October is the month for horror games – the four premier weeks where YouTubers and Twitch streamers provide daily doses of screams and scares. From SOMA to Stasis to Five Nights at Freddy’s 4, this year’s virtual festivities seem especially frightening. For every polished, terrifying delight, however, at least one dud claws its way onto Steam’s catalogue. A walking simulator for all intents and purposes, Caffeine: Episode One contains enough bugs to fill ten failures.
“Caffeine is a quirky first person adventure game with environmental puzzles and a touch of psychological horror.”
“Set in the near future, the entire population of Earth is vigorously addicted to coffee. Massive space stations built by the biggest corporations roam the stars mining minerals to create a synthetic caffeine.”
Or so the game’s Steam page says. In the 88 minutes I spent wandering about decrepit space station halls, Caffeine: Episode One eschewed backstory in favor of me walking back and forth between dimly lit rooms. Caffeine’s debut contains no other characters and one audio log, which references a cellular mutation by one of the base’s scientists. A caffeine mutation perhaps? If not for the numerous espresso machines and the sticky notes limiting people’s consumption, I’d insist the developer wrote a synopsis for the wrong game.
Caffeine: Episode One remains an accident-laden nightmare that Dylan Browne (Incandescent Imaging’s lonesome developer) only patched into a playable state with recent daily fixes. The “game now remembers graphics options and applies them at startup,” one update comment alleges. I double-checked the installation and updates, and Caffeine continues to rearrange my visual preferences. Every time I reboot this mishap, I must set the shadow, anti-aliasing, ambient occlusion, and lens flare qualities back to Ultra or High.
Caffeine almost warrants a high-end graphics card; it oozes atmosphere. I even felt somewhat apprehensive when searching forlorn corridors. Treading through ankle-deep flood waters, the ca-chunk of hydraulic doors echoing in my ears, put me on edge. For that I have Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Alien: Isolation to thank. My fears came from lingering connections to better horror titles, not Caffeine itself. This is a walking simulator with emphasis on the walking. The inability to sprint betrays the suspense, as the developers did not give me the tools to escape scripted monster encounters.
Players portray a young boy, whose implied powerlessness should inspire tension, too. What hope does he have against a creature biding its time in the shadows? In reality, his diminutive stature served to aggravate me. He struggles to peer over desks, counters, and chairs, giving Caffeine the illusion of a broken perspective, like the developers did not scale the world to the protagonist. I caught myself craning my neck to see on top of tables and shelves, or shoving my face closer to the screen to make out a computer’s text. In other games, such habits strengthen immersion. Among the Sleep adjusted its furniture and appliances to fit the views of a toddler. Caffeine should take notes.
As things stand, players appear to control an average-size human living in the world of slightly larger humans, but the main character portends graver problems. The child’s name remains a mystery after Episode One. Why is he on a space station? Who or what spared him from the scourge that left the satellite deserted? Mentions of a 28-year-old John Courte and his induced coma come up now and again, though I have zero idea who that is. Is John the boy’s father? I scribbled so many questions in my notebook, and Caffeine offers absolute zilch for answers. Is John the umbral beast stalking me?
Caffeine thinks psychological horror amounts to ominous passageways and a few jump scares. Concerning the psyche, however, what developers leave to the imagination is what frightens us most. Caffeine: Episode One just happens to forget the terror, too. In a room with one apparent exit, a creature of darkness assaults players when they turn to leave, though a bug ruined the surprise. In my case, the demon stood motionless, bolted to the floor. My heart should’ve beat against its boney prison, and yet I laughed. The monster is an abomination that Microsoft Paint’s airbrush could recreate.
I’m more likely to suffer nightmares from the settings menu. Despite a bevy of graphics options, Incandescent Imaging neglected two essential details: audio controls and a full screen mode. A cacophony of obnoxious, deafening synth music violated my ears at the main menu. I pored over the settings for several minutes before ceding the battle and lowering my speaker’s volume. I thought the half-assed windowed mode that Caffeine runs in had cut off the audio sliders – no, just access to the quit button.
I considered lowering the game’s resolution to minimize the hassle, or to get a few more frames per second from Caffeine’s miserable optimization. Despite the GTX 970 video card currently powering my PC, an inconsistent frame rate brought my dread to a halt. In the initial room in which players wake – a sparse apartment without much going on or to do – my frames danced between 30 and 60. While I compromised, dropping the visual qualities to High, glancing at a white projection screen in the station’s theater still brought the frame rate to its knees – a woeful 15 per second.
I can tolerate shoddy graphics work, but when your game contains game-breaking glitches, it is time for an intervention. Caffeine’s puzzles – a dishonest label – require players to carry an item from one location to the other. The objects you pick up (chairs, crates, etc.) then gain the kinetic energy of a missile. “Objects are now much less likely to break the space time continuum,” says another patch note. What a load of bullshit. Disturbing boxes granted them the velocity to fuse with the walls and floor, expelling a key card tucked inside to the metaphysical realm.
“The two checkpoint saves in the game are now working.” What damn checkpoints? Twice Caffeine forced me to replay the game from scratch, because exiting and launching it again returned me to the tutorial room. The first time, as mentioned above, launched a necessary key card into an inaccessible area. On the second occasion and in the same vicinity, I became the out-of-bounds object. I met the geometry behind an elevator when the lift hurled my character through solid steel. Whether or not I escaped, a gate blocked the entrance to the next floor.
I also got stuck in other areas, primarily the automatic doors. They shut on me while walking through them, requiring me to do a crouch-jump to appease the hydraulic gods until the doors opened again. I feared for my safety in the water, too. The water undulates as a single viscous sheet. While traipsing back to the broken elevator for a third time, the water spasmed, violently raising and lowering like the physics-defying chairs and boxes. I could see beyond the station’s confines as well. Caffeine cannot stream in textures for the longer hallways. I glimpsed the vast and broken emptiness of space at a single-digit frame rate.
That Caffeine: Episode One cannot cobble together a play time to condone its highway robbery price stings the most. Incandescent Imaging wants 20 hard-earned bucks for the first season. It seems two more episodes will arrive next year. What a shame, then, that this defective debut exhausts my hopes for the remaining chapters. Dylan promises lengthier episodes, but he also declared underlying flaws fixed in the latest patches that, in my experience, live on.
Whether or not Caffeine’s issues can be corrected, they are not minor. These bugs plague an experience that lasts 20 minutes. My 88 minutes were spent replaying the first half twice, then jotting down review notes. Steam markets Caffeine as a done and working product, and whose pilot leaves the player on a lazy cliffhanger. The monster appears, you survive a flashback (i.e., stand in a bedroom for a couple minutes), and you awake in an airlock.
I don’t feel guilty about spoiling Caffeine: Episode One, because spoilers represent investment. Spoilers imply attachment to the narrative or characters, or an emotional or mental payoff worth people’s dollars. Caffeine’s current condition proffers no value. The atmosphere plays second fiddle to an absent story and a host of glitches. You can check out the demo if you have some interest in Caffeine: Episode One, though I’ve set myself up to review the next two. No sense in you jumping on the grenade as well.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided.
Caffeine: Episode One stars game-breaking glitches and scenery that acts of its own free will, sabotaging this walking simulator's serviceable atmosphere.