This review must start with this unavoidable fact: Subject 13 ends with a climactic game of Minesweeper. Only one game has ever gotten away with using a newspaper puzzle as its final challenge, and that was 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. And the only reason it worked in that game is because the theme of nines was so prevalent that you couldn’t go without the master of all nine-related puzzles: Sudoku. Subject 13 doesn’t get the same allowance. Its climactic game of Minesweeper is representative of its biggest fault: these puzzles make no dang sense in context.
Although some of this may be experience overruled by nostalgia, I still have a great deal of reverence for Subject 13‘s developer Microids. Syberia, Still Life, The Sinking Island, and Amerzone all have their faults, but they at least have some beauty and charm to them. So I was excited to hear about the Kickstarter for a new game in the same tradition, one that could perhaps retain the good qualities while improving upon the bad.
… And, well, there was no such luck here. Subject 13 is part of a new tradition: the tradition of disappointing kickstarted adventure games from genre veterans—see Broken Sword 5, Tesla Effect, and Broken Age.
The plot is this: you are Franklin Fargo, whose physical appearance you can alter with a choice of two boring dude faces, and you wake up inside a mysterious machine on a mysterious island being mysteriously spoken to by a mysterious voice. Your memory is of course gone, mysteriously. This voice guides you through many different rooms, wherein you solve puzzles to get to the next area. During this time you uncover manuscripts that describe enigmatic experiments and ancient Mayan deities. You also run into the spectral apparition of a woman who you were probably once close to. Although starting in broken-down industrial locales, you soon begin to explore forests, beaches, and one rather large ancient temple. Along the way your memory slowly begins to come back, the story as a result gradually coming together. There is some interesting stuff regarding alternate realities, but sadly the way it is presented detracts from any amount of satisfaction one might get from the plot.
As mentioned, the main problem with Subject 13 is the puzzles. Kind of a big deal in an adventure game. One of the main quirks of the puzzle-solving is the fact that unlike normal adventure games in which a simple click suffices, this game has you moving your cursor around. For example, instead of clicking on the door to open it, you must click and pull the door open manually. It adds a marginal amount of challenge, though. The only good thing about it is its use as an investigatory tool—it’s much more fun to pick up and move around an object to see what it does than to simply click on it. Otherwise, though, it’s a mostly superficial addition.
But worse with these puzzles are their inorganic placement, a deadly sin in adventure games. They don’t make sense within the context of the game. There are roughly forty-thousand moving block puzzles, most of which function as the world’s worst locking function for various doors and chests. Whatever happened to keys? And why would an ancient device’s firewall be a rather large game of Minesweeper? Similar examples are scattered throughout the game. Why would a plant have a trial-and-error correct sequence of its pods to open?
These pieces are there just for player challenge, with no relation to the environment or the plot. Thus they just come across as artificial barriers. One doesn’t really feel a sense of great accomplishment when playing Subject 13 because it never feels like real progress—we know that once we finish this room and move on to the next, there will be another set of puzzles to solve.
Now, inorganic puzzle placement CAN be forgiven. The Professor Layton series is phenomenal, yet does this near-constantly. But it can only be forgiven if 1) the game’s puzzle-over-immersion philosophy is clear and 2) if those puzzles are actually good. Professor Layton can accomplish this. Subject 13 does not. The design and presentation make it feel like an adventure game, one which marries puzzles with story for the intended effect of creating a great narrative that is simultaneously a great headscratcher. Subject 13 just doesn’t feel right in this regard.
The puzzles themselves, then, are our last refuge. The only thing that can redeem this imbalanced game. But they aren’t good. As stated, most of them are sliding tile puzzles. And as stated, one of them is a freaking game of Minesweeper. But aside from this, there are many trial-and-error clicking puzzles, many puzzles in which something must be pushed or pulled in a certain way and many puzzles in which a thing must be used on another thing in order to get a key or keycard or some other such device. They aren’t intellectual challenges, rather more simply tedious exercises in clicking the screen and scanning for hotspots.
There is one somewhat competent sequence that requires the player to master a foreign numeric system and use it to insert a key item into the correct areas, but unfortunately this is too little too late. It happens almost as the game ends—right before that abysmal game Minesweeper—when the player’s opinion of the game has already solidified and most of the plot has been conveyed. Simply, it happens after we’ve already decided that the game isn’t that great.
Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye once said of adventure game design that the developer should make problems, not puzzles. That way we can become immersed in the game, identify more with our protagonist. Here in Subject 13 the protagonist is just an avatar for the player to move around, not a character so much as a thing. The puzzles and the experience of the game just don’t fuse the way they should—it’s as if they’re working parallel to each other, the bits of narrative like locked .rar files that need to be opened by solving sliding tiles and Minesweeper.
Subject 13 is a nice-looking game. It has some great songs. The story is serviceable but forgettable in light of the way the player experiences it. Adventure game fans will have to hold out a little longer for a real quality kickstarted release in the genre.
Check out Subject 13 on Steam here.
A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review on PC.
Poor puzzle design detracts from Subject 13's few positive points. It's more playable and less convoluted than many adventure games, but this one just doesn't have enough going for it.