A huge alien artifact has appeared in the skies above South Africa – but this isn’t District 9. This is Beautiful Desolation. It’s been there for ten years. The army has studied it and used its technology towards advancements in robotics and AI, and to give humans extended life. Now two joyriders have stumbled across the artifact and accidentally propelled themselves into future South Africa – a very different world, fuelled by rampant alien technology.
A vaguely isometric (if you believe isometric just means top-down perspective) point and click adventure, Beautiful Desolation resembles the original Fallout games. Out now on Nintendo Switch and PS4 after a year or so on PC, it’s less point and click without a mouse, more go there and press a button, but it’s otherwise the same game. Is it worth your hard-earned credits?
In Beautiful Desolation, you play as a South African man named Mark, who ropes his pilot brother Don into an ill-advised, late-night, mid-storm flight on a helicopter up to an alien artifact hanging over the city; a giant triangle filled with coiled bones and strange tech, dubbed the Penrose. For one night only the army has left it completely unguarded. Convenient. Mark is suspicious that the Penrose is evil, or that it’s manipulating Earth and humanity somehow – it’s really not made clear. When they arrive, they are caught by an AI dog and a strange skeleton robot, and then somehow transported away to another time and place.
Turns out it’s the far-flung future, but it’s still South Africa. The world is unrecognisable. The AI’s have run rampant, civilisation has crumbled, and post-apocalyptic South Africa is a scattering of settlements reminiscent of Mad Max, all obsessed with living forever and retro-tech. I say living forever, there’s a strange death cult that’s barely explained, whereby many people you meet are skeletal, almost living skeletons, having traded their flesh for longer life.
There’s more explanation in that last paragraph than you will find in 5+ hours of actually playing Beautiful Desolation which hides its deep and remarkably interesting world behind incredibly cryptic dialogue exchanges, constant fetch quests for esoteric pieces of decades old machine parts, and a wilful disregard for setting up a clear narrative. Sure there’s a beginning, but not one with any actual reason for the journey. And there’s a quest – Mark wants to find a way home, a portal back to the past – but the space in between is a strange world that tells you very little to keep you interested, and rarely points even remotely where to go next.
Every conversation, even if the person is standing right next to you, doesn’t happen on the game screen; it has to happen on a retro tablet vid screen, with a little cinematic animation, which manages to break any and all dramatic tension.
Gameplay revolves around trying to dredge some kind of meaning from each new character’s strange ramblings, and then scour bland areas to find whichever strange and arbitrary item they talked about. You pick up notes and sketches that are loaded on the same tablet device, which can sometimes be used to solve intricate puzzles, to get said items, before returning them and being given another quest. Though its world is deep and interesting, Beautiful Desolation’s minute-to-minute gameplay will leave most players scrounging for clues and confused as to what to do next. This is a game that is aimed squarely at very experienced point-and-click players, who are happy to have the story grind to a halt for hours at a time while they find items and explore lifeless areas.
You are probably here because the graphics look really pretty. To give Beautiful Desolation its due, the top-down perspective and intricately detailed, almost pre-rendered environments are always beautiful and a joy to look at. The lore on offer is clear in the designs of statues and bone themes, the wasteland world looks lived-in and real.
However these areas are very intricate and on the Nintendo Switch’s small screen often became virtually impossible to navigate. Paths are not clear, and often pass through or under sections of the area, which makes finding them sometimes a matter of eventual accident, as you finally walk in the right direction at the right moment.
Mark has an annoying habit of jogging first, and then running, without you being able to control his speed, and of circling when he comes to a block on the map. The same thing happens with the ship you use to travel from place to place, the Buffalo, which seems to be able to fly over the hills and troughs of the land below, but is often hampered by invisible walls and unclear boundaries.
Sound effects are generally handled well, with an array of interesting voices for the cast of quirky and downright weird strangers you’ll meet. Many have warped and overlaid voices. What’s impenetrable in other parts of the story actually manages to come across in small bursts due to having a voiced cast. There’s little in the way of music though, mostly just atmospheric effects and ambience in most locales – this is not a JRPG where every town has a theme.
Beautiful Desolation is a difficult game to recommend. For diehard fans of the genre, there’s deep lore, a beautifully rendered world, and plenty to get lost in. But for almost any newcomer, or any normal gamer, the story and plot are virtually impenetrable, veiled in cryptic text and world-building, the quests and tasks are maddening to complete and unsignposted, and the gameplay itself slow, incomprehensible and dull. There’s valid attempts to do something great here, and in places you can almost see it peeking through the rust, but for the most part, it’s so hidden under bad implementation, its all but impossible to find.
Beautiful Desolation may have some gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds, but its impenetrable plot, one-dimensional characters, maddening indirect quests, and cryptic puzzles make it very hard to recommend to anyone but diehard fans of obtuse point-and-click adventures.
Beautiful Desolation is available on Nintendo Switch (review platform) PS4, PC via Steam and Mac.
Developer: The Brotherhood, Brotherhood Games
Publisher: Untold Tales
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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