Edited by: Tiffany Lillie
Desert Child seems to be getting a fair amount of press, and I can’t really figure out why. There are enough lazy, retro pixel-art entries on Steam to make you think twice about buying another indie game for the rest of your life. Still, there are some unforgettable retro cyberpunk titles (like Red Strings Club) that make trying indie games worth your while, and that’s why I gave Desert Child a chance. Unfortunately, the odds of standing out with this motif are slim, and Desert Child isn’t really an exception.
Yeah, cool, Desert Child is “neat,” but what else does it have going for it?
Desert Child is described as a “hoverbike racing life-sim,” and that’s an interesting hook, but what does it actually mean? When it comes down to it, this is a side-scrolling racer from the arcade era with some walking thrown in.
Granted, there are a variety of reasons Desert Child has you entering side-scrolling hoverbike races — like pizza delivery, hacking into banks, or herding kangaroos — but all these missions are fundamentally the same. In a normal race, you shoot targets to gain speed and beat your enemies. In the pizza delivery mode, you shoot pizza at targets instead. In a bank hack, you shoot statues and old Windows logos instead of targets. It all gets very familiar very fast.
Between races, you get to walk around town repairing your bike and searching for food. This part is nice at first because of the scenery and characters you encounter, and there are a variety of tiny games you can play. But like the races, these things quickly get old as you realize the main character walks way too slowly through a city you’ve seen countless times and the characters and mini-games are all two-dimensional. “Uuuuuh yeah, ah nay, she’ll be alright,” the quirky Australian says for the millionth time as he fixes your bike with a beer in his hand. It’s fun the first one or two times, but it quickly loses its novelty.
It wouldn’t be so bad if there was an illusion of progress.
There are plenty of games that are excellent despite being repetitive, so why am I picking on this one? Because it’s missing that magic ingredient that makes you feel like an unstoppable hero: the illusion of progress. Desert Child starts off great, having you earn enough money to get off Earth and emigrate to Mars. But after that, you find yourself grinding away to save pennies and enter the extravagantly-priced Grand Prix. Between you and that benchmark, no real significant progress is made.
As an example, Katamari Damacy couldn’t get any more repetitive on paper: You roll things into a ball and the ball gets bigger. But what makes Katamari Damacy an amazing game is that moment when your ball is finally big enough to roll up a person, an elephant, and then a mountain, until you’re rolling around plucking entire weather systems and gods out of the sky. To provide an example that’s closer to Desert Child, the way the Final Fantasy series has always brought satisfaction is simply by having NPCs say different things based on your adventures — “I heard someone finally defeated the Dragon on Mount Impossible!” This kind of thing never happens in Desert Child. You pulled off that bank hack? The bike mechanic doesn’t care; he just repeats his same catchphrase that has by now taken on the absurd emptiness of your life as a hoverbike racer: “Uuuuuh yeah, ah nay, she’ll be alright.”
But on a more basic level, the way many games achieve the illusion of progress is through levels. It’s not very creative, but it’s extremely effective. A step up from this is upgrades. In Desert Child, you can upgrade your bike, but it’s kind of binary and therefore joins the slew of mechanics that just aren’t quite effective enough. You can add power cells to bike parts you’ve acquired, but it doesn’t feel like it matters much; you either get more money from shooting targets or less, and neither amount even comes close to that Grand Prix entry fee.
Remember nostalgia gimmicks?
Desert Child probably seems like a hollow experience because it’s a hollow concept. It capitalizes on nostalgia with its themes and tired pixel art, but to no real end except (I assume) profit. Predictably, there’s hacking because there has to be hacking in cyberpunk (and it’s just a carbon copy of the hacking in Splinter Cell). There’s rain because there has to be rain in cyberpunk. There are pixels because there have to be pixels.
And there’s nostalgia because you’ll eat it up and ask for more because for some reason it’s a widely-accepted truth that cyberpunk is good because it references the 80s. Remember, in the 80s, when they had pizza delivery guys? Remember, in the 80s, when they had Windows 95 logos? Remember, in the 80s, when they had references to Ol' Dirty Bastard from Wu-Tang Clan? Wait, you don’t remember that because a lot of this stuff isn’t even from the 80s and they’re just throwing any reference into this game that’s older than yesterday to make money off your feelings. Don’t they realize how incredibly cheap that makes your memories and life experiences feel?
The frustrating thing is Desert Child isn’t a fundamentally bad waste of time. You can kill a couple hours on it and be mildly entertained but it also feels insulting in some way. Maybe that’s just me.
The Verdict: Fair
Desert Child attempts to capitalize on nostalgia with a mish-mash of references from different decades. There are some mildly funny moments, but other than that it’s a side-scrolling shooter dressed up in a cyberpunk motif. One race is probably enough to get a feel for how the rest of the game will play out, so don’t bring high expectations with you.