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Pretty, brutish, and short, April 23, 2021
(I beta tested this game)
Project Arcmör is a Twine horror/sci-fi hybrid that has no compunctions about killing you. Most frequently this will happen when half-glimpsed test subjects tear you apart, but the game’s true baddies aren’t the man-eating mutants: instead that’s capitalism in general and the Star Quorp corporation, your employer, in particular. This what-if-businessmen-are-the-real-monsters angle goes back to the birth of the sub-genre (i.e., Alien and Aliens), but it’s well-realized here, giving rise to some entertainingly dark satire and enlivening an otherwise-familiar scenario with a bit of social comment. Stir in some darkly-evocative pixel art and you’ve got a recipe for some good, bloody fun.
Let’s start out with that whole “you’re going to die a lot” thing. You play a colonist who’s been deep-frozen for the trip to whatever interstellar hellhole the company wants you to settle, and who’s unexpectedly thawed out when your ship encounters a derelict hulk mid-way. The ship’s computer has chosen you to head through the airlock and try to render assistance, which involves navigating through the defunct ship’s dark halls solving a few small puzzles (straightforward enough) while not being ripped limb from limb by the aforementioned monsters (much harder). Fortunately, unpleasant as these repeated gibbings must be to experience, they don’t set you back much – not because death is a trigger to reload a save (though I mean, you can if you must), but because the indefatigable ship’s computer will just defrost the next colonist in line to try again. Each is distinguished only by their ID number, which ratchets down by one after each gruesome killing, making me very curious what happens if you manage to run through the lot.
The lovely visuals help make this live/die/repeat cycle go down easy. I usually tend to tune out the visuals in IF, but here I found myself enjoying them just as much as the prose. They paint the derelict in moody blue-black tones, though of course there’s more than the occasional burst of red. There’s also some nicely understated animations that serve to enhance the mood, a sidebar map to make navigation clearer. Unlike some high-production-value pieces of IF, though, the graphics don’t mask weak writing, which on the contrary is nicely done as well, efficiently laying out the scene and boasting a bone-dry wit that helps the dark humor land. Your one companion (well, other than the monsters) is your ship’s computer, VAL, and in between bouts of puzzle-solving, you can call it up for a chat, allowing it can remind you of your goals and drop barely-coded hints about your ultimate expendability and low prospects for survival. My favorite bit of writing is from the best ending, which I’ll put behind a spoiler-block:
(Spoiler - click to show)You are greeted with a hero’s welcome.
“Congratulations! In recognition of your outstanding performance, StarQuorp™ would like to reward you with unlimited access to oxygen during the rest of your time on board this vessel.”
However, the StarQuorp colony ship was designed to operate without human supervision. The supplies of food and water on board have been sealed for transport.
Eventually, you starve to death.
I repeat, this is the best ending.
The game underlying all of this is, as mentioned, fairly straight-ahead. There are a few small inventory puzzles, and a climactic choice leading to one of three different endings. I also found a few easter-egg-like interactions using some of the many items left lying around the abandoned ship, though I wanted there to be more of these, or at least for them to have more impact on the world and story. Still, there’s nothing wrong with a focused game with a unified, effective aesthetic, which Project Arcmör boasts in spades.