“He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and of death.”
‒ Cormac McCarthy, The Road
If I told you 35MM took place in a post-apocalyptic Russia that was initiated by a deadly pandemic you'd likely accuse indie developer Sergey Noskov of bad taste. You'd equate his work to a rushed-to-market film or book using COVID-19 as a cheap backdrop. But while the release schedule for these console ports appears awfully convenient, the PC version was released roughly six years ago. It's less about Noskov being prescient and more about this genre gaining so much traction since the 2000s. Now that his title’s been spruced up for a wider audience, there's only one question to consider: where does it rank amongst the vast swath of other depression games?
Amidst a choking grey fog surrounding a rundown cabin, two men stand by its entrance. The first man finds nothing of use and then tells your character, known only as Petrovich, to give it a second look. These two souls are among a rare few immune to the Ebola-like virus ravaging the globe. Given their state of privation, one wonders if they're the lucky ones. Petrovich’s only goal now is to reach a nearby city and hopefully find his family.
A Bleak Tale
Although there still is a loosely-structured narrative, Noskov's higher aims feel more like an exercise in tone and ambiance than revelatory story beats. The first fifteen minutes focus on rummaging through a shack, walking down the beaten path, and potentially venturing away from it to find nothing more than loose notes and some birds to keep you company. Every exchange between this pair remains terse but gets the point across. Even within this saturnine setting, the sprinkling of comedy between Petrovich's internal thoughts and the dialogue do just enough to humanize these two.
Despite not matching its literary heights, there's a reason I'm often reminded of The Road. These two subsistence scavengers navigating a decrepit, grey wasteland is a simple-yet-effective concept. Whether jovial or not, there's always a gruff weight to each voice actor's delivery. And through its heavier reliance on visuals and environmental clues than over-exposition, you're able to be subsumed by this world's scattered treats: years-old newspapers, handwritten notes, old-timey vinyl players, and so on.
35MM hits many expected beats about one man's search for meaning, but there's a bit more flavor than expected in its execution; plus, the unspoken ways your exploration expands this world and determines your ending feel rewarding. Sometimes it's nice to recognize when a creative understands and works around their limitations.
The Oppressive Fog
The glue that elevates this basic story is its ensorcelling atmosphere. Why did the beginning's brief walk through an ominous fog and a recalcitrant companion really have an effect on me? It's not like indie games haven't tried Silent Hill before. Like some of its Slavic inspirations (Metro & S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series), there's an "it factor" that makes this world more unnerving. The various shades of grey bleed into your skin and the alien sounds boring into your skull simultaneously sound a mile away and behind your ears. There's something about this aesthetic, some aspects of its sound design, and Dmitry Nikolaev's dour soundtrack (with assistance by Sergey Grishin) that hit well above their weight.
Of course, it's also worth noting that technical limitations slightly dampen this enthusiasm. For starters, the heavy fog for these wide outdoor segments also obscures texture pop-in, but it’s not always successful. We're talking about a last-gen console port of a six-year-old Unity game ostensibly helmed by one individual. Stilted animations and lackluster creature models abound! Yet even with those considerations, there's something from the initial draw that compensated for the graphical details it lacked.
Too Bad About The Rest
What damages 35MM's gameplay the most is the sheer contrast from Noskov’s even-handed direction to writing and atmosphere. Rather than being a purposive mixture of elements melding into a satisfying whole, it's a motley bundle that buckles from the lesser elements. Walking simulator? Well, it certainly begins that way but utilizes it more as a cooling-off period between other various tasks. The world design can't maintain immersion like some of the genre greats thanks to convenient invisible walls and Petrovich saying "don't have to go that way." The same location can have new artificial boundaries depending on the time of day! Even the title’s namesake, referring to Petrovich’s 35millimeter film camera, is just a Photo Mode with some fun options.
The survival genre is the closest gameplay compatriot to this walking sim structure. It's pretty basic: health, hunger, and stamina management. What's strange is how non-committal they feel in such a setting. To its credit, exclusively incorporating Petrovich's health status through the bloodstains through his notebook (akin to a pause menu) is a cool touch; that said, slowly blurring his vision to remind us he's hungry is obnoxious. Given how much food I had throughout the journey, there were never any interesting stakes baked into these meters. They feel more like a nosy neighbor.
There's also a fair share of puzzles to solve. There are a couple of solid conundrums, but the lion's share feels so desultory and unsatisfying. You'll be tasked to do one thing and mindlessly dotter around the world until something clicks, but those a-ha! discoveries don't register. Since it's trying to remain as immersive as possible, your UI is unhelpful and sometimes the hint system just plainly states where that puzzle item is located. There are more enjoyable discoveries off the beaten path than most main objectives.
The worst offender of the lot would be the godawful action sequences. Whether it's the uncoordinated QTE sequences (which require mindlessly mashing the button instead of hitting it once at the right time) or the uncoordinated shooting, these practically feel like last-second additions. There's no possible way a console player gets by the dog horde section without cheesing it. Because of how Petrovich's aim feels visually off and aim-down-sights isn't an option, these infrequent bouts are an incredible chore. A shame its worst examples are poured on in the second half.
Worth Going Down This Road?
Although I emphasize value more on what I've gained from the experience, I’m compelled to give some specific credit to what this developer has accomplished. To see him make a five-hour main odyssey (give or take) with disparate endings plus secondary secrets to uncover is quite impressive for ten bucks. Sadly, the ever-present issue that nags at me is whether venturing to return or play through feels worth it altogether.
To make an unsubtle comparison, 35MM is like a picture out of focus. Sergey Noskov tries to pack an ambitious amount of stuff within the frame but forgets what elements might be ill-fitting. When specifically focused on its funereal atmosphere, it's an interesting break from the norm; when weighing its multiple gameplay pitfalls, those strengths begin to fade.
TechRaptor reviewed 35MM on Xbox One X with a copy purchased by the reviewer. It is also available on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
- Fittingly Depressing Ambiance
- Succinct Story
- Some Interesting, Grounded Puzzles
- Impressive Amount Of Work Shouldered By One Developer
- Godawful, Boring Action Sequences
- Toothless Survival Mechanics
- Unfocused Game Design