Beautiful Desolation brings a gorgeous isometric approach to its classic adventure gameplay. With almost no action and an emphasis on exploration and dialog choices, it draws comparison to the adventure games of the ’90s dominated by Lucas Arts games. It is available on PS4, PC, and Switch, which is where I played the game.
Beautiful Desolation follows two brothers, Mark and Don, as they set out to investigate the mysterious Penrose tower, which appeared suddenly in their home country of South Africa. Mark is obsessed with the tower as its appearance led to the death of his wife and a period of turmoil as the seemingly alien tower brought technological leaps and bounds with it. In their investigation the brothers are thrown into the future, beginning a time-jumping adventure as they travel to different future eras in various states of post-apocalyptic disarray. Mark and Don’s quest to return home becomes increasingly complex as they unravel the mystery of the Penrose.
At its core, Beautiful Desolation is a point-and-click adventure, which makes the gameplay very simple. Most of the gameplay consists of searching environments for specific items or information, then using those items or information to solve puzzles. Along the way, there are tons of story choices to make and a handful of puzzles that utilize simplistic min-games. Nonetheless, the majority of the game consists of wandering around looking for the next key item.
The game’s setting is truly spectacular. Visually the game is quite impressive for an indie game, with great design and fantastic locations. The character design, in particular, is amazing. From sentient robots modeled after priests, warriors, and dogs to mutated humans with skulls for heads or amorphous blob-like bodies there’s a wonderfully diverse array of character designs. The characters are also generally well written. POOCH, the sentient robotic dog who reluctantly aids the brothers, is a particular stand-out, with a surprisingly tragic and nuanced story. Like all of the game’s best storylines, POOCH’s story explores its sci-fi premise in interesting ways but always places the character’s emotional arc first.
There are two major problems with Beautiful Desolation. The first is that the puzzles are too basic for their own good. Nearly every problem boils down to a fetch quest and even the more involved puzzles are never particularly fun or satisfying to solve. The fact that almost the entire game is spent on these puzzles made it a bit of a slog to get through.
The second problem is that it doesn’t port to using a controller very well. It’s obvious the game was designed for point-and-click PC controls and trying to navigate with a joystick was consistently frustrating. Every environment is filled with invisible walls and it’s never clear where you can or can’t go. Exploring such beautiful, strange environments should be a joy, and I imagine on PC it is, but on the Switch, it was a truly miserable experience.
Beautiful Desolation is a frustratingly inconsistent game. It sets up an interesting world full of fun characters and interesting tweaks on its time travel premise, but whenever I wasn’t talking to an NPC or reading a document I found the experience miserable. If you’re a fan of classic adventure games and do want to try the game out, do yourself a favor and pick it up on PC where you can play with a mouse. Beautiful Desolation can be found on PS4, Switch, and PC for $19.99.
RATING: 4/10 Prototype POOCH units