Review | The Void
Format: PC | Genre: Action-adventure | Publisher: Mamba | Developer: Ice-Pick Lodge | Release date: 16/10/09 | RRP: £19.99
By Lewis Denby
I’m almost tempted to hold this review for a while and start The Void again.
This is about as opaque as games get. Having played for somewhere in the region of 15 to 20 hours, I’m still not entirely sure what I think. I’m also stuck, having foolishly kept only a single save slot, to the point where I’ve found myself unable to continue. So there’s a caveat here: I haven’t actually finished the game. I’d have liked to. But time’s ticking on, and the atmosphere’s so stifling and completely unwelcoming that, quite frankly, I’m ready for a break.
That in mind, it’s worth treading with caution. This is by no means the definitive word on The Void. In an ideal world, there wouldn’t really be a review at all, and we’d go with a more abstract thought-piece on the various themes of the game, and how they feed through to the player. But there’ll be time for that later – and I expect the niche market The Void is aimed at will spend many hours doing just that. For now, there’s still plenty to talk about. So let’s talk.
Colour is everything. In the Void, a twisted dimension between the living and the dead, every inch of life and society is governed by Colour. It’s a scarce resource, rapidly draining from this monochrome world, and you have the power to manipulate it.
In a more tangible sense, it’s your health. It’s also the closest you’ll come to ammunition, and to currency, and to skill attributes. You store it in a variety of hearts, collected throughout the game, and it allows you access to a number of different streights and powers, shaping how you interact with the world. You can grow it, harvest it, fight with it, or donate it to the Sisters, who’ll grant you entry into new areas of the Void in return. The Brothers, a collective of overseers who maintain the balance and authority of the world, insist you steer clear of the Sisters altogether, on pain of instant death.
The Void revolves around the struggle between the Brothers, the Sisters, and yourself. The Sisters are weak, vulnerable, yet seductive and manipulative creatures, who float around in the nude, covered in flowers and glowing auras. The Brothers are utterly terrifying hulks of flesh and metal, giant and hideous. The Sisters beg for your help. The Brothers can’t decide whether you’re a saviour or the worst threat imaginable. For a good chunk of the game, you’re none the wiser yourself.
The tension between these character groups is fascinating. The Void exudes a real socio-political charisma from the very opening of the game. The Brothers may spend their lives (deaths?) instilling fear on the inhabitants of the Void, but they’re strangely afraid themselves. They’re terrified you’re there to remove them from power. So they bargain with you, set you tasks, order you to fulfil their wishes. The Sisters agree to help you rid the place of their presence, but you’ll have to feed their Colour addiction first. No one’s entirely sure who you are or why you’re there, and everybody is suspicious. Everybody tries to use you to their own advantage.
There are plenty of themes here that continue from Ice-Pick Lodge’s last game, Pathologic. This omnipresent suspicion is one of them. Lies, threats, social hierarchy, existentialism and the harsh reality of surviving in an alien world – they’re all here in The Void. The survival mechanic is particularly interesting, and hugely suffocating. For every second that ticks by in this place, your Colour drains away. Reach zero, and you die completely, falling from the Void and into the unknown depths below.
Pathologic, an obscurist action-RPG set in a fantasised, early 20th Century Russian town, showcased some oustanding creativity. In many ways, though a different breed of game, The Void feels like the natural evolution of Pathologic’s design. Aesthetically, it’s marvellous. Vast, barren wasteland twists and contorts unfathomably; trees of Colour sprout emphatically into the black sky; indoor areas are decorated with symbols of life and death. A nauseating, hypnotic soundtrack holds it all together with impressively dark aplomb. Though the engine’s technically a fair few steps behind the pack, this is a game with tremendous vision. This is the world that often seemed desperate to burst out of Pathologic’s decaying walls, and it’s as brutally beautiful as anyone could have hoped.
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