I am going to be completely candid here. I just am not a fan of Quantic Dreams or David Cage, I feel like every game they’ve released has been little more than a chore in video game form, and I’ve rolled my eyes at what have been some of the more critically acclaimed or fan celebrated moments. Crawling through glass? Who cares. Saving your homeless buddies? I could give less of a damn.
So I went into Detroit: Become Human with very low expectations. Narrative wise, I expected it to be a long string of movies and television shows David Cage ripped off. Gameplay wise, I expected to be infuriated in the same way Heavy Rain requiring you brush your character’s teeth or Indigo Prophecy demanding intense color memorization sessions enraged me. Instead what I found was a narrative that, though often on the nose and at times yawn-inducing, was also strangely touching with incredibly endearing characters. Similarly gameplay, while still plagued by some of the prior problems suffered in prior Quantic Dream offerings, made an actual effort to feel fluid and even offered up sections that were fun and much more in-line with the kind of gameplay one might find in a detective adventure title.
Detroit: Become Human takes place in a near future where Cyberlife Androids are the latest, hottest pioneering technological craze in the same way Ford Motors and Apple products ingrained themselves as consumerist cornerstones of society. You can pop into a store, buy yourself a Cyberlife Android, and have yourself your very own caretaker, housekeeper, tutor, gardener, cook and if you so desire, sex partner. Don’t get it twisted though, despite their lifelike appearance and ability to mimic human emotions, they’re not to be confused for human. Nope, they are just a tool, at best you might say, 3/5ths a person.
The player is introduced to three (arguably four) different Cyberlife androids that serve as their interface to the story. Housekeeper Kara, detective Connor and valet Markus. The fourth being your personal gameplay assistant, Chloe. These androids are the heart of the game. Thematically they serve as the revolutionary leader, Markus, “The Man” keeping law, order and the status quo, Connor, and the (not so) innocent street level player who happens to be swept up in the waves of the greater movement, Kara. Finally Chloe is a bit of a thermometer as to how the player is doing, the little angel on your shoulder. While their chapters can range between edge of your seat suspense and as exciting as watching paint dry, and while their motivations can sometimes come off as confusing (Markus) or one note (Kara) it’s difficult for me to deny them the overall charm they possessed. First and foremost I credit this to the incredible actors playing them, television veterans Jesse Williams and Valorie Curry as Markus and Kara respectively, and relative unknown Bryan Dechart pulling off a huge feat with Connor, playing a stiff, cold machine who simultaneously offers up scores of humanity. Their performances are of course accentuated by Quantic Dream’s facial capture technology.
It’s odd to say this for a video game, but I believe without the depth or emotion all the cast brought to their respective roles, Detroit wouldn’t nearly be as good of a game. It’s also noteworthy because despite the recent trend in hiring big name talent for video game roles, they’re often under utilized or, the talent doesn’t quite know how to engage. Keifer Sutherland in Metal Gear Solid V is a good example of just how underutilized he was. Even Quantic Dream’s prior title, Beyond Two Souls, didn’t quite make the most of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe.
While I don’t tend to lead my reviews with commentary on the graphics, Detroit: Become Human earns extra marks here. Quantic Dream by this point has a little bit of a reputation for pushing Sony’s hardware with their tech demos, and it seems they’ve applied all their learned lessons to this title. The characters in this game are damn near reach out and touch them realistic, without dipping into the uncanny valley. In fact now is a good time for an anecdote. My dad decided to visit me while I was in the midst of a Detroit session, and he being a television buff wanted to know which show I was watching. It had him good and fooled until he took a closer look and I pointed out it was a video game. Besides just impressive character models and even more impressive facial capture, it’s an all around stunning game. Filled with vibrant parks, gritty decaying suburban neighborhoods and grotesque crime scenes that could border on stomach churning. Detroit: Become Human also comes with a few stylistic choices that deliver the appropriate vibe of an android driven future.
The soundtrack is equally noteworthy, and Quantic Dream knows it as they feature select pieces as part of the in game unlockables. Each of the leads, Kara, Markus and Connor come with their own themes, variations on said themes, and even remixes that sample each other’s themes when the characters come to meet face to face. The music is dynamic, changing in response to your choices and the on-screen action, and boy, am I a huge fan of dynamic soundtracks. While the soundtrack could sometimes be a bit over the top, for example I’d often feel a dramatic swell in action was overpowered by the background music trying to force an emotional response, for the most part it was mixed well and aided in Detroit’s primetime television feel.
Not all is perfect in the game. While I think David Cage managed to write an overall enticing and emotional experience, with a few genuinely cool chapters, and while I was always down for the antics of the buddy cop duo of android deviant hunter Connor and drunk human Hank, some of the story could be either a bit too saccharine, one note or painfully obvious. For inspired moments such as exploring an android house of horrors, there was at least one really over the top moment that didn’t mind appropriating the civil rights movement and then some. Androids on the back of the bus? Uh, sure. Hands up, don’t shoot? Hrm, okay. The Black Panther Party ten point program as the list of Android demands? Eh, yeah. Putting Kara straight on the underground railroad? Come on, now.
Equally the gameplay managed to range between genuinely fun and engaging, which shocks me with a Quantic Dream game, to so menial it hurts. While Connor comes out the gate negotiating a hostage crisis and investigating different homicide cases, where the players must collect evidence, examine clues and reconstruct the crime scene, androids Kara and Markus are stuck doing chores. Loads and loads of chores. In fact there are a good three and a half chapters of solely performing chores. If this was meant to be some kind of statement on, I don’t know, servitude and chattel slavery, I’ve about missed it. All I did was groan as I waited to get back to far more exciting Connor chapters. Now things do get a bit more interesting once Kara and Markus decide to break free of their bonds (in particularly slick gameplay sequences I may add), but that doesn’t mean the game manages to chug along without stumbling.
While the title is schizophrenic as to the experiences it provides, I have to give David Cage credit for one more thing here. The game is refreshingly focused. There are no Aztec cyberspace insects or Ancient Navajo demons that appear out of left field as they did in other games. There’s no supernatural elements for the sake of the supernatural, and while there are for sure moments of horror with a dash of psychological thriller, it’s all grounded in the story elements Cage introduces in the first hour of gameplay. It seems an odd thing to compliment someone just for keeping their narrative focused, but as prior Quantic Dream games have felt very kitchen sink in their approach, I’m glad no one pulled the steering wheel ridiculously to the left here.
The game’s new narrative concept, the Flowchart, is also fairly inspired. It’s a checkpoint system, yes, and Detroit advertises several branching paths for characters and completely new avenues of the story depending on your choices. While Heavy Rain stressed the finality of characters should you fail, Detroit takes it to a new level. There is one pair of characters that can experience permanent deaths, but for the other two it’s a bit less final. With at least one storyline branching off with completely new leads should you lose your original, and the other… Well. I won’t spoil it. The Flowchart shows you every decision you make and action you take over the course of a chapter, and even the most minor feeling thing can pop up on that chart.
While I feel I had pretty close to a perfect first playthrough, what coming through the other end with ideal conclusions for my dozen or so androids and their allies on my initial run, I was shocked to find out just how much one run through could vary from the next while exploring other branches of the flowchart. I was even more shocked to discover that less than ideal runs, constant screw ups, making poor choices or failing QTEs, could in fact open substantial narrative paths that have squirreled away huge bites of story. While I didn’t use this feature very much, you could also compare your choices against other players the world over. Now like all else Become Human it’s not perfect. It’s disappointing to end up with a completely different protagonist for a story line and have him or her repeat the same exact lines as if you’d never lost the original lead, for example.
Detroit: Become Human is, in my opinion, the best title Quantic Dream has put out in just every conceivable way. Characters, story, gameplay, graphics, music. Sure sometimes it could be a little boring or silly, but overall I was gripped by the ride, and I felt the flowchart system was a particularly inspired and refreshing take on the checkpoint system and games of choice. I’d also be lying if I said I got to the end of my struggle for android freedom and my eyes didn’t water up at least once, which says something for the overall narrative and delivery of the title. While I wouldn’t quite say Quantic Dream sticks the landing, they for sure get to stand on the winner’s podium.