perspectives that the game employed. Each screen that you travel between has a completely different perspective. In the nightlife district, the “camera” is fixed on the character from a distant top-down view. Some streets show a normal side shot of the character. Perhaps my favorite perspective though is on one of the side streets, where you can only see your character and the buildings that he passes from the knee down. These are but some of the many various perspectives that I was impressed by.
The other big stand-out aspect of the game was the music. As I mentioned before, the gameplay is pleasantly accompanied by a lo-fi hip-hop soundtrack. At first, you only have one repeating song to listen to. You can however purchase more tracks at the local record store once you arrive on Mars. I found this to be a novel idea and I enjoyed perusing through all of the different tracks. There are several artists who contributed to this title and all of their works fit quite nicely with the urban atmosphere being portrayed. The racing music is a bit different, giving off more of a synthwave vibe. Either way, I love both genres and they both fit very well with the sequences that they are paired with.
If graphics and sound design are the two biggest positives for Desert Child, then the humor that it employs is a very close third. It’s 2071 and humanity has finally colonized Mars, but it still continues to deal with the same problems that it did back on Earth. Much of the imagery and dialog used within the game gets this point across. From newspapers that deliver over-the-top commentary on Mars’ political climate, to the names of the politicians themselves, to the strange bean salesman who insists that “beans are a lot like people,” this game is full of strange, albeit memorable moments. As those who know me can attest to, I’m not an easy person to make laugh. This game legitimately made me laugh on more than a few occasions. The included screenshots do little to convey how truly enjoyable the dialog was for me.
With racing being the main focal point of this game, it’s only fair that the racing mechanics be the main focus of my criticism. Having said that, there really isn’t too much to be critical of. Controlling your bike is easy and feels natural. Regardless of the situation (herding cattle, delivering pizza, avoiding the police) racing was never a dull activity. The backgrounds did eventually get repetitive, but overall racing was enjoyable and straightforward. I spent the majority of my playtime using the Switch Pro Controller and I can say that I never noticed any discrepancies. The controls are all mapped very well and everything felt very responsive. Along with everything I’ve already touched on, the racing mechanics get a gold star from me.
With every great game, there is always at least one drawback. For Desert Child, this drawback is the relatively short playtime needed to finish it. Once I got to the Grand Prix stage of the game, I expected to find that the game was just getting started and that things would continue to ramp up. Unfortunately, with my bike tricked out and playing on what I’d define as the normal difficulty (2 star), I was able to finish the game in a mere seven hours or so. Once you finish, there is no turning back. Your only options are to start a completely new game or continue from the save file you just finished. Continuing like this restarts you back on Earth, but you retain all of the music that you unlocked during the last playthrough. Depending on which weapon you begin with (and consequently, what difficulty) you may take more or less time than me. With that said, even when playing through a second time with a higher difficulty, it still didn’t take me too long to beat the game. I wasn’t expecting a full 80+ hour experience, but I was a bit bummed that it ended so soon.
The other notable negative comes in the form of “I wish.” I wish there were more custom parts to add to my bike. I wish the racing sequences were a bit longer. I would’ve liked to see some non-racing mini-games. This may sound like nitpicking, but there were a number of places where I stopped and said “I wish this idea was expanded upon”. One such idea is the “notoriety” system where you can increase your notoriety by stealing bike parts or helping a shady businessman with his dirty work. These levels are measured using rapper titles and increasing sums of money for bail. When you get caught by the police, you have to pay this fine unless you can outrun them (on your bike of course). While novel, I was able to reach the highest level of notoriety possible and the results were still the same. The higher your notoriety, the more likely you’ll have to outrun the cops and risk losing money. I would’ve appreciated seeing more ways to commit crime and higher penalties for continuing to do so (a bad ending where you get thrown in jail?). Given that this project was created from the ground up by just one man though, this is by no means a deal-breaker.
Desert Child is indeed a very special release. It’s not only unique in being an M-rated indie on the Switch, but it’s also perhaps the most impressive indie title that I’ve played in years. Every aspect of the game is teeming with originality and the passion of the developer comes across clear as day. That’s to be expected though, as creator Oscar Brittain created nearly every aspect of the game himself. The relatively short gameplay certainly detracts from the game’s overall score, but I can mostly look past this given how impressive my time with it was. I’d say that this one lies somewhere between a 4.25 and a 4.5 on the review scale. Desert Child released for all major platforms on December 11, 2018. I played the Switch version, but it can also be downloaded on PS4, Xbox One, and Steam. At just $11.99 on any of them, I can’t recommend it enough.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Action RPGAkupara GamesDesert ChildIndienintendo switchOscar BrittainPCPlayStation 4PS4RacingXbox One