The day this review goes live, Panic Barn’s Not Tonight becomes a startlingly bleak reminder that Great Britain as we know it has changed forever. There’s very little in the game that softens that particular blow, and whilst its tongue is most firmly in its cheek throughout, its rather short story is a tale of a revolution built on heavy, unreachable promises. Held up by little more than cocktail sticks. Not Tonight tells the tale of a UK on the brink of eating itself alive after the events of January 31st, 2020, a dystopian extreme right-wing regime is in control, and their actions signalling a bleak future for our closest allies, who wanted little more than a better life.
A game that weighs heavily on the magnitude of a country divided, it’s a little strange at first to see Not Tonight lined up on my Switch home screen next to the likes of Super Mario Odyssey, Smash Bros. and Cuphead. I sat down with the game for a few hours today, only to take a break and switch on the news to see the shit-eating grin of Nigel Farage staring back at me, waving Union Jacks and singing Auld Lang Syne with his comrades in the presence of our now former EU brethren. Sitting there with a look not too dissimilar to the face I saw on parents watching their kids sing Let It Go for the billionth time in a Kids Talent Show. It was a stark reminder that whilst we can only hope that our actual lives will never become as utterly bleak and desperate as those who barely survive in Not Tonight, there’s a ‘too close to home’ feel that forced me to turn off my electronics and read a magazine for the rest of the day before I sat down to write this review. What a time to be alive.
Not Tonight begins as it means to go on. You’re quickly introduced to your protagonist, a British national with European lineage. They’re stuck in the Britain that no longer sees them as worthy inhabitants of their proud nation, keeping them around only to work the menial jobs and live in the crappiest of accomodation built specifically for those ‘Euros’. Your job as a character who is most assuredly British but just ‘doesn’t look like it’ is that of a bouncer, going from pub to pub working for landlords who are either going to be decent to their ‘Euro’ or not. Your overall task is to earn enough money to earn the right to stay in the country, and even then there’s no guarantee. You’re surrounded by those who want you to ‘go back to where you came from’ but still rely on your labour. Orwell in pixels.
You’ll find out where you’re working via your characters mobile phone, where each day he’s sent a text to tell him where he’s working that evening whilst living in squalor. The primary mechanic of the game is you checking ID’s to keep out those the landlords would rather not frequent their establishments. Papers Please for Brits on the piss.
You’re tasked with keeping an eye on fake ID’s, the age of the punters, expiry dates and guest lists. You have a certain amount of time to complete your shift and fill the venues. The more people you let in with the correct credentials,the more money you make. Hit your targets and you’ll be sent home with the biggest pay packet. It’s not much at first, but it grows. Your character is keeping their head down and simply getting on with their job, seemingly reminding themselves throughout that they simply have to keep an eye on ID’s and get home (some punters will even try to bribe you to get in and it’s up to you whether or not you want to risk it).
Between shifts you’ll be made to stay in your crappy digs (which can be upgraded the further you get into the game), with only an officer of the extremist group that have taken power for company. Safe to say he’s not a fan of yours, and takes great pleasure in ensuring your life is about as miserable as he’s legally allowing it to be. Eventually you’ll upgrade from a barman at crappy pubs and get to stand outside in the cold at official government events and security gigs on border crossings which is a change of pace, but ultimately the gameplay remains rather straightforward throughout, regardless of your venue. Away from the venues you’ll also get sick, so you’ll have to make some tough decisions with your money in regards to saving enough to justify your existence or paying out for medical bills. Yeah, it doesn’t really get any easier for your protagonist as the game progresses.
There were times I was hoping I would be able to stand up to these Albion First idiots and thankfully there are several moments where you can side with a Resistance who plan to bring down the government and attempt to build a more pleasing life for your neighbours and those who have taken your side throughout the game. There are ‘viva la resistance’ moments that really stand out and whilst you’re very much self-serving through the majority of the game, witnessing a small band of rebels join together for a rightful cause is a terrific counterbalance to the primary desolate narrative.
The lighter moments come from the dialogue, which is by far the most engaging aspect of Not Tonight as a whole and perhaps the ultimate reason I wanted to see the game through to the end. It’s always dark, but the comedic elements – whether it be hidden in the background of the environments or the representation of Albion First as rather bumbling fools who have the power but aren’t very sure of what to do with it(!) brings some much-needed levity to the tone of the game. When you’re almost verbally apologising to those at the border who you’re turning away the game sinks to its darkest moments that hit a little too hard in these challenging real world parallels, it’s almost a relief when you’re reminded just how well written the game is, and how utterly barbaric the game itself finds these situations.
The Switch version of the game is called the Take Back Control Edition, which is about as on the nose as you can ever imagine it to be given the game releases on Brexit day. Still, included is the games One Love DLC, which tells a much lighter story of a character you’ll meet in the base game escaping the clutches of Albion First to open a pub in France, all the while being sucked into a scam on a romance app. You’re tasked with finding your one true within a month or your life – and your new pub – face imminent danger. You’re made to work the venues as a bouncer to earn the money you need to impress your potential love interest. It’s a far less bleak affair, but the ashes of the base story remains throughout. It’s around about three hours along and well worth jumping into once you’ve finished the main game.
This being a Steam port, it’s always going to be tricky moving mouse and keyboard controls to Joy-Cons, but thankfully the jump hasn’t been too fiddly for Not Tonight. As you can see on the screenshots between the venue levels the screen is almost split in half, and as such your controller works in much the same way. In handheld/tabletop mode your analogue stick moves you from left to right whilst the D-Pad controls the menu screen and navigating your phone. Simple enough to get your head around but I did find myself getting agitated by the layout at first. Once you’re well into the game though it becomes second nature.
Not Tonight currently sits on a ‘Very Positive’ on Steam, despite initial worries there was going to be a rather stern backlash given the subject matter. Thankfully it would appear most who are playing the game are fully aware of the Panic Barn’s intentions, and as such take the game firmly for what it is, a bleak but entertaining, well-written and often times hilarious take on our fractured times.
Take solace in the fact the future of the United Kingdom is never going to be as terrifying as Not Tonight’s vision of the future.
Not Tonight Take Back Control Edition is available now on Nintendo Switch (reviewed). Not Tonight and the One Love DLC are also available on Steam.
Developer: Panic Barn
Publisher: No More Robots
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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