With its pixelized presentation and point-and-click interface, it’s easy to dismiss Resonance as just another retro indie effort -- a game riding on the recently-fueled nostalgia trip brought on by the Kickstarter craze, aimed at older gamers who pine day in and day out for days long gone. I think I’m one of those old gamers, too. I can totally imagine why some people will not “get” this game at first glance. I mean that in the least condescending way possible.
Happily, Resonance is not just another half-assed throwback wrapped in a badly written plot. There really is enough in this game to get people excited for traditional adventure games once again.
Resonance is a collaborative project five years in the making between developers Wadjet Eye (of Blackwell series and Gemini Rue fame) and XII Games. It tells the story of four people who all start out as strangers to each other: Ed, the smart but socially awkward mathematician; Anna, the young doctor haunted by a traumatic past, Bennet, the police detective with a sense of justice stronger than his respect for regulations; and Ray, the aspiring investigative journalist with a love for deep vocabulary. It’s also the age-old story of technology: a new discovery with the power to both aid and destroy on a massive scale.
The game opens with a news report that no one will want to see on real-life TV: the world is in chaos, and the highest seats of power in several major nations are being attacked by an unknown destructive force. Just as the clip begins to hammer home the fact that things are really not looking well for civilization at large, the narrative zooms us back sixty hours, and puts us in the shoes of Ed, who has just been woken up in his depressingly dingy and empty apartment on a Sunday morning by an incessant beeping noise. And it isn’t his alarm clock.
After a brief tutorial of sorts, we are then given the choice of controlling any of the four characters in whatever order we want: each protagonist is off doing his or her own thing in Aventine City, although some of their paths will cross innocently enough at first. It’s at this point that the game shows its potential, because each character is faced with a unique and engaging task that gives us some insight into their personalities. Ray, for instance, has to break into a secure hospital mainframe with an inspired combination of sweet-talking and digging into private email accounts. Anna, on the other hand, is reliving what seems to be a recurring nightmare in a frantic and genuinely unnerving escape-the-room style sequence.
The game also introduces the concept of switching between characters early on. If you’ve played Maniac Mansion or its sequel Day of the Tentacle, you’ll have a good idea of how this works. Some puzzles require some item trading and cooperation between specific members of your team. Detective Bennet is the only one of the four who can freely roam inside the police administration building, for example, and will need to bring in one of the other characters “for questioning” to get them inside without raising any fuss. Characters also have unique characteristics, too. The burly detective has no trouble boosting skinny and lanky Ed up to a high window, but the same action cannot be done with their positions swapped. It’s a nice touch of personality and relevance for each of the characters.
Watch out for fun little nuggets of characterization in the game, like Ed’s blundering self-introduction to Anna on the subway, or the correlation between Ray’s word-of-the-day app on his smartphone and his choice of vocabulary during dialogue.
Unfortunately, most of the good character bits happen during those initial hours of gameplay. We never really delve deeper into the personalities of the characters we control, and they remain one-dimensional all throughout. This is disappointing, despite the admittedly interesting single dimension each of them has been given. Case in point: I’d really like to know why Bennet is introduced with a noir-inspired monologue dripping with big-city metaphors and world-weariness. He never breaks into another monologue after this promising and entertaining scene.
The other novel thing about Resonance is its memory mechanic. Unlike most adventure games that feature one inventory, Resonance has three for each character: the traditional bottomless item repository, the character’s long-term memory, and the character’s short-term memory. Long-term memories generally get added to your list as the plot progresses, and may serve as puzzle solutions much like how regular inventory items behave. They also provide flashbacks to key moments that happened previously that contain clues or further insights. Short-term memories are similar, but are distinct from long-term memories in that they are added manually by the player to a finite short-term memory list. This allows the player to bring up objects and scenery in the game world as conversation topics and puzzle solutions as well. Short-term memory is clever, but criminally underused in the game.
Graphically, Resonance is also a strange beast. I see no advantage in the retro-pixel look for this game. If it had been done in a similar 2D manner but with the higher resolution of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream or Curse of Monkey Island, for example, I feel that the game would have lost nothing in the way of presentation. The game even utilizes some fancy color-changing and depth-of-field blurring effects in some scenes, so the retro effect is actually ruined anyway. The low-resolution graphics are workable and convey enough personality, but this is a bit of a missed opportunity to connect with a larger and more graphics-conscious audience. The one exception to my disappointment is the care given to the main character sprites, which are distinct and expressive in color, design, and animation. Still, the choice to go low-res is a shame because the rest of the presentation is exemplary indeed.
The music is fittingly atmospheric and dreary, falling in step with the escalating dread in the mood of the story. The voice acting is also very good. I wouldn’t say any of it is particularly notable when it comes to conveying strong emotions, but the actors deliver their lines convincingly, and there are no wooden performances in the lot.
There’s a lot more I’d like to say concerning Resonance, but the bottom line is that it’s really not for everyone, painful it may be for me to say so. Resonance is a game for people who like science fiction, mysteries, disaster stories, and big surprises. Resonance is not a game for people who are looking for meaningful dialogue, challenging puzzles, or particularly deep characters. Despite its problems, Resonance’s pros greatly outweigh its cons, and anyone who appreciates a good story will find it an excellent way to spend several sittings of adventure gaming. Resonance is a unique and lovingly-crafted game that’s worth the ten-dollar admission price. Don’t go in expecting a character-driven drama or a world-spanning epic, and you’ll see it for the good game that it is.
Resonance is available for digital download at GOG.com for USD 9.99.