The most popular video games on the market today are huge open-world titles that gamers can sink dozens, if not hundreds of hours, into. Judging by the amount of money these sort of games make, it's understandable for developers to believe that massive, utterly engaging experiences are what all players want. It's just not true, though. Sometimes we want a game to relax with, something that doesn't ask to be taken seriously because it doesn't really take itself seriously. Sometimes making a game with simple mechanics allows the overall experience to shine, giving gamers the chance to enjoy what they see instead of focusing on what comes next. It's not an approach seen often, and yet it's exactly the sort of approach Oscar Brittain seems to have taken with his retro-throwback racer Desert Child.
Take Your Game Into Outer Space
Even a cursory glance at the Desert Child trailer will reveal that the game is all about style. Solely developed by Oscar Brittain, the game's pixel-art trappings are clearly meant to be the highlight of the show. It looks very much like an old PC adventure title, perhaps with a little bit of 8- and 16-bit flair to be found here and there. One might even compare it visually to Another World, the "cinematic platformer" released by Delphine Software back in the early 90s. It's a unique look, and it's very much unlike a lot of modern games, including modern indie games.
Desert Child drops players into the shoes of a small-time hover-bike racer. The opening scene sets the stage for the game's high-speed racing mechanics and teaches players the basics before dropping the hero onto the streets of a barren earthbound city. Before too long, the hero's one-time racing coach and fair-weather friend invites him to unchain his game by heading over to Mars, where his racing instincts and street sense will be put to the test.
Bullets and Boosting
Though it wouldn't feel quite right to say that Desert Child is primarily focused on racing, it is certainly one of the game's chief focal points. Brittain's title employs a remarkably simple racing system: two racers have to get from the start line at the left to the finish line at the right, and they can earn the a first place position by boosting to pass their opponent or by shooting them to slow them down. Floating TVs hover about the tracks just waiting to be destroyed, and some of them offer money or ammo while the others drop hazards or outright shoot at the hero.
Each race is very short, maybe around 60 seconds long, which is probably a good thing considering how many races players will have to complete in order to progress through the game. They don't seem to get old, though; races really are a matter of getting in, winning, and riding away with as much money as possible. They're unlikely to be terribly engaging to most players, but they're just fun enough to keep the player's attention in short bursts. This is especially true for other race variations, like herding "cattle" or firing pizzas at hungry customers.
Not All About Racing
Beyond the racing, the rest of the time spent in Desert Child will involve roaming the streets of New Olympia. This Mars colony is largely similar to urban cities on Earth, complete with newsstands, nightclubs, police, pedestrians, and passers-by. There's a lot to soak in, which might initially come as a surprise. The first city, the one on Earth, has but three places of interest, while the Mars colony has over a dozen, each filled with curious characters and amusing interactions.
The activities on offer feel very appropriate to the urban setting. Players can walk around and check out the city, snack on some ramen at the local noodle place, or shop for new tracks at the music store. They can eat a massive pizza to alleviate their hunger, drop a few dollars to repair their bike, or take on a side quest to deliver pizza if they so choose. They can risk consuming a variety of sketchy-sounding beans, with some that will clearly intoxicate the hero and others that will offer boosts and bonuses within races. They can also check the local bulletin board to undertake miscellaneous quests, like teaching others how to ride or assuming the role of a bounty hunter.
One Man's Vision
As said before, Desert Child was developed by a team of one. Perhaps because of this fact, it feels like a very personal sort of game. It's not something that's necessarily meant to have broad appeal; if anything, it serves the interest of its developer, who clearly had a vision for what sort of game he'd like to see or play. Though it hasn't enjoyed much buzz online, the game's Kickstarter campaign did at least manage to draw in 545 backers, so clearly there's a market for this sort of experience out there.
Unfortunately, the fact that it was created and developed by just one person shows. The racing itself is fairly flat, with very few variations to keep things interesting. The Mars city is full of sights and sounds, but there's no option to customize the otherwise-entrancing soundtrack to the player's liking, nor is there any real explanation as to what exactly can be done — it's completely up to the player to seek out those details. There are also several typos and minor graphical hiccups to be found, and in one instance, the game crashed and the software had to be restarted. A little bit of extra time and attention to detail might have been enough to hammer out these rough edges.
Mind Your Beans
It's an odd thing for a video game to bank so heavily on its aesthetics, but in the case of Desert Child, the plan works. This isn't a dense game, nor is it necessarily a complex game; instead, it's a simple title that suits retro gaming enthusiasts with good visuals, good music, amusing interactions, and a series of high-speed races. It's a short adventure, one that's clearly meant to be combed over through multiple sessions, but that doesn't take away from its charm. Desert Child certainly won't be for everyone, but players who approach the game without expectations will be treated to a lighthearted and amusing experience that doesn't overstay its welcome.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 download code provided by the publisher. Desert Child was made available in digital storefronts on December 11, 2018.
- Crisp, pleasing pixel art
- Surprising number of side activities and interactions
- Good humor
- Excellent soundtrack
- Decent replay value
- Repetitive racing
- Minor bugs and typos
- Very short campaign