Nothing is off limits to the elites. Hobbies, jobs, relationships, even the most benign conversation are all material to be documented while weighing your allegiance to the state. In Beholder, nothing is secret and nothing is sacred. It’s someone’s job to keep an eye on everything you do. It’s all for your own good, of course…
STORY / CHARACTERS
Players take the role of Carl Stein who is appointed as the landlord of an apartment building in Krushvice 6. As part of the elite, he is administered a drug by the Ministry of Allocation that enables him to forgo sleep in favor of monitoring the residents of his residential building.
News is delivered daily. As you enforce laws as practical as the ban on making drugs to as bizarre as the ban on storage or consumption of apples, an alternate view begins to creep into the mind. Spoken on the back of every newspaper are the writings of dissent. Choices begin to become apparent. Perhaps we don’t have to be so totalitarian in our building manager job after all? No, no. Our son needs a place in University and can’t end up slaving away in the mines, or worse – overdosed on drugs dead among criminals! Of course, we must press on. We must not let these degenerates play victim. Right?!?
The setting is a dreary fictional world in which countries eerily echo the totalitarianism of past empires and current regimes. Although keeping a focus on the fun factor of the game, there is obviously some political messaging meant to be seen here. I won’t speculate as to the exact references being made, and I appreciate the developers keeping nation names vague as to not polarize the title with real life politics. At the same time, it is an interesting proposal of questioning the surveillance of free citizens and the reality of the limits of freedom in such a society where literally nothing is private.
There are two difficulty modes; Government Elite (as the game was meant to be, it’s harder and there are some difficult decisions to make) or Trainee (for those who want to play casually). Beholder is all about spying on the people. As a member of the elite your duty as a public servant is first and foremost to the state. Carl’s reputation grows as players install more cameras around the building to spy on its inhabitants, and more cameras are gained through this.
But of course, installing surveillance cameras is just the beginning. Trespassing, forgery and blackmail are at your disposal, should you need to resort to falsifying evidence on a neighbor you just know is dirty. Under your wing, Carl will also be able to use his growing reputation to convince others to do what he says as well.
The longer you play Beholder the more you realize that the security state depicted in the game poses more of a threat to humanity than perhaps the crime it seeks to weed out. Strangely enough, the balance between political message and gameplay are well maintained throughout. However, you begin to realize that when faced with what seems to be a right, wrong, and indifferent branch of choices the actual results are typically unexpected, and almost always bad. Carl begins to seem like an unfortunate fellow who will have a bad run of it no matter what he does. There is a real sense that his grief of typically being unable to fend for his family and do his job at the same time provides a heavy burden.
It also becomes apparent that this amount of surveillance is a problem. It’s not a problem because it intrudes on privacy for the sake of protecting government interests, but instead it’s a problem because it turns into an endless rabbit hole of ever decreasingly sane members of the Ministry of Truth simplifying life to a set of black and white rules. Individuality and human nature become suspect. A person’s interest in literature, music, art, or hobbies can all start to seem sinister. Once a university is shut down and books are outlawed, almost everyone becomes a criminal.
There are some residents that you just look at once and get a gut feeling they’re guilty of something, but you can’t prove it. Ran sacking their homes when they’re out turns up nothing. Security cameras don’t show any wrongdoing no matter how long you stare at them. Until Fish or Soda or Jeans are outlawed, and then you no longer have to worry about it… just bring them in knowing your gut feeling was ‘probably’ justified.
One issue that can be found with Beholder is that players will sometimes feel like they are fighting their controller. While certainly better than many games of this nature, Beholder struggles at times to understand what you are trying to center your focus on. While in a resident’s apartment against their will during their work day, every second counts, and it doesn’t feel good for part of that time to be wasted ‘trying’ to ‘click on something’ the game doesn’t know you want to interact with.
Another problem that we would love to see improved in any predecessor title or spiritual successor is the repetitive nature of the tasks at hand. To be fair, this isn’t a major problem. The game isn’t all that repetitive, it could certainly be worse. The story points are constantly refreshing the experience and interesting characters as well as events certainly keep the adrenaline and fun factor high! I keep coming back for more, and I really enjoy this game a lot.
It’s exactly as cool as I hoped. But as you master the game you will begin to notice that you are repeating some steps. Once you start to skip dialogue and rapidly repeat menu behavior then you’re really doing yourself a disservice as the narrative focus is the best part of the game. Unfortunately the fact that the game doesn’t pause during most of its menu processes means that you are somewhat incentivized to do such a thing. So it’s partially the game’s fault, though could be avoided by not partaking in certain habits of playing optimally against the flow of the plot.
ENFORCER OR REVOLUTIONARY?
There is more than one way to play out each situation. You can even change your mind slowly as time goes on towards leaning one way or the other. The further along players get in Beholder, the more money and reputation they’ll be able to gain quickly. Once you figure out ways to stay afloat, you will be able to have more control over Carl Stein’s fate. Is he a fascist pig? Rebel scum? Or maybe a little bit of both? Does it depend what suits him and his family at any given time? Or is Carl a man driven by firm principles? It’s all up to you, and the game plays as a very fun title no matter how you approach the decision making process.
The government protects people sometimes. There’s obvious situations like war heroes, informants, and staff of their various organizations, but sometimes they protect the wrong people. This probably begins Carl’s lack of agreement with the state’s methods. When the people who are untouchable become a direct threat to the residents Carl might need to get creative and find ways to satisfy both the state and his own survival requirements at the same time. And thus, the dissonance begins.
There’s probably no avoiding it, but after witnessing so much suffering, injustice, and pain, regardless of how hard you try to follow the rules and enforce them – players are perhaps bound to indulge their rebellious side at least a little bit. It’s a slippery slope indeed, which can lead to a very complicated ‘double-life’ effect on the game. This, of course, only adds to the intrigue and fun of playing this game. Even still, you may find yourself cursing at the screen a couple times when your most reliable source of power (imprisoning people via collected evidence) proves ineffective on teacher’s pets.
Beyond starting over with new play-throughs or switching strategies / beliefs mid-way, there’s also a great checkpoint system which creates very useful save files automatically that you can load any time. This is a real life saver and removes a lot of frustration that titles like this create. It allows one run to be kept going for longer, and players to cycle back through their mistakes to pick up the game again at any point.
TIME TO FACE THE MUSIC
As the days grow long, the darkness grows and so does its terrible terrible emptiness. Devoid of the ones he once loved (unless you managed to save them) Carl begins to feel tired, but the show must go on. If you’ve ever been to an opera then you know, it’s not over until the fat lady sings. This dystopian nightmare, it was fun at first. Perhaps there even seemed a glimmer of hope in the opportunity to be one of the elites. But being the man behind the mirror takes its toll. Seeing the unseen and knowing the unknown lead a man to do things. Unfortunately, all that is done in the dark will come out to the light.
The superior who hired Carl will eventually return to perform an evaluation of his actions in managing the building. If the decisions you make led Carl to deviate too far from the accepted protocols of the Ministry of Truth then you will be laid off and escorted to prison for treason. If your violations of conduct are within a certain limit though, then you’ll pass inspection. During this process, none of the secrets you’ve managed to keep from the state or residents will remain hidden. There are of course… other ways of working out such a debt to society.
Players are told at the beginning of each run in this game that the bureaucrats up top may be willing to ‘look the other way’ for some crimes in order to enable the peace keeping manager of this building to perform his job adequately. It turns out you’ll have to grease the wheels quite substantially to receive that privilege. The option to donate $40,000 to the military, to the state, or pay $60,000 to ‘save yourself’ could have varying outcomes. On the other hand, you can just witness the outcome of a raw inspection upon everything you’ve done up to this point.
BLISSFUL SLEEP DLC
After the outcome of Beholder starring Carl which largely depends on the decisions you’ve made throughout the game players are presented with Blissful Sleep, a sort-of spinoff / prologue originally planned as DLC and now part of the Complete Edition packaging of this game. In this DLC your character Hector has managed to make it to the grand age of 65 while somehow maintaining his elite rank and occupational position of building manager. However, the Ministry has decided that you’re actually 85 and now have 14 days to report to the Euthanasia Center to undergo the newly announced ‘Blissful Sleep’ procedure.
One phone call comes in immediately after the bleak announcement; as part of the Genetic Purity Program you must collect a DNA sample from every tenant in your building. The purpose of this program is to identify citizens who are prone to betray the motherland on a genetic level. It seems your last 14 days will be very interesting indeed, business keeps pushing onward as per usual. Maybe, just maybe, there could be some way out of this situation? You’re not even 85 yet! Alternatively, you could always just live out your final days with some sort of agenda, or just call up the Euthanasia Center and accept your fate.
Cameos from residents seen at the start of Beholder and a familiar look to the main character of its DLC, Hector, let us know that this is the story behind the old man we saw being hauled off at the start of the game. In Blissful Sleep, we get a chance to see the life behind those tired eyes which we never quite realized Carl’s would become so similar to.
There’s a lot more of a focus on mystery and investigation this time around though, as the priority Hector has is for his life not to end rather than serving the state or staging rebellion. It makes sense now why he was accused of being neglectful of his duties. Between petting and feeding his cat Order, complying with last minute DNA roundup missions, and trying to prove his true age or find any way to avoid being put down like a wounded animal, Hector simply doesn’t have the same focus and resolve that Carl did when he first stepped foot onto the job. Not to mention, as we saw with Carl, this job tends to wear a man down over time…
GRAPHICS / PERFORMANCE
Art Direction in Beholder is very charming and symbolic. It’s fascinating how much of the world building is done through this game’s visuals. The graphics go a long way to help tell the story from colors chosen to expressive but somewhat anecdotal character models that resemble silhouettes yet with eyes and clothing highlighted in white.
SOUND / MUSIC / VOICE ACTING
The voice acting only takes place during special cut-scenes, but overall sound direction is certainly a strength in this game. Violins and dull background pianos give a shadowy atmosphere that perfectly matches the plot and graphics of Beholder. Sound effects are never annoying, and sometimes a sound alert can be very helpful as an indicator of something that’s going on elsewhere while you’re busy rifling through a tenant’s belongings.
Replay Value is mainly achieved through the ability to make each play-through so different and the general challenge of doing as well as possible within the framework of a tricky balancing act that the player must uphold. It feels like something that is definitely fun to pick up from time to time, even after completed. There’s also a trophy list which involves different hidden aspects of the game and decision branches that might not be found the first time around.
Beholder is a fascinating and original format of gaming that takes elements from point-and-click adventures and time management simulators and combines them into something way more fun than the sum of those genres. Any type of gamer can enjoy the resulting product. This is certainly some of Alawar Entertainment’s best work.
Meeting all sorts of different characters and learning how to profile threats to the state as well as question your own motives in moments of self reflection is some of the most interesting gameplay in a long time. Beholder never ceases to surprise me and keeps giving a more provocative gameplay experience the longer you play it. The Blissful Sleep DLC does well to add context to the game and actually is very fitting after seeing the results of the main campaign. Beholder: Complete Edition receives a 9 out of 10 becoming one of RGN’s Gold Games of 2018.
RGN Rating 9 / 10 (Gold Game)
Developer: Warm Lamp Games / Alaware Entertainment
Publisher: Curve Digital
Available On: Xbox, PS4, PC
Played On: PlayStation 4 Pro
Release Date: January 2018 (Consoles)
Review Copy Info: A digital copy of this game was provided to RGN for free for the purpose of this review.