19th Sep2018

‘Defunct’ Review (Nintendo Switch)

by Rupert Harvey

defunct-screenshot

2014 must have been a quiet one for Swedish game development if Freshly Squeezed’s Defunct could take Game of the Year at the Swedish Game Awards. Its flashes of enjoyment exist in an ocean of half-baked ideas and poorly-implemented mechanics, and there’s an overriding sense of aimlessness in the moment-to-moment gameplay.

You play a one-wheeled robot with a dysfunctional engine, trapped on a planet and trying to race back to his spaceship before it leaves. Picture the first half of Pixar’s Wall-E – there are even sleek, Eve-like robots dashing around the junkyards. Due to your “defunct” engine, in order to achieve your goal you must use the natural momentum of slopes and valleys to traverse the environment. This is easier said than done, thanks to some odd design decisions.

You are given the basics in the first level. Hold R2 to “gravitate”, which means you can pick up speed when going downhill. Holding the A button means you can traverse slowly using your engine, for those moments when you lose momentum. Beyond this, your purpose is unclear. Am I supposed to be racing to an unseen finish line in this sprawling, empty map, or do I need to solve the switchbox puzzles along the way?

There’s a fine line between giving the player minimal information so they can discover a game’s depths by itself, and failing to give the player basic information to understand what they’re supposed to be doing. For example, Hyper Light Drifter gets it right, its obscure alien hieroglyphics providing just enough to intrigue and inform. But Defunct just seems like an Early Access alpha that’s waiting for a game to go with its sandbox.

It’s a pity because there’s potential in the idea. With its momentum-based gameplay, it is reminiscent of Blue Isle Studios’ excellent exoskeleton adventure Valley. Except that game did far more right. Its physics were easy to learn but hard to master, and it constantly fed you information about your next objective, all within a world where exploration was rewarded.

Defunct is deceptively simple, insofar as the levels are wide and open, but filled with nothing. They’re really just elaborate Tony Hawks courses. Which is fine, but its complete lack of direction – not to mention its lack of special moves and tricks – leaves it feeling like a tech demo more than a complete game. Some stiffly animated story beats do nothing to alleviate this feeling.

On “Favour Performance” mode, which is default, the graphics are passable (it has the same sharply aliased cartoon style as Hello Neighbour) and the framerate hovers near 30fps. But it’s far from consistent. The dips are bearable, but sometimes the game stutters for a couple of seconds, possibly when streaming in some of the open world. Switching to “Favour Quality” mode is an exercise in masochism, as the game looks pretty while chugging somewhere between 10 and 20fps.

From an audio perspective, it’s not so much a mixed bag as a barren bag. The music is oddly quiet, as if embarrassed of itself. And sometimes the music – generic, sort-of retro, sort-of midi compositions – just doesn’t play at all. The sound effects, meanwhile, seem unfinished. There’s the hum of your gravity pulse, and the whir of your dodgy engine when the inertia hits, but little else. It’s desperately sparse, negating any sense of atmosphere.

Finally, it’s a game that can be finished in around an hour. The only reason to replay levels is to beat your time or find the collectibles. That’s a laudable goal, but when the traversal of the environment feels so much like a chore, it’s doubtful you will want to spend any more time in this lonely, boring playground.

Defunct is out on Nintendo Switch now.

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