Another indie game from the ‘pseudo-Eastern-block’ theme that was started by ‘Papers, Please’, Beholder shares a similarly dark aesthetic, and manages to keep some of the sense of humour that made the paperwork-simulator an indie darling.
Made by Russian developer Warm Lamp Games, Beholder is a bureaucracy-em-up, wherein you are appointed as landlord of a group of apartments in a single building, with the standing orders to spy on your tenants and report them for illegal activity as necessary.
The graphical style is stark and striking, with the grim browns and greys of the building barely lightened by the perpetual rain that falls. All of the characters are black silhouettes, but they do have more than enough character to tell them apart, with each having completely different body shape and language, and a few details picked out in white. You do get to know the characters by sight pretty quickly, to be honest.
The graphics aren’t perfect, and I noticed a few issues with font interlacing, for example, but never anything that got in the way of gameplay. They’re certainly whimsical, and almost childlike – which adds to this odd sense of childish glee when playing.
The gameplay is where Beholder earns its money. It’s deceptively simple: you click to move your little landlord around, and interact with objects – you can search containers, open doors and install security cameras in smoke detectors.
That’s where the complexity appears, however: you need to spy on your residents using every method available, from the very basic (peeking through the keyhole like a pervert – and in some cases remarkably like a pervert, as the characters act organically, and if they’re in a couple, they do enjoy their ‘marital activities’) to asking their neighbours, right down to watching them through video cameras secretly installed in their ceilings.
Missions come in various flavours, be they ‘Ministry missions’, where the phone rings and you are given something to do, doing favours for your neighbours, or missions for various revolutionary elements. Oh yeah, and missions for your family. My god, the family missions. Those tend to be the most difficult, and time intensive, ones – and they have the heaviest consequences.
In my first playthrough, I was the only family member to survive. RIP wife, daughter and son. I’d mourn you if I could remember your names, and you hadn’t died within an hour of the game starting.
The missions are fine, but like a lot of these games a lot of the fun comes from that feeling of having power over others. One of the tenants was annoyed at me; I’d told him the woman he was in love with was lying to him. He refused to speak to me, or to help me with an issue at hand. So I broke into his home while he was out, and planted some anti-government propaganda in his bedside table.
I couldn’t help but smile, watching him beaten and dragged out by the (inexplicably huge) police. Though I did almost feel guilty when the woman who lived with him took a big drink from a bottle of poison once she found out.
Therein lies one of the biggest positives I found about the game: that there are so many choices that no two playthroughs will ever be the same. An early mission has you asked to ‘remove’ a tenant from one of the apartments. You can speak to him to remove him, use your reputation, or just break in and plant some evidence. It’s nice to see a game with a ‘moral choice’ system that isn’t just purely binary – when supporting the government you are working with a totalitarian state, but looking out for your family; if you choose to support the revolution, you’re working with terrorists.
The gameplay does have its issues: sometimes nothing will happen for in-game days at a time, while at others there are a million things going on at once. Also, there are no warnings when you’re running low on time for a mission. Sometimes a mission will have an entirely non-telegraphed ‘death’ clause, where making the wrong choice just kills you dead – and there’s no option to save, it just saves automatically at the start of each mission.
I lost hours to Beholder – and if you’re a fan of that modern crop of indie game that seems to be appearing recently, involving managing resources in a made-up Eastern-block country from the eighties, you will too. The game will build up your blood pressure at times with its difficulty and, if you find yourself caring about these collections of polygons, you may even feel pangs of emotion at their successes and failures. I give it my hearty recommendation.
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