Volume styles itself as a “narrative stealth action” game, but those robes belong to other games from other times, and as such it wears them awkwardly. Instead, Volume’s more comfortable in casual attire, wearing puzzle shorts and a speed-running sweatshirt, ambling its way through stark, glowing architecture and a gently evolving set of brainteasers.
You play Robert Locksley, a revolutionary who has resurrected a decommissioned military-training AI – the titular Volume – going by the name of Alan, with the aim of streaming instructional virtual heist how-to’s live to the oppressed citizens of a new-future dystopian England (or an abstract representation thereof). Volume tries to be a cheeky-but-also-serious comment on Internet fame and responsibility, corporations, social caste systems and the threat/potential of AIs and distributed neural networks, as seen through the lens of the Robin Hood legend.
Compared to Thomas Was Alone (Mike Bithell’s other game, to which Volume makes several overt references, placing it in the same world and timeline), Volume‘s narrative is not nearly as engaging nor as memorable in spite of its recognisable voice cast and several great performances (the antagonist Gisborne, voiced by Andy Serkis, and Danny Wallace’s Alan being notable stand-outs). Its story is spoken at you rather than experienced in any meaningful emotional way. If you’re coming in with expectations of a story with the same charm and resonance as Thomas Was Alone, you’d best look elsewhere.
But what of the game? Ah, that’s a different tale. Harsh and hard? Soft and solfeggio? Volume caters to your whims, letting you set the tone and pace of your escapades throughout the game. Volume distills the design principles of the modern stealth game down to their most minimal, economical core. As you proceed through the game’s 100 levels, you’ll go from using simple manoeuvrability and your wits to evade notice, to exploiting the behaviours of several enemy types, using noisemakers and environmental objects to open a path to the gems you’re required to collect before the exit will open up to you.
You’ll hide under floorboards and disguise yourself in the garb of your robot-like adversaries; you’ll position tripwires, crouch behind and roll over low walls. Volume‘s abstract presentation serves it well here, allowing you to effortlessly take the lessons you’ve learnt from one level to another regardless of whatever premise the small story blurb indicates you’re operating within. It’s nothing new; all of Volume‘s mechanics, from alarm lasers to damnable dogs, you’ve likely encountered before.
My issue with Volume is that it seems to be a game at odds with itself. If you’re content to take advantage of the liberal checkpoints throughout each stage, leverage its gentle difficulty curve and play the stealth mechanics straight, Volume doesn’t offer much besides prettily-coloured geometric mazes, a variety of enemy vision cones and some cleverly laid-out puzzles with several homages (waka waka).
Instead, the real gratification comes from completing a level as efficiently as possible, a fact Volume hints at through leaderboards containing players’ best completion times. And here’s the crux of it: you’ll play the game very differently if you’re trying to reach these upper echelons of speed. You’ll abuse the sight mechanics to lead your enemies in a merry chase around corners, cutting their view and resetting their threat counters. You’ll deliberately activate alarms to draw enemies from afar. You’ll identify slight blind spots that allow you to walk right next to an enemy with no penalty, like a crouching race car. Whether or not you’re seen carries less weight than whether or not you can get away with being caught, or if it’ll irreparably ruin your time.
There’s no reward or in-game achievement for this other than your name on the leaderboards and your own sense of mastery of the game’s mechanics and level layouts. Me? I was enamoured with this part of the game. I was placed in the top five of several of the levels’ global leaderboards, though I’m not entirely sure if Volume is fudging this somehow, as I’ve seen several reviewers make the same claim and there can only be so many places in the top five (five places, to be exact). There’s a fully-featured editor that’s already spawned a number of Metal Gear Solid level remakes (because of course), though you’ll need some patience to create your stealth masterworks as it doesn’t allow for mouse control.
Volume is a competent collection of puzzles with a refined presentation and narrative, but it’s unlikely, once you’ve heard the album in full, that you’ll return to it.
[Note: A new update released yesterday changes the checkpoint and leaderboard system. You can now focus on either the pure stealth leaderboard or the original system.]