Detroit: Become Human is a perfect example of how to mishandle science fiction. It steps into the near future, attempts to utilise parallels or allegories to promote messages, and then pulls its punches the moment it might have something to say. As a result, you are left with a beautiful game with good ideas, but plays things far too safe to stand out.
Set in a futuristic Detroit, the game follows the story of three androids, Kara, Connor and Markus, each working on a different assignment from police work to housekeeping. As each of them is thrust into unfamiliar situations, their growing sentience makes them increasingly aware of how truly wrong the world is about them.
The strongest point in Detroit’s favour is how it mechanically and narratively improves on its predecessors. Besides the lack of a surprise supernatural twist, there are far more branching paths this time and far less of a safety net to rely on. Botch things up badly and you can easily finish the story early with every single character dead. This might sound very similar to Until Dawn’s chief gimmick, but it uses this to make sure your actions have far more consequences. The primary characters never meet, but their actions will directly impact the stories of their counterparts, to the point where a terrible decision in one can only result in another ending in tragedy.
Better yet, there are a number of scenes which help to prove why this style of gameplay is so effective. Both a hostage negotiation scene and a later murder mystery are tense, engaging and fascinating to see how they play out, while scenes such as an android scrapyard are some of the most horrifying sights in the game. These moments are almost isolated episodes within the grand scheme of things, but that only leaves the player with more opportunities to focus on the events within them.
So, what goes wrong here? Simply put, the story mishandles its message. It uses ham-fisted examples to try and enforce its points, and cringe-worthy dialogue to back its messages. Rather than delving into some of the more difficult territories of the subject, all too often the situations are black/white debates which utilise straw men to execute its themes. There is an obvious effort to equate the story to real-world events, and yet it continually fails to handle any of the subtleties or greater difficulties behind them. This alone would be bad, but all too often certain plot threads are driven more by the stupidity of the humans involved over misfortune or misunderstandings, to the point where it breaks any sense of immersion.
More surprisingly still, Detroit frequently wastes a staggering amount of time with its characters. Past Quantic Dream games have often utilised dashes of realism or quieter moments to offer the story a little more initial grounding. Jodie’s home life as a child in Beyond: Two Souls or the apartment scenes in Fahrenheit were classic moments in those games. The problem is that those were just moments, downtime between the more intense action. Detroit instead continually drags its feet and wastes time with scenes of monotony, such as minutes long sequences of clearing up a house. This was likely intended to better reflect how the androids are treated as property, and the monotony of their lives thanks to this. However, without a more coherent direction or stance, it ends up simply dragging scenes out.
Yet what is most perplexing is how it overcomplicates previous control schemes. This is most evident in how you interact with certain objects, where the presence of tilt controls and an oddly slow response to your inputs makes for a clunky and unintuitive system. It often seems that for every good QTE sequence or action, there’s at least one bad one waiting for you right around the corner.
Detroit has good qualities, and even improves upon its predecessors in a few noted areas. Yet, the clumsier controls and lack of nuance within its storytelling results in a very artificial experience. It’s pretty to look at, some of the performances are good and the visuals are stunning at times. Even a few uses of android systems can help to enhance the experience at various points. Yet, it nevertheless mishandles too much of its concept by taking the easiest route possible. There are sparks of brilliance here and there, but it fails to fully capitalize on the lessons learned from Beyond: Two Souls and Heavy Rain. Even dedicated Quantic Dream fans may find themselves giving up on this one before the credits roll.DETROIT: BECOME HUMAN / DEVELOPER: QUANTIC DREAM / PUBLISHER: SONY INTERACTIVE ENTERTAINMENT / PLATFORM: PS4 / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW