Beholder 2 Review – Duty Is In The Spy Of The…
Developed by Warm Lamp Games
Published by Alawar
Available on PS4, PC, Switch, Android, Mac, and Linux
It takes a lot to make office work interesting to me. After all, the last thing I want to do when I get off work is enter a virtual world to do more work. It’s a delicate balance for Beholder 2 because a single building filled with dead-eyed wage slaves is just about the lamest setting you can have for your game. Match that with the restrictions of an Orwellian panopticon state, and you’ve got a boring setting in which you can barely do anything without being sent to a reeducation camp. But by some weird alchemy, Warm Light Games has done a pretty good job of taking a bleak setting and torturous occupation and turning it into an enjoyable experience.
Beholder 2 is set in a vague authoritarian country run by The Ministry. This unnamed country rests somewhere in between 1930s Stalingrad and our rapidly approaching plutocratic-fascist government owned entirely by the Disney Corporation. The surveillance state with modern technology is matched by enormous concrete apartment blocks and brutalist architecture. The leader of the Ministry is none other than the Leader, who can be recognized by the massive statues and numerous busts of his scowly face and cool hat. He is the deity of this society, and everyone lives to serve him as he serves the collective.
You take up the role of Evan Redgrave, a young man beginning his new job at the Ministry’s main office. You have been transferred here because your estranged father seems to have slipped on a banana peel and fell to his not at all conspicuous death from the top floor of the Ministry (his parachute, tragically, was filled with an anvil and various silverware). Despite this completely unforeseen and blameless accident, of which I must remind you is absolutely probably not the fault of the Ministry, your father left you a sizeable amount of biometric lock boxes filled with notes of which only you can open. Your goals for Beholder 2 are this: navigate the bureaucratic obstacle course without being backstabbed too much, while trying to uncover the mystery of your father’s demise.
The gameplay of Beholder 2 is similar to that of the first game, in that its kind of meh. Much like Beholder, the bulk of gameplay involves navigation of one building and going back and forth trying to find which person to talk to or object to examine. The 2.5D movement fit well for the first game, where you had nothing more to do than go between the floors of one small apartment building. For Beholder 2, which takes place in a much more intricate setting, this side scrolling movement feels restrictive. Not only are you unable to explore beyond the straight line that extends from the front doors through the offices, the rest of the world is not confined to existing within a flat vertical plane. I would occasionally found myself stuck behind another pedestrian who had wandered into my very specific path, or have to wait for a coworker to walk towards my two dimensional prison in order to chat. This linear gameplay in a nonlinear world also required a sort of directional mechanic, where you must awkwardly stop and look at whatever you want to interact with. So the third dimension of gameplay already exists, and could very easily have been implemented with a stationary camera system a la Telltale games.
As for what you actually do in Beholder 2, it’s not a whole lot. As with titles such as Papers Please and Eve Online, this is primarily a bureaucracy simulator. The main activity is to sit at your desk and process documents for the Ministry. As thrilling as a Department of Motor Vehicles office job may sound, it can get repetitive. A civilian approaches your window, you must choose the appropriate document to print out for them, and then you print out that document. Of course, sitting at a desk for 9 hours a day is not all you can do. Indeed, this is just how you pay your rent and bribes. The real game is about getting a promotion, and often this involves some not-Ministry-approved activity. Each floor has coworkers you must surpass, and each coworker has their own storyline. You can either help them achieve their goal or betray them when necessary. More than a few of my fellow workers were executed on my way to getting a corner office.
Though it looks and feels different, it is basically a point and click game. The more I think about it, the more I realize Beholder 2 plays almost exactly like Monkey Island, where most of the time you are rooting through trash cans, stuffing your pockets full of random objects in the hope that one day you can use that object in a very specific way as to achieve your goal. And like many point and click games, if you miss a detail or forget to click the wrong spot, you’ll find yourself sprinting back and forth through the halls of the Ministry like a madman, trying to find out just where to put that bottle of moonshine in order to progress the story. Often I would overlook something and the game would grind to a halt until I went and looked up a solution (and then sink my head in shame realizing that the solution was simply to put the moonshine under the magnifying glass in front of the cafeteria’s heat lamp in order to create fumes to set off the smoke detector to evacuate the bathrooms in order to take the…). But this isn’t really a game about gameplay.
The atmosphere of Beholder 2 is masterfully done as well. The game is in black and white, with the occasional flash of color. A Sin City aesthetic, but the only sin is not loving the great leader enough. Every day is rainy, every building oppressive and gray. And the inky black caricatures of people you meet are reflective of the insignificance of everyone including your own character, whose only defining feature is that he’s got a stylish vest. A tremendous effort has gone into the sound design. Matched with the incredible soundtrack, Beholder 2 is able to create a deeply uncomfortable setting. But this uncomfortable setting creates a bold contrast for the funny content.
Where Beholder 2 really stands out is its writing. In place of voice acting, Warm Lamp Games instead gave everyone a Sims style gibberish language and focused on the content. The overarching story is intriguing. As we are only offered snippets at a time, when I finally managed to get a biometric box and find the next clue inside, I felt the game pull me in that much more. And that’s just the main narrative. Every character you meet has an interesting tale, and collecting bits of information to assist or antagonize them was always rewarding. As for the boring desk job, each person you help has a ridiculous request based on the context of the authoritarian laws. Asking the Ministry to arrest a tree because green apples are not patriotic like the red apples, or offering information on how playing the national anthem to cows makes their milk taste better, these official requests are not only amusing, but they often require some thinking in order to give out the right documents. These brief interactions with the general public are a great method of painting a picture of the world seamlessly during gameplay.
Like I said before, turning a DMV simulator into a fun experience is no easy feat. The ability to get me to assist belligerent virtual customers after 6-8 hours of assisting belligerent real life customers is a testament to how enjoyable Beholder 2 is. The gameplay gets repetitive, but maybe that’s just a reminder that I shouldn’t play games for more than 30 minutes without stretching my legs and resting my eyes. Obviously I won’t, but it’s a good reminder. And maybe it’s a good reminder that when we are forced to spend the majority of our waking lives performing monotonous labor for shit pay in order to give that money right back to your landlord and bank, maybe it’s worth reevaluating what authoritarianism really is.
Atmospherically incredible with great writing, but as with most government offices, it's often kind of slow
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