Beautiful Desolation review

Release Date
24 Feb 2020
DEVELOPER
The Brotherhood
PUBLISHER
The Brotherhood
PLATFORM
PC

Beautiful Desolation is the latest title from South African indie developer The Brotherhood, and arrives in the wake of the very well-regarded sci-fi horror Stasis and its prequel, Cayne. Beautiful Desolation shares DNA with these entries into the isometric point-and-click adventure genre, but is very different in setting and tone. Set in the Western Cape, Beautiful Desolation flaunts its heritage proudly, both in its setting, music, art direction, and with a voice cast that is almost entirely heavily-accented South Africans.

Without giving too much away, the game imagines an alternate timeline where, in 1976, an enormous alien artifact named the Penrose appeared in Cape Point, and technology was catapulted forward as scientists studied and learned from it. The game begins in the 80s, when the protagonist, Mark Leslie, is soon flung into the far future, where he has to find both his brother and a way back home. It turns out that, in the future, South Africa is in a decidedly worse position than it is now, if significantly less overpopulated. In fact, it’s pretty underpopulated after several cataclysmic wars have ripped through it.

Beautiful Desolation is, well, beautiful and desolate. The 2D environments are realistically rendered, presenting a world that has been torn apart and healed many times over the centuries. In one screen, mutated plants grow around the skeletons of gigantic animals long dead, while in another you’ll explore dilapidated ruins and pick through the rusted metal bones of ancient robots.

You’ll find yourself embroiled in conflicts, as the many different factions scattered throughout the open world fight amongst themselves for control of their little piece of the post-apocalypse. Luckily Mark’s not alone, as a few other companions eventually join his party. One notable party member is Pooch, a dog-shaped Agnate (this world’s version of an cyborg) that does doggy things but also speaks to you in a woman’s voice and discusses things like memories and emotions.

The factions are all weird in their own special way. For example, one is a technologically advanced group of people with symbiotic, parasitic worms living in their brains. Another’s members are all corpses whose brains are unwillingly preserved inside robotic drones. The characters you meet are always very interesting, both visually and in personality and speech – one of my favourite NPCs is an android named Siza, who tried to sell me an ointment that would end my financial problems, bring back a lost lover, and cure erectile dysfunction. This is also one of those games that give you an epilogue showing you the results of your actions throughout the game, inviting multiple playthroughs in order to see all the different endings.

Beautiful Desolation can be frustratingly light on exposition, however, and could have benefited from having Mark function as a fish out of water – someone NPCs must explain things to, which then helps the player to understand. Instead, Mark seems to approach everything like a dreamer who knows they’re dreaming, just accepting what’s presented to them. Eventually I managed to embrace the weird and just go with it as well, but there seems to be a lot of world-building here and it would have been nice if it was given more of a chance to shine.

The sound design really stands out for me. The voice acting is mostly excellent, the sound effects are appropriately organic or mechanical, and Mick Gordon’s soundtrack is amazing, combining ambient sci-fi electronica with African rhythms and instruments.

Early in the game you’ll gain access to a “Buffalo” troop transport – a flying tank with which you’ll traverse the overworld. There’ll be a lot of going back and forth between settlements, especially if you’re like me and constantly forget to scour every screen for items to pick up and forget where certain NPCs are located (I wouldn’t recommend putting this game down and coming back to it weeks later). But it’s so quick to get around the world that I rarely felt frustrated when having to backtrack. Still, having a more robust journal might have helped here.

Beautiful Desolation
BOTTOM LINE
Beautiful Desolation is a well-crafted isometric adventure game. The world that The Brotherhood has created is engaging and fascinating, if not always easily accessible. It’s a very different take on post-apocalyptic sci-fi, which is a genre in desperate need of fresh ideas.
PROS
World-building – seriously, this world is fascinating
Most of the voice acting
Mick fooking Gordon!
There are walkthroughs online
CONS
Not enough exposition
Lack of clear direction at times can lead to backtracking and going around in circles
You'll probably need a walkthrough
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