Volume – Review
In a relatively short period of time Mike Bithell has become one of indie gaming’s biggest and brightest stars, not because he is particularly outspoken nor is it because he’s done anything particularly controversial either. The reason Mike Bithell has become the prominent name that he has is for one reason only – because he makes exceptional games. Funnily enough though he has only one under his belt so far, the acclaimed and beloved Thomas was Alone. The incredible success of Thomas was Alone elevated Bithell to superstar status, but with only one game under his belt the question is can he strike it lucky once more? I’m pleased to report to you that the answer is an emphatic yes.
Volume perhaps doesn’t inspire the same deeper levels of thought that Thomas was Alone elicited, but it’s a perfectly engaging story. As Robert Locksley, you’ll embark on a Robin Hood inspired plot to track down a device known as “volume”. Using the volume and an AI, Locksley enters virtual rooms to demonstrate for his live-streaming audience how to exploit the security and steal from the greed consumed businessman Guy Gisborne. This rob from the rich and give to the poor narrative is expertly told, and is woven cleverly into the gameplay. There are few lines of dialogue that quite deliberately address current issues in gaming, and bagged a few laughs, while on the other hand there were a few that some might find a bit too on-the-nose. Such as when we’re referred to as the viewer or when the game makes a sneaky Minecraft reference.
You won’t be drowning in narrative exposition though with the gameplay itself taking centre stage. Volume plays out in relatively simplistic manner, it’s a top down, isometric stealth game where the goal is to escape the line of sight of patrolling guards with a wide range of differing tools, collecting everything in the level before taking off through a portal at the end of the level. At his disposal Locksley will have access to items that distract guards with noise, you can project doppelgangers to fool those same guards, and there are a handful of other neat gadgets at your disposal as well. All the tools in Locksley’s arsenal will come in handy at various points throughout this 100 level adventure, though in what was quite a disappointment, there were a number of levels that could be easily broken. Due to some relatively poor checkpoint placement it can (in some levels) be easier to charge directly for a checkpoint, than to actually play the game as it was intended. It’s plausible that should you get caught mid stealthy manoeuvre that you could bolt for a checkpoint and despite being shot down you would return to that checkpoint suddenly in the clear. It’s a shame that an oversight such as this allows the game to get exploited so easily (my guilty conscience got the better of me and whenever I got spotted I’d own up, take the shot and repeat the mission, with hopes of a better outcome the next time around.)
Though some can be exploited, the levels themselves all feel quite unique. The environments themselves are made up of simple, reused assets, though, because of their positioning, along with the guards that populate them, each level ends up feeling different to those that preceded it. It’s very rare that you will feel déjà vu with these levels, and the difficulty of the game scales appropriately; You will struggle to think of a time where the game’s difficulty spiked to any degree that will make you feel incapable of proceeding further. The general balancing is relatively on point, the game delicately walks the line that separates brutal difficulty and general leniency in for the larger part.
Despite the fact that some levels can be exploited, you’ll not find Volume to be a cakewalk, the challenge sets in quickly and it will take the combination of a keen mind, patience and elements of luck to clear some of the games tougher levels. Beyond the initial 100 level campaign Volume keeps delivering with leaderboards that will no doubt stretch countless players as they strive to sit atop their peers, and a level editor. The level editor itself doesn’t give you much guidance, but there is a large suite of options gifted to the player that will ensure that levels created in the editor have the ability to surpass even the best that Mike Bithell himself has created.
It’s interesting that despite some occasionally funky AI and a handful of easily exploited levels that Volume can at every turn still feel incredible fresh and enjoyable. With over 100 levels that largely use the same assets it’s astounding to me that despite this every level can still feel so unique – this is a testament to the incredible quality of the level design, and the balancing of everything within these levels. The story, while amusing and quite intriguing won’t carry the same weight as his previous work, but what Bithell delivers with Volume is an experience that is both meta and an enjoyable experience from the beginning of your first hour right through to the campaigns conclusion at the end of your sixth.