The Bradwell Conspiracy (XOne) - ReviewLee Mehr , posted on 16 October 2019 / 2,779 Views
“Where, oh, where did this game come from?” As someone who takes—somewhat overinflated—pride in following lists of upcoming releases, I couldn’t help but go back to this query. And this isn’t just because developer A Brave Plan should bow up on marketing themselves but also in respect to The Bradwell Conspiracy being a genuinely good title. As with my Control review, this comes with an important preface: I played it on Xbox One X. When the potential of technical impairments are near-absent, it’s easy to take in the entertaining puzzle-solving and narrative.
The year is 2026. Conspiracy places you in the feet of a nameless, silent protagonist who’s just recovered from an explosion at the tactlessly-placed Bradwell Stonehenge Museum. Said silence isn’t by choice but consequence of a damaged larynx from the incident. This imposes a conundrum as Amber, a Blackwell employee, is your only human connection who’s also caught up in the aftermath. Fortunately, with AR glasses and onboard AI you’re able to send photos to escape what eventually reveals to be a research complex with some secrets of its own.
Although I like the story overall, it’s a shame the introduction is too indebted to pushing the player forward. It makes contextual sense, but there’s a great fictional history to peruse between the violent building quakes. The environmental storytelling says “you can take some time,” yet Google Glass’ AI makes scripted barks to hurry should you dawdle for too long. There’s been an explosion and the building is crumbling, after all!
As it settles into a measured rhythm, the narrative has a way of engaging you with all the particulars. The Bradwell’s history is one such example. In the museum tutorial they’re established as a quasi-analogue to Bill Gates; just change Microsoft from a software to a hardware company in the late 20th century that's also pursuing R & D for philanthropic utilities like water purifiers. Of course, it wouldn’t be a tense story without said characters having some skeletons hidden away. But the way in which Conspiracy configures their backstory and subtly develops them is laudable. The how & why behind these surprises will… surprise you.
That sort of growth towards the climax is also orchestrated through one-off characters. Since the complex has been evacuated, you’re picking through leftover emails, books, and voice memos to both discover clues about a puzzle and disinter what these workers are going through. I’ll admit that I do wish there was slightly more depth to certain characters, but I also understand the restraint; keeping plot elements centralized and focused is what amplifies their importance towards the end. Almost every area and subsequent character log has a purpose in building up the conspiracy.
As much as I would enjoy gushing more about the story, there is one hurdle: Amber. The template is expected: the voice-in-head assistant is there to feed information and objectives while adding a personality that you’re lacking. It works well with the medium. GLaDOS is the genre example and fits flawlessly in the Portal universe. Does anyone remember the one from Quantum Conundrum? If you guessed “Professor Fitz Quadwrangle” without batting an eye I salute you! Although unrelated in tone or approach, both fit within their respective locations. But the quirky gal approach seldom does any favors here and it’s tough to say if the issues lie more with the script or voice acting. I think Rebecca LaChance’s performance was underwhelming but also wonder how much of that comes from overdone ‘discount Joss Whedon’ quips.
Once past that crucial hurdle it’s easier to take in what’s an otherwise thrilling and well-paced story. Some of the comedy does land too. Amber may often miss, but Jonathan Ross nails the induction narrator’s overwrought British-ness quite well. In sum, it’s a succinct narrative that presents stimulating real-world implications.
In regards to technical issues, I didn’t experience them to an extent you’ll hear elsewhere. Along with playing on an X, I received my code on release day—and I confidently recall there being a day-one patch. Having noted that, I will say that the ending was a letdown by looking so unpolished. The final in-game cutscene momentarily tanked the otherwise-solid framerate beforehand and I was looking at an unfinished character model: lower texture quality, missing eyes, etc. I haven’t experienced such a distracting ending for a long time.
Conspiracy’s aesthetic hits this middle between brutalist architecture and 60s-70s metropolitan chic style. Although in keeping with the obvious of this being a workplace, some of the layout and furniture often feels like it would’ve fit right in Andy Warhol’s office. It becomes more sci-fi industrialist as time goes on but the gradual development from the museum to venturing deeper into the subterranean complex gives a complete picture of a place that feels lived-in, despite the extraordinary circumstances.
Unlike with visuals, there weren’t any technical bugs or issues I noticed. Sound design is overall adequate, if all very expected. I’ve already touched on the voice acting that struck me the most and the rest were decent in their roles. The soundtrack was done by Austin Wintory, too! Although I don’t think it stacks up to his greatest works, there are some great tracks which bring out the most with the setting or emotional beat.
As previously noted, Conspiracy is a first-person puzzler at heart. Like some of its popular progenitors, you’re equipped with a special gun to progess: the Substance Mobile Printer (SMP). What makes this fascinating device possible is an in-world element known as Bradwellium. Two things are required to operate it: material and a blueprint. What’s compelling about this conceit is the atypical reconfigurations allowed. Seeing this device effectively swallow the sculpture of a trophy or a Bradwellium brick and transmogrify said material into a plank or metal pipe is neat by itself.
Less neat are the clunky controls. Whether it’s crafting a plank-bridge or flipping through your collection of blueprints, the controls feel like they’re sometimes trying to fight. It should also be noted that Conspiracy isn’t a physics-based system either. A plank only needs to touch a platform’s edge to remain upright. There’s no complexity beyond printing an item and there’s no jumping either.
Despite remaining rudimentary, there’s a satisfying feedback loop. It recovers by focusing its energies on integrating outside influences instead, sometimes to humorous effect. Who’d have thought a small waste bin could halt a rotating hydraulic platform? There’s a great foundation to exploit with the SMP which Conspiracy intermittently realizes; and those times have stayed with me far longer.
Less holistic and more practical however would be the slim runtime. If you're focused on the main game Conspiracy will run roughly three hours, similar to a bloated blockbuster movie. For $20 on storefronts (non-sale price)? That could be off-putting for some. I can sympathize. But when factoring dedication to learn more about this world the asking price it hits a more sensible dollar-per-hour threshold. Even collectible scouring and snapping pictures for Amber's response feel worthwhile, if only for how distinctive that feature is among similar titles.
The Bradwell Conspiracy is something of an underdog story for me. Do you remember The Station? Probably not. Aside from inhabiting the same sub-genre, they’re so alike by surprising me with the main trick they pull. That’s what struck me the most - one moment which is deeply imbedded in my memory. Sure, at times the puzzles feel arbitrary and storytelling qualms can’t be discarded either, but the sum of its parts click together for an experience that’s worth it.
This review is based on a digital copy of The Bradwell Conspiracy for the XOne, provided by the publisher.
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