As much as I love indie games, it’s been getting harder and harder to keep the flame alive. For a while there, most indies getting released were a variation of two formulas: obtuse puzzlers or dark narratives featuring young/naive protagonists. The glut of obnoxious puzzlers left me wanting something different, which I eventually found in Thomas Was Alone, the debut title from Mike Bithell. Sure, it was a quirky platformer, but it told a fascinating story and featured gorgeous narration from Danny Wallace. Enter Volume, a quirky stealth title from Bithell that tells a vaguely interesting story and once again sports beautiful narration from Wallace.
Marking only his second foray into the gaming world, Bithell has shown that he clearly understands how to make a fun and appealing title. Volume is a step forward in many ways for the developer, working to avoid the pratfalls that pull most artsy-fartsy indie titles down, but it isn’t a gigantic leap. In fact, Volume doesn’t quite hold up as well as Thomas Was Alone, although it certainly comes close.
The story this time around focuses on Locksley, a small-time thief who manages to get his hand on a device called a Volume which gives him the ability to simulate heists. He uses the databases of a nefarious company that has taken over England to glean the specs of various buildings so that he can replicate them, broadcasting the resulting heist simulations to the impoverished public and advising them on the best way to steal from the rich. His exploits are followed by Guy Gisborne, head of the aforementioned corporation and Locksley’s long-winded adversary.
Danny Wallace deservedly won a BAFTA for his work in Thomas Was Alone, and his work as Alan, the AI helping Locksley work through the Volume, is once again fantastic. In fact, most of the cast is impressive, with Andy Serkis giving an intimidating turn as Gisborne, even if his role is smaller than it should be. Given the amazing talent that Serkis is, it’s a shame his villainous role is reduced to such a small amount of screen time.
Most of the work is done by Wallace and Charlie McDonnell as Locksley, whose work isn’t quite on par with the others. His voice often sounds more bored than it should, and the obnoxious quips he’s given to repeating don’t help things.
Rather than craft another platformer, Bithell has strayed into the realm of stealth, and his first entry in the genre shows a great understanding of what fans love about a good round of sneaking about. Volume features 100 small levels that represent museums, apartments, and other smaller locales that are easy to run through within a minute or two. The difficulty ramps up over time, as the game constantly introduces new enemies, gadgets and methods of sneaking around guards.
Taking on an isometric viewpoint, Locksley has to utilize his own wits and a small handful of gadgets to collect all of the jewels in each level before the exit will open up. I’ll admit that I’m the type of gamer who doesn’t have much patience for the stealth genre, meaning I’m quick to pull out the tranq gun and put rooms full of baddies to sleep before I carefully plot my route. Volume combats these tendencies by showing you the enemy’s field of vision and giving you all the tools you need to make it through without being spotted, which sometimes means giving you nothing at all.
It’s a much more old-school take on the genre, and a small breath of fresh air. However, the enemy AI can be both a blessing and a curse at times. More so than in other stealth titles, the guards here swing their cones of vision wildly whenever they walk or investigate a sound, making them extremely unpredictable at times. I’ve been caught multiple times by guards that took the time to do a full circle in place before returning to their post.
Distractions also don’t last long, and since Locksley’s default speed is slow crawl, it can be hard to nail the timing on some segments. Some of the gadgets help with this, including mute boots that silence your footsteps and give you a speed boost or an electrified tripwire, but a lot of challenges can be beaten by sheer luck.
There are tons of checkpoints strewn throughout each stage, and if you cross it just as you get caught by the guards, you’ll restart beyond them with no one on your tail. More than a few times, I would get fed up trying to plan a sneaky route and just break for the checkpoint, hoping to make it before I got killed.
The amount of levels, while admirable, is a bit too ambitious, making many of the middle stages feel like pure filler that don’t really add much to the story. In fact, you’ll go for multiple levels in a row without hearing anything new from any of the characters. Sure, text is strewn throughout each stage in the form of news clippings, chat room excerpts and interviews, but many details of the lore remain vague at best. It’s a shame the plot isn’t quite as engaging or fleshed out as it was in Thomas Was Alone, especially since Volume takes place in the same world, dropping clever nods here and there.
As far as indie titles go, Volume is definitely worth checking out for the vocal talent and addictive, if flawed, gameplay. As frustrating as some stages became, I could never stop myself from doing just one more level. Leaderboards track the speediest thieves, adding plenty of incentive to revisit stages after the credits roll, and the absolutely gorgeous score will completely absorb you. Although the story is lacking, especially as it aspires to put the world of Let’s Plays under the lens in a clever way, it never digs deep enough to say anything original. But in a world where anybody can put out a poor excuse for an indie and charge the same price, Volume is a rough gem that’s worth snatching up.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 copy of the game given to us for review purposes.
Mike Bithell once again unleashes another creative title onto the indie scene, but Volume's addictive sneaking and fantastic cast can't distract from the lacking story.