Not every game needs a happy ending. Despite that thought almost derailing the concept of why we play video games in the first place, one can argue that the story and ideals gleaned from the experience can be rewarding enough. Gods Will Be Watching is not a happy or fun game. Are those positive traits? That's up to gamers to decide.
Gods Will Be Watching begins with a prologue of your team sitting by a campfire on a frozen planet, each lamenting about how bad the situation is. The game takes you back to the events that led to this situation. The ruling empire of the universe massacres all who oppose it and enslaves the survivors, while a terrorist group named Xenolifer wishes to take down the ruling empire through violent means. You play as Sgt. Abraham Burden, a member of a third party who wants to stop Xenolifer at all costs. Burden wants to end the conflict as peacefully as possible, but he and his team are constantly placed in seemingly impossible situations that force him to make some tough decisions.
Though the game is classified as an adventure, it only has that label because of the mechanics, which have you clicking characters to produce a menu of possible actions. There are no spaces to analyze, and there's no need to solve puzzles by combining objects. It's more of a resource management title; you need to ensure all of the available systems are functioning to reach the end scenario. The resources are people and actions that have to do with their overall well-being. By the end of each of the six stages, you'll see how you fared by comparing your results with the rest of the community, similarly to how The Walking Dead tallies up things at the end of each milestone.
The first stage exemplifies just how this works. The Xenolifers have boarded a research ship and are attempting to steal all of the research data on the Medusea virus, a sickness that is the focal point of the conflict. You have four hostages in your possession, and your team's leader is busy downloading the data. Meanwhile, your friend Jack is fending off approaching guards while the team's hacker is trying to handle the computer's security systems and preparing a program that can dramatically boost the hacking process.
You call the shots, and each action you take comes with a consequence in different areas. Have the hacker charge up the hacking booster, and that weakens the security firewall that's preventing the guards from stopping your hack. Let Jack start firing at the guards to push them back, and the hostages get more frightened. Try calming them down, and the hostages might start attacking, especially when they see that the hack is failing. They'll go into a panic if they start getting picked off, and the guards inch forward with every hacking step you take. There are lots of things to manage and lots of things that can go wrong if you don't take the time to balance things appropriately.
In every situation you face, there are too many things to keep track of, and it makes for a good challenge — at first. Gods Will Be Watching tries to ensure that you know what you should pay attention to before the scenarios begin, so it doesn't feel completely unfair. Each scenario is gruesome or has impossible scenarios attached, but each victory feels more rewarding than the last. At best, each situation is memorable and makes for a good story.
However, the game seems to fall apart under its own weight as it tries to juggle the story it's trying to tell and the level of difficulty it wants to impose. Part of this can be blamed on the game mechanics, since progress is completely dependent on trial and error. That's somewhat understandable since there are many things designed to fail, and the game even warns you that this happens often. You might lose all of your hostages since they'll panic and run to their deaths, or you may get mauled by predators since you didn't craft spears. Trial and error gameplay isn't bad, but when there are no checkpoints in the game, it can make any situation disheartening. Since you can't create checkpoints and the game fails to create them for you, this means repeating chapters from the very beginning, often with no way to skip any of the opening dialogue. With some chapters taking close to an hour to complete, it's draining that you need to play though all of the previous challenges just because of one error.
One element takes the challenge level from draining to infuriating: the game always has a randomizer playing in the background. No matter how well you execute your plan, the game throws a wrench in it, sometimes just enough to end the game and force you to start over. For example, the desert you're dropped into may not have enough enemy bases for you to overcome. Guards who storm in might decide to launch a flash grenade and end the scenario. No matter how careful you are, there's always something to mess things up and make the game unfairly difficult.
With those roadblocks combined, the story comes in as a distant second in terms of things people will care about. Any feelings the player may have toward the characters or the plot are wiped away when players have to repeat it several times. The interest fades, and the message, however important it may be, becomes background noise. If the player still cares about the plot after several retries, the story does itself no favors by failing to flesh out any of the characters. Further diminishing the importance of the story is that your actions don't seem to carry over in the timeline. Suffer through many casualties while trying to find a cure for the virus, and the dead characters are alive in the next chapter, ready to endure more hardships with you. Once you discover this, any sympathy you may have goes out the window since the characters are nothing more than help or hindrance, depending on the situation.
When the game first came out, there were only two difficulty levels that didn't feel very different from one another, save for one boosting the time in which some scenarios can be completed. Both were punishing due to the randomness of elements. After a recent patch, three more difficulty levels were introduced that did away with the randomness and let you focus on puzzles. After playing with those difficulty levels, which differ in the way they dole out time boosts, the game can now be classified as punishing but manageable thanks to the reduction in random elements. Despite what the text says, they haven't been completely eliminated.
At the very least, the presentation is good. If you're a fan of pixel graphics, Gods Will Be Watching will take you back to the days of classic adventure titles, with lots of blown-up pixels filling the screen in a multitude of colors. The lanky legs and lack of mouth movement give the game a sense of style, but it's drenched in a nice helping of gore. The soundtrack is more modern but still very dark, successfully conveying a sense of dread and hopelessness while remaining beautiful to listen to. It nicely complements the effects, as the clarity only makes each situation even more depressing. All in all, the developers were very successful in this area.
Gods Will Be Watching is a divisive game. The bleak story and equally dark scenarios are interesting, even if they seem to go one for far too long. The sense of adventure is overwhelmed by the blatantly apparent resource mechanics and lack of character development for everyone, except for Jack and Burden. The random nature of the game mixed in with the lack of checkpoints and high probability of failure due to forces outside of your control would be more frustrating if it weren't for the game's (newly added) multiple difficulty levels. The lack of control over events can lead many to give up on the title far too quickly. The premise is solid, but the game relies too much on chance and trial and error, so it's hard to recommend this title to anyone but masochists and those who are hell-bent on experiencing the story — no matter what.
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