...till death do us part.
When you stop to dwell on those familiar words, it becomes evident that they apply not just to those we meet at the altar, but to our friends, family; all our relationships in life, that at some point must inevitably come to an end. But what if they didn't have to? What if there was a way to live on forever; to visit those who's bodies have long since fallen away, indefinitely, even after passing away ourselves. Thus is the idea behind the Soul Cloud, a device capable of recreating someone's personality, their likes and dislikes, and all of their memories in digital form where they can be visited by loved ones, and continue their life without the fear of death hanging over them...that is, until the server itself begins to die, and all those inhabiting it.
Here lies the basic premise to Master Reboot, a wildly ambitious project from the small team at Wales Interactive, which places you inside the Soul Cloud at the point of its downfall as an unknown protagonist just as lost as you are admist its bizarre architecture and endless hallways. It's a game that is hard to categorize because from each moment to the next you are found doing something entirely different, though all in the attempt to discover who you are and what has happened to an invention hailed as one of the most important in recent memory.
The narrative unfolds in a nonlinear, but structure format, with each memory you revisit giving you but a small piece of the overarching plot, until it finally falls into place and you're clued in on what all of it has been for. Unfortunately, that revelation falls a bit flat, switching gears at the last moment and leaving you with an empty sort of nothingness that doesn't sufficiently wrap up the myriad of lose ends that have been scattered before you during the course of the game. As the credits began to roll, I couldn't help but feel the developers had forgotten I was still expecting an ending, and had decided to simply go with the last minute plot device to close things off.
Up until that point though the game is an entirely different beast, one that reinvents itself with each level giving you a new mechanic or puzzle to work with. The variety is great, and certainly welcome, but it also creates Master Reboot's biggest problem, its terrible inconsistency. Moment to moment it manages to reach both impressive heights and dreadful lows, fluctuating between the things that work and mechanics that never should have been in the game at all.
This is most apparent when the developers attempt to juxtapose in horror elements which create aggravating instant kill scenarios that both break immersion, and are completely off from the emphasis on atmosphere and exploration that is found in most of the game. Along with these come arbitrary time limits that force you to continually replay segments, one off action sequences that aren't properly explained, and an abundance of odd elements that don't have time to be expanded upon into anything meaningful. I can appreciate all the ideas at play here, but find it hard to ignore how only about half of them actually work and fit within then game.
Similarly, the ascetic is one of the game's biggest assets, with a creative and engaging art direction and some stunning lighting effects. It's a huge shame then that so much of the game is inside cramped, dark environments, with blurry textures and some truly horrific pop-in (even for a game running Unreal Engine 3). When you're taken out of the buildings and hallways, it's truly a sight to behold, but these moments are fleeting to the point I purposely stayed longer in them to appreciate how beautiful they are.
Perhaps more aggravating than the discrepancies in the art design is the constant awkward cuts away from your perspective. Games like Bioshock and Half-Life proved that you can tell a great first-person story without the need to continually take control and the camera away from the player, so the fact Wales Interactive opted for such a graceless method of showcasing important moments is frustrating, and greatly impacted my enjoyment. The off putting animated cutscenes that cap each memory were also an odd choice, feeling completely disconnected from the rest of the game even after you learn of the reason for them being there. Poor sound design is also disappointing, as the actual music and effects are quite good at immersing you in the experience, but were not even given a proper stereo directing to where everything sounds as if it's coming from the everywhere.
It might sound as if I abhorred Master Reboot, but in truth I actually enjoyed it to give a cautious recommendation despite its flaws. It's a surreal adventure with big ideas, many of which it disappointingly can't pull off, but when it does is truly fantastic. Wales Interactive has the definite makings of a great indie developer, with a uniquely imaginative vision that could lead to something great down the road. It is certainly disappointing that they also inhabit the other end of the indie spectrum, with a significant lack of polish and numerous amateurish design choices. Master Reboot has some great moments, and some truly terrible ones, but in the end I was still happy to have played it and look forward to what will come out of the newly christened developer. Hopefully they will be able to learn from their mistakes, and build off the strong foundation here.