I purchased Subject 13 recently during Xbox’s Spring Sale for a couple of reasons: 1) it was cheap, coming it at a mighty low $2.80 2) it was billed as a traditional point-and click adventure game and 3) the graphics, from the few screenshots I saw, made it look pretty and mysterious and something akin to Myst, wherein there’s an island and puzzles to solve. I finished it off the other night feeling frustrated and dissatisfied, especially as I stubbornly felt the need to see it through, and I would not recommend it to anyone if, like me, the above reasons seem initially intriguing.
Subject 13 comes to us from French video game designer Paul Cuisset, though I’ll be honest and did not immediately recognize his name or work. Shame on me, as a fellow Paul. Evidently, he was the lead designer of Delphine Software International and the creator of Flashback, which is listed in the Guinness World Records as the best-selling French game of all time. That’s cool and all, but I’ve never played it and was way more jazzed to learn that he had a hand in making 1994’s mega-hit Shaq Fu, of which one day I’ll tell a story about. Still, the man has clearly been in the business for a while, and there have been some ups and downs; one of the more recent ups was Subject 13‘s successful Kickstarter back in 2014, which helped bring the game to phones, PC, and consoles.
Right, let’s get to it. Subject 13 opens up rather dramatically with a man named Franklin Fargo–no, really, that’s his first name and last name put together–attempting to off himself by driving his car into a river. However, as he begins to drown beneath the water, something happens and he is magically transported into an abandoned research facility. Here, a strange, disembodied robotic voice encourages him to use his special noggin to solve puzzles and make his way out of the compound. All righty then. Oh, and the robotic voice also refers Franklin as Subject 13 and refuses to answer many questions so right away you know something is fishy. It’s a decent bit of science fiction storytelling though it’s both predictable and under-delivered, with most of the details tucked away in hidden audio logs.
The gameplay is pretty straightforward stuff for adventure games, with Franklin exploring a small area or number of areas, picking up commonplace items, examining them up close, and using them either individually or combining them with others to solve puzzles, the majority of which are based around logic. Don’t be surprised to find yourself dealing with combination locks and slide puzzles and doing a bit of math on the side. It’s not The Witness, but few games are. I truly didn’t mind the puzzles, even if they never felt like they were natural in the world and clearly stuck out as something to do to slow progress, but a couple were extremely obtuse and resulted in me looking up solutions online to keep my momentum going.
Oh, and let me touch upon the final section of the game. Spoilers incoming…even though I kind of dropped a big one in this blog post’s title. After all your exploring and puzzle solving and chasing after holographic women, the only way out for Franklin Fargo…is through a game of Minesweeper. Now, it doesn’t immediately look like Minesweeper because of, y’know, copyright issues, but it’s the same idea nonetheless. And honestly, I’m not too bummed about this, because I enjoy a round or two or three of Minesweeper, but it shouldn’t be used as a final, climactic showdown. Don’t think too hard about the fact that this ancient device is guarding itself via a firewall based on Minesweeper. Also, there’s an Achievement tied to beating this part in under twenty, but the clunky look and nature of the beast means you need to play it slowly or start over again, and it’s the only Achievement I didn’t get for the game…so boo-hoo to that.
Here’s the hard truth–Subject 13 lacks polish and modern, friendly mechanics. It wasn’t designed to have them, but it needs them. I understand that this wants to call back to an era of gaming where adventuring was a little more imperceptive and up to the player to truly figure out, but some of that was left behind for a reason, to make the experience more inviting. For instance, moving the main character around is absolutely terrible, with Franklin strutting forward like a goalless gorilla, unable to make it up some steps or around a corner unless he approaches them from a very specific angle. A more traditional point-and-click interface would have worked better, especially when you often have to walk from one side of the screen to another, and it takes just long enough to have me reaching for me phone to check my email or the weather for tomorrow. Some items are extremely well hidden and, with no internal monologue from Franklin, I never even knew I was supposed to be looking for a bucket. Lastly, while the UI for your inventory is neat-looking, it never made it easy to pick up an item and compare it to another or, if you selected the wrong one, deselect it and try again; I felt like I was always fighting against the system.
I’m not all angry ogre, so here’s what I liked about Subject 13. The soundtrack is subtle and New Age-y, relies on futuristic synth-heavy tracks, but also enough soft sounds to lull you into a moody yet pleasantly relaxed atmosphere that doesn’t get in the way of exploring and solving puzzles. For testimonies, the game’s audio log collectibles, you can always see how many you have found in the chapter percentage-wise, as well as total, which I appreciated as I wanted to get them all in one go. Lastly, instead of “continue” the game uses “carry on” in its menu options, and that is so adorable I’m over here making large cat eyes and nodding enthusiastically.
I bought another game alongside Subject 13 during this sale, namely Anoxemia, and though it is not exactly the same type of game, I’m hoping I enjoy it much more than this, whenever it is that I get around to playing it. See, I’m not always good at immediately jumping into my purchases, though I did on this one and am unhappy. Or maybe I need to give Flashback a good swing–the original, not the 2013 remake version.