Review – Disjunction

Deus Ex 'Murica

Overview

Developer Ape Tribe Games
Publisher Sold Out
Genre Shoot 'Em Up, Stealth
Platforms Nintendo Switch
PS4 (reviwed)
Xbox One
PC
Release Date January 28, 2021

Ah, cyberpunk, my old friend. We’ve seen quite a bit of you in the past few months. There was Lithium City, with all the joy and pain that brought. And there was that one other game that might have had something to do with you released recently, wasn’t there? Ah well, no matter, because we’ve got another entry in the storied genre, (it is a genre, right?) on our hands. Enter Disjunction, a cyberpunk stealth/shoot ’em up with a branching storyline that seeks to combine the best elements of Hotline Miami, Metal Gear Solid, and Heavy Rain. And did it succeed? Well…

Content Guide

Violence: Though mitigated by the pixel art style, blood spatters wildly whenever you shoot a guard, and the gameplay is centered around shooting or otherwise incapacitating those who stand in your way. The player is given the choice to kill or spare several characters over the course of the game. It is mentioned that a character had their eyes burnt out with acid. Gang violence is discussed at various times. Characters threaten to hurt or kill each other.

Language: F***, d***, s***, and hell make frequent appearances. God and Jesus’ name are misused often as well.

Sexual Content: Though low-detail due to the art style, various portraits of what I assumed to be bikini-clad women in suggestive poses show up in jail cells as background art. Nothing explicit is evident.

Other Negative Elements: Drug use is rampant in 2048 New York City, especially a drug called Shard, which is being distributed throughout the city by an unknown dealer. Crime and violence are high as well. Your characters partake in said crime and violence freely and without much remorse.

Review

So, like I said, Disjunction appears to attempt a fusion of Hotline Miami’s frantic run-and-gun top-down shooting and Metal Gear Solid’s slower-paced stealth sections, with a responsive and branching storyline reminiscent of Heavy Rain. It’s a pretty ambitious project, and for that, developer Ape Tribe Games deserves credit. But ambition can carry you only so far, and it’s generally the ambitious projects that bite off more than they can chew. Knowing this made me cautious, but optimistic, as I booted up Disjunction for the first time.

Presentation:

Right off the bat, the game looks gorgeous. Indie games’ reliance on pixel art has become a massive trope in recent years, sparked by games like Shovel Knight and Undertale, but if you’re going to go that route, you’ve got to make it good. And man, does Disjunction look good. The first screen of the game is a hazy cityscape that instantly communicates desolation and pollution. You don’t need any text to tell you that New York is a dark, scary place in this game.

The quality of the art really never diminishes over the course of the game, though of course gameplay sprites are less detailed than the beautiful cutscene graphics. Animations are fluid and gorgeous, reminding me a lot of the original Prince of Persia’s rotoscoped animations. The ending, too, featured some lovely portraits of the three main characters, which made for a satisfying ending after mainly seeing them as tiny sprites for the whole game.

The music also makes a wonderful companion to the artwork. It’s nothing particularly mind-blowing, and most of the game is scored by slow, droning tones with no clear melody. But it fits the dark, dystopian feel, and near the end of the game, the music surprisingly picked up and offered some really solid tunes. They did get a little old after playing some of the later stages for a long time, but I appreciate them nonetheless.

I will make one critique, and it’s a pretty substantial one: the artists missed a huge opportunity with the level themes. There are really only four distinct themes in the entire game: rundown warehouse, hi-tech science lab, fancy penthouse, and rundown warehouse #2. (So…more like three themes.) For an 8 hour campaign, seeing the same themes over and over again got really, really boring. Even just one more theme that was different would have broken it up a bit. I get that, in-universe, everything is run-down and broken anyway, so it does make sense that everything looks the same, but that doesn’t make it interesting to play. (And I’ll get into this a little bit later, but for now, let’s just say that lack of variety doesn’t just apply to the level themes.)

Storyline:

The game’s website makes a pretty big point of highlighting the game’s “dynamic story.” This boils down to choosing whether to spare, arrest, or kill several characters over the course of the game, generally at the end of a stage. This, of course, affects the ending. I only got one ending, as from what I can tell, you’ll have to start a completely new game every time you want to see a new ending, rather than being able to start from a particular stage and make a different choice at the end of that stage. There are dialogue choices for all of the conversations in the game, but they don’t seem to affect the narrative too much. The main choices really are those pivotal moments at the end of stages.

The writing is fairly strong, and while it may lean a bit heavy on the profanity side for my taste, that’s perfectly understandable in context. It doesn’t feel gratuitous. The dialogue flows well and never came across as awkward or distracting, which, honestly, is about all you can ask of dialogue. I’m not looking for Shakespeare.

However, the one thing that really struck me about the story was the worldbuilding. The game fleshes out the world of New York City in 2048 with understated prowess, choosing to give you occasional snippets of the history of the U.S. between then and now rather than blasting  you with a wall of text and expecting you to remember all of the details. It tackles social issues like poverty and homelessness, climate change, and even human dignity in an age of cybernetic enhancements, all without ever feeling preachy or explicitly stating a message. It just lets the description of the world do the work, and honestly, that’s impressive given how short the game is. What’s more, the game’s world feels scarily plausible. Most of the changes to the world seem like real things that could really happen, including the U.S. and Russia fighting a proxy war in the Middle East, sea levels threatening to displace New Yorkers, and even the homeless community setting up camp in Central Park after the city fails to do anything to help them. It got me to think about all of these issues without ever actually saying “hey, this is a problem you should care about.”

The game also realizes that the story involves a lot of names and places to keep track of. To help you with this, various phrases are highlighted in yellow, and moving your cursor over these will bring up a pop-up giving you background information about that person, place, or event. This was honestly super helpful, as there are a lot of elements that go into the backstory of this game, and having that information seamlessly at the ready whenever I needed it was an incredible blessing.

They seem to have forgotten to do it for three major players in the story, though. The story revolves around the three main factions of the city: the Russian mafia, the Chinatown tongs, and a “human dignity” activist group called Humanity Today. Three hackers are manipulating these factions to take action against each other and against Millennium Industries, the largest producer of human augmentation hardware. And you might have noticed that I haven’t said the names of these hackers. That’s because I can’t remember them, because the game does nothing to differentiate them. In the context of the story, especially the ending, this makes sense, but I still found myself confused as to who was who, and these names don’t have any sort of tooltip reminding you of who they are. You’re just supposed to remember which hacker is manipulating which group, and it got confusing.

And I don’t mean to come off as snooty, but I did find the ending rather predictable. I called the major plot twist at least one mission before the final mission, and I think I would have come to my conclusion even faster if I hadn’t kept getting all the names mixed up. This isn’t a huge deal, as it’s still a satisfying and deep enough story to keep me engaged. Just don’t expect Inception-level depth here, is all I’m saying.

Gameplay:

“Okay, okay, enough story. How does it play?” Like I said before, Disjunction’s main gameplay style is a top down shoot-’em-up that gives you the choice to go in guns blazing or sneak around and take out enemies non-lethally one by one. And spoiler alert: you’re going to need to do the latter, as, if you’re spotted, enemies will swarm you faster than you can say “Sam Fisher with a robot leg.”

The gameplay is split between three different characters: Frank, Joe, and Spider. Each character comes with a passive ability and three active abilities. The passive ability is more of an individual characteristic, like an extra energy or health slot, or making your first hit after a long wait more powerful. The active abilities are more like actual weapons, with the caveat that they consume energy when you use them.

I think the intent was for each character to appeal to a different playstyle, and I’m judging this entirely by their weapon choices, as, other than that, all three characters control exactly the same. Joe seems to be the most combat-focused, with a shotgun, extra health, dash, combat stim, and force grenade, while Spider is clearly the stealth option, with a cloak ability, holoprojector, stun grenade, and an extra energy slot. Frank seems to strike a balance between the two, with a heal ability, smoke grenade, stun pistol, and the aforementioned ability to make his first hit count for more.

Every level pits you against a horde of guards standing between you and the end of your mission. To succeed, you’ll need to sneak, snipe, or slaughter your way through to the end. Crouching reveals the vision cones of the guards, and hiding in the shadows reduces their range of vision. If you take out a guard, you’ll want to hide the body, as if another guard finds it, they’ll be alerted to your unwelcome presence.

And…that’s it. That’s all the gameplay boils down to. Eventually a few new guard types are introduced, like robots with rotating vision cones and extra health, but that is essentially what you will be doing for the entire campaign: sneaking around. And to be fair, at the beginning of the game, I did have to do some creative thinking and strategy to find the best path through, but after the first couple levels, that strategizing simply became “hit all the enemies in the head and keep moving.” All of your abilities are unlocked from the get-go as each character, so there’s nothing to look forward to as you progress. There’s skill tree, which is nice, especially because it allows you to mix and match, and even remove previous upgrades and replace them with others. However, this doesn’t actually unlock any new moves, merely upgrading things like running speed or reload speed. This lack of mechanical variety, combined with the repeating level themes, means that nearing the end of an 8-hour campaign, Disjunction gets really monotonous.

I would have taken anything to give me some variety: a different mission type, different weapons, even a level where the requirement was to not get caught at all, but no, nothing. The level objective is the same every time: get to the end without dying. Even the secondary mission is always the same: find the upgrade kit hidden in the level. What’s more, the human enemy sprites don’t change. The only difference is that some are security guards, while others are gangsters. But it doesn’t matter if I’m fighting the Russian mafia or the Chinese tongs, they all look the same: generic muscular dudes with guns.

What’s more, this game just…doesn’t perform well, at least on PS4. Like at all. As seems to be par for the course with this game, it started out well in the first few levels, but as I approached the end of the game, there was nearly constant slowdown. I think it has something to do with the game drawing the vision cones of the enemies, as the slowdown mostly disappeared when I wasn’t crouching, but the problem is, you NEED to crouch in order to play the game. Combine this with the fact that your crouching speed is (understandably) really slow, and these last levels drag on for all the wrong reasons. It got to the point that I didn’t even want to bother taking out the enemies, because I was already so done with the monotonous gameplay. I just crouched long enough to see their vision cones, then bolted past as fast as I could. And to its credit, the game didn’t punish me for that. It really did let me play however I wanted. But that doesn’t make up for the fact that I was only doing that because I wanted the game to be over sooner.

I’m also not sure where else to say this, but I wanted to get this off my chest. Every time you boot up the game, the menu automatically selects the “new game” option, and since I’m used to games having a “press any button to continue” screen before the actual main menu, this led to me selecting the new game option without meaning to. This might not be a big deal if the game gave me a warning that it was going to delete my save data, but it doesn’t. I reset my game not once, but twice over the course of my playthrough. Is this my fault for mindlessly pressing X to start the game? Maybe, but that habit has been hard-wired into my brain after years of gaming. How hard would it have been to put a confirmation screen before deleting all my progress?

Conclusion

This game might be one of the most frustrating I’ve ever played. Not because it’s unfair, not because it’s badly made, not even because I got bored, but because I wanted it to be so much better. It started out beautifully, with brilliant pixel art and music, deep and thoughtful worldbuilding and social commentary, and solid gameplay mechanics. But it never built on those mechanics to keep me engaged. Even though I’ve played games that are much longer than this, the last 2 hours of this game dragged on forever because I was still doing the same exact thing I had been doing at the beginning of the game, but with glitchy slowdown that made me want to tear my hair out as I trudged along in the shadows.

Don’t get me wrong: a ton of effort went into this game. Passion oozes from every cracked metal wall within it. I can’t help but feel that Ape Tribe Games would have been better off doing a graphic novel or web series in this beautiful pixel art style, because they nailed the aesthetic they were going for, and the story isn’t half bad to boot. It’s just the gameplay stitching it all together leaves so much to be desired that I’d rather just look at the game rather than play it again to find any of the other endings. And that makes me really sad.

Still, the game is only $15 on Steam, and for an 8 hour campaign with multiple endings, that’s not a bad amount of content for the price. Perhaps if you really are a fan of stealth games like Metal Gear, you might have a better time with it than I did, but I cannot overlook the bad performance and lack of mechanical development. For my money, I’d take something like Lithium City, that, while frustrating as all get out, kept building and introducing new things as it went along, and never overstayed its welcome. Disjunction, for all its gorgeous presentation and thoughtful storytelling, fails to deliver on what is, in my opinion, is the most important aspect of any video game: the gameplay itself.

 

The Bottom Line

 

Disjunction's gorgeous art and thoughtful narrative are its strong points, but its frustrating performance issues and lack of gameplay and environment variation keep it from achieving its developers' high hopes.

 

6.5

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Wesley Lantz

Wesley's first memory of video games is playing through Super Mario World with his mom when he was 3 years old. Since then, he's been a classic Nintendo kid, but has branched out to the far lands of PlayStation in recent years. He enjoys the worlds that video games create and share with their audiences, and the way video games bring together collaborators from so many different disciplines like music, visual art, literature, and even philosophy. He is an advocate for excellency in all things, but isn't immune to a few guilty pleasure games, which may or may not include Disney's Party for the GameCube.

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