Friday 19 March 2021

Switch Review - Sinless

We are seeing more and more point-and-click games released on the Switch, but is this cyber punk adventure bold enough to stand out from the crowd?

Developed by MGP Studios
Published by Forver Entertainment
Released in 2019

It’s easy to forget how good a story telling medium video gaming is. It gives the audience the ability to directly interact with an unfolding narrative; creating a feeling of immersion that simply isn’t possible in films or TV shows. Rather than a passive observer, you become an active participant, given the illusion you are driving, sculpting and changing the story. Visual novels are becoming increasingly popular, escaping the niche that they once lived in. There has also been a renascence of sorts in the point-and-click genre; particularly amongst European PC users.

Of course for every fan of the interactive story telling that these kinds of games offer, there’s a critic. “It’s not game playing” the naysayers declare, “if I wanted to read, I’d grab a book”. Too many words it seems, shouldn’t be a feature of modern video gaming, something the creators of ‘Sinless’ are very much aware of. “[Our game] is targeted at the old-school, niche gamer-there is a lot of reading after all” says the Warsaw based MGP Studios. “We have been playing games for three decades and have fond memories of classic adventure games ranging from ‘Granny's Garden’ on the BBC through the timeless classic Sierra and ‘Dynamix’ games to the more recent touchscreen based visual novels like ‘Danganronpa’, ‘Phoenix Wright’ and ‘Ghost Trick’”. It’ll come as no surprise that the first game from the developer follows in the same vein ; “Sinless is a hybrid of classic 2D point and click adventure and visual novel set in an original cyberpunk reality”.

The game takes place in the near future after a world ending apocalypse has taken place. Living in cities run by Omni-Care, life is seemingly perfect, although civil liberty has to be surrendered
  to live  in an almost utopian society.  Law abiding citizens have to follow predetermined living schedules and install daily programs into their body-ports so that their mandatory cybernetic implants function at peak efficiency for their daily duties. Of course, the manufacturers of cybernetics also happen to be the law and order, so in effect the cities are controlled by shady organisations. For obedient citizens life is perfect, crime is practically non-existent and they get to live in the stereotypical futuristic city of white glossy buildings and permanently blue skies.  But beneath the streets, dwell those who refuse to follow. The subsurface is a dark and grim world, constantly drenched in a storm of overflowing air conditioning water from the harmonious cities above. Left to ruin by Omi-Care, the underworld is unruly, where murder, drug abuse and prostitution is part of the day to day life, away from the judgemental eyes of the obedient citizens.

After a strange dream where a normal shopping centre turns into a ‘Silent Hill’ like hell-hole, our protagonist wakes expecting to enjoy a normal day. Of course, things quickly star to go wrong. Over this two hour long game he will come to learn the true level of corruption and control that exists in his multi-layered city. “We put a lot of effort and attention to the lore and story as well as the general vibe” says the designer Michał Neugarten. “Hopefully our love for games and cyberpunk shows in our debut ‘Sinless’”

Played from a first person perspective you are thrown into the game with very little instructions or directions. When the Switch is docked you use the analogue stick to move a cursor around the screen, and a context sensitive action will appear on parts of the screen that can be interacted with. Everything interactable can be looked for more information, but you’ll also be able to talk to other people in a scene, open doors and activate machines for example. The bulk of the game sees you evolving the story by visiting specific locations, having conversations and collecting a required item. It’s not always clear where you need to go though, and what you need to do when you get there. Often a player will likely be confused not knowing if they can’t progress through a location because something needs to be done to make this possible, or if it’s simply never going to
  be possible in a playthrough. This deliberate ambiguity was a misguided design choice. “We wanted to give the player the choice of freedom and to discover and unravel the story at their own pace, hence ‘Sinless’ offers little to no handholding.” Some of the best adventure games are famed for their ludicrous puzzle solving; there are infamous solutions that involve rubber chickens and monkey wrenches in the best the genre has to offer. But there aren’t really puzzles in ‘Sinless’ just lots of busywork.  For example at the start of the game I have to find my girlfriend Jenny. She's working across town so I need to get a bus. To do this I have to go to a convenience store to update a bus pass. With that in hand I can head on the bus to the Skytram terminal. But now I'm out of credits to buy a ticket, so I am instructed to double back to an arcade and chat to Tim. He will lend me money, but to persuade him I’ll have to do another task. I prefer games that offer you a number of random items and you think in abstract ways to use and combine them to achieve something.

Instead of logic inventory based puzzles, ‘Sinless’ offers awful mini games that seem like they have been made in an afternoon. A couple of times you’ll need to complete a ‘Pipe Mania’ style sliding puzzle, to advance the story. If that wasn’t enough, the game also includes a terrible platformer with dreadful floaty physics that would put ‘Little Big Planet’ to shame and a ‘Viewtiful Joe’ or ‘Streets of Rage' style scrolling beat em up. Underlining the pointlessness of these latter two mini-games you don’t even need to do well in the – the game simply demands you play them. ‘Sinless’ is short at a couple of hours, so perhaps the inclusion of these dreadful distractions was intended to elongate the running time.
  I could have done without.

An obvious attempt to keep the interface clear has led to the navigation being fiddlier than it needs to be. While 'Sinless' has a world map, to move between locations when in these you will often have to travel through various screens to get to the specific place you want to be. To add to the frustrations some screens scroll when the environment is dragged and others don’t’ so there’s a chance you can’t even see a potential door to a new environment without first hunting.  Without an on screen avatar, it’s often confusing how you entered a screen and therefore it is equally unclear where you’re meant to leave.  However, even the process of leaving a venue to get somewhere else isn't particularly easy. You must tap or click on a specific point on a screen edge until you find the correct prompt to exit. Either using the direction buttons to navigate or having on-screen movement icons would have solved this and made traveling across the world far more user-friendly. A bigger obstacle to exploring though is the constant fear that you may die without warning as a result. Unlike the LucasArts adventure games where you were free to go where ever you wished without danger, reminiscent of early Sierra games, 'Sinless' has game over screens. “What I really liked about those games was their immense attention to detail combined with a complete trust in the player. So, for example, if at the start of the game you picked up your clothes but forgot to put them on in your inventory, you’d get arrested for indecent exposure as soon as you walked out the door,” explains Neugarten, adding that a very similar situation exists in ‘Sinless’. Typically Game Over screens will happen without warning and seems to be the way the game keeps you moving through the narrative in the way Neugarten intended. In the main, your route through the game is predetermined and if you deviate from this you'll more than likely meet a sticky end; usually by a moderator or an enforcer killing you without warning. Dying of course isn’t permanent. The game returns you to a continue point but progress made between this continue point and your moment of death isn't recorded. Ultimately this leads to you having to repeat conversations and pick up objects until you trod the exact path the games needs you to go down.

As you play it becomes increasingly obvious that this version of ‘Sinless’ was designed to be played hand held. Before the title screen you’re even reminded to play with headphones. “The game was originally released for mobile devices in October 2014 and was well received, including a very positive review and feature on Poland’s largest mobile gaming site, AntyApps” confirms the developer. Consequently, 'Sinless' is much more user friendly when the Switch is not docked. The cursor moves painfully slowly using the analogue sticks so you'll no doubt favour tapping and dragging on the screen for navigation. However, curiously, the mini games all demand conventional controls, using the face buttons and D-pad. There’s no shortage of point-and-click style games on the Switch so it’s a shame that this game doesn't borrow successful control mechanism from those. Inaction causes the game to show hotspots on screen that can be interacted with. So why not have the player cycle through these using the shoulder buttons while the D-pad moves between the locations?

The places you visit throughout the game are at least varied, and ‘Sinless’ does look attractive even if visual flare has taken precedence over ease of play. Environments are presented as static screens with animated light or weather overlays on them. Perhaps Neugarten is a fan of JJ Abrams, because there is a huge amount of lens flare and solar blooms through-out the game.  It could be argued that this serves a narrative purpose; creating a greater separation between the glossy paradise of the compliant cities and the grim dark slums. But it’s so bright in places it’s actually hard to read the screen. The music is about on-par with the visuals, pleasing without ever really exceeding. There’s a synth eighties ‘Blade Runner’ vibe going on here, and each location sounds different. But most of the music tracks repeat within a minute so the ambience quickly changes from tense and futuristic to monotonous. Like so much of ‘Sinless’ its impressive that so much has been achieved by a small team, but even though it is only 2 hours long ambition seems to exceed execution. 

For a game that focuses on story, the overall strength of this game must obviously come down to how good a story it is telling. Naturally, if it’s ugly mess with awful controls you won’t want to play it for long. But, more importantly, if a narrative game isn’t telling an engaging yarn it doesn’t matter how good it looks or sounds. Clearly ‘Sinless’ is a cyber-punk tale, but this is hardly uncommon in point-and-click or visual novel games. ‘Beneath a Steel Sky’, ‘Blade Runner’, ‘ROM: Read only Memories’,
  ‘Techno Babylon’, ‘Snatcher’, ‘Gemini Rue’, ‘The Longest Journey’ ‘ I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’, ‘Shadow Run’, ‘Encodya’, ‘The Red Strings Club’, ‘Beyond a Steel Sky’, ‘Sense’, ‘Tokyo Noir’ all tick this genre box. Sadly for MGP Studios, they are all also better than this game.   ‘Sinless’ will prove to be intriguing to those willing to make the effort, but it is deliberately impenetrable and vague. “It is […] important to remember that you are thrown into a world of specific rules, laws, customs, lingo, social segregation which you will learn and unravel in time along the way” admits the developer. “Pieces of the story and lore are scattered throughout the world, which will help connect the missing dots”. The game is short enough to replay several times, something Neugarten believes to be required. “Certain scenes or instances which might have seemed random or incoherent during the first play through, ought to present themselves in a new and clearer light after the reveal” he says. “As with ‘Fight Club', a revisit is recommended, as the reveal ought to shed new light on certain aspects which might have been unclear in the previous play through.”  I played ’Sinless through’ twice in close succession, and enjoyed my second journey through the game more. Like many point-and-click games, this one does fall into the trap of “try everything on everyone and see if it moves the story on”. There’s certainly too much back tracking, which is made all the more laborious by the navigation issues. But, when the dust settled the story was thought provoking albeit generic.

‘Sinless’ is the right duration to play through on a long journey and when heavily reduced in the eShop sales it may well be worth a look. If
 this was a book, it wouldn’t be a best seller nor would be considered a work of ground breaking fiction. It’s the sort of book you’d find in a book swap, pick up because of the intriguing art. You’ll likely end it feeling your time had been well spent, but not be overwhelmed. It may have had a lot of words, but I don’t regret reading ‘Sinless’.

If you enjoyed this maybe consider a book I co wrote all about point-and-click games. "The Art of Point and Click Adventure Games" can be bought here:

A copy of this game was provide for free to review. The publisher and developer have not seen or had any influence on the content of this article prior to it being posted.

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