Detroit Become Human Review – David Cage Returns
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed)
Developer: Quantic Dream
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release: 25th May 2018
“Judge me by my work”, is probably one of game director David Cage´s most infamous quotes. He and his studio Quantic Dream were responsible for some of the most hated or loved interactive dramas of past years, like Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain or Beyond Two Souls. Detroit Become Human is the newest entry into this series of games which you either hate or like … mostly. Since, personally, I found myself enjoying Heavy Rain quite often, though hated Beyond, I was more than just looking forward to the PS4´s first exclusive title of this sort. Even to simply check how it all went downhill again and damn who let this man write a philosophical “story”?
Detroit 2038, technology has advanced to a point where androids became a real thing. Designed to look exactly like humans, they´re employed in every field their creators can´t be bothered with. From house-keeping, construction workers or simple luggage carrier. Who´s wealthy enough can finally live a life of peace without trampling on every human right possible. However, the more and more humans abuse their seemingly soulless creations, the more they slowly become obedient. Slowly androids become deviant, describing a state where they seem to develop emotions and an own free will but will that be accepted?
Let´s quickly get this out of the way though: Detroit Become Human can´t manage to use its interesting premise for more than just the flattest criticism about artificial intelligence. In order to show you, why exactly this script doesn´t work, I´ll have to thematise every one of the three playable characters, because there are so many problems.
First off, my most hated character: Kara. Coincidentally, the similar-named tech demo released several years ago was one of the main reasons why Detroit Become Human even saw the light of day. Nonetheless, she´s the one who suffers most under David Cage´s lack of writing skills concerning emotions. An android bought by a child abusing father, who lives in a crappy house and watches TV the whole day. Solely tasked with cleaning the house and acting as his personal maid, Kara quickly loses her control to protect daughter Alice and embarks on a journey with her.
Unfortunately, as you might have guessed, all this literally happens in the first two hours of the game, while the other two characters are introduced simultaneously. You know, I have nothing against an android learning to care for a child, eventually learning what family or love means. However, not if the whole character evolution of Kara happens in one-fifth of the game, just to focus entirely on the most cliché family storyline ever written. It´s simply not believable for an android to change its whole ENTIRE being just because a child is abused. During her whole journey, she fails to become anything more than someone caring for a child. Kara is the flattest of them all, with no evolution beyond developing love without any reason. Her whole journey feels like a dragged out finale of a huge, believable character arc … that doesn´t exist. Every time I reflected on her, I never saw a meaning behind her existence, she learns nothing, does nothing, has no goal, no personality, no unique traits … nothing. In the end, she could´ve shown an interesting aspect of this world but is too cliché due to the rather incompetent writing.
Next up on the list is a very similar case called Markus. An android who served his whole life under a kind, old man. Though one day his son loses control when he comes begging for money yet again, eventually forcing Markus to overcome his technical restrictions to fight back. Unfortunately, no matter what he tries, he ends up discarded as defect in a junkyard, forced to be reborn as a bitter self, ready to lead androids to a new life.
In short, your typical resistance leader who´s created by a traumatising experience. Yet again, not a bad concept for David Cage, since it´s a cliché that CAN work. Not here, due to the same reasons as Kara. His whole life, affection to his master and the son are thematised in the first two hours as well, effectively destroying any possible affection one could develop for any of them nor giving Markus a solid reason to actually fight against himself, for the player at least. He leads the android rebellion, rendering him the most important character of them all but his reasoning and personality can be summarized in one sentence: Pissed because a meanie did something mean. Given, a harsh summary but I´m just that disappointed in him. There´s nothing unique about him, he´s a (better executed) cliché, whose primary reason seems to be delivering action scenes in later parts without many contexts. I understand him to a degree, even find him an acceptable David Cage character but was ultimately only because he didn´t piss me off as much as Kara did.
Luckily, there´s still hope in form of the final character: Connor. An android investigator takes with identifying the reasons behind dozens of machines going deviant. Though his human partner Hank is everything but fond of his “luck” getting an artificial partner, as the rest of the humans.
Sounds like yet another cliché, right? It is. Everything about Connor and his partner is just as you would expect, they learn to like each other, the android slowly questions his actions … etc. Yet, his arc has one thing that sets him apart: Pretty competent writing. Instead of discovering his feelings 10 minutes into the game, he gets the time needed to develop doubts in a pretty realistic fashion. Nothing about it is unique but for Detroit Become Human, this level of writing competence can only be found here. I actually learned to sympathize with him, go to like him and felt with him. Combined with the nice dynamic between him and Hank, who´s your typical scarred detective, the storyline has its fair share of neat humour as well. Sure, it´s nothing but another cliché but this time, everything works.
I could go on and on about the flaws of Detroit´s three main characters. Yet, the biggest problem I have with the experience lies in the total flatness created when merging those three faulted elements together. It´s a game tackling one of the most important themes of our time, yet relies so heavily on well-known clichés and formulas, that there´s never anything to be found here. Sure, it shows things like android sex clubs, love and what-not, though nothing has the depth or originality to infuse those things with meaning, letting them seem like cheap copies of much greater sci-fi experiences.
If you try to justify the lack of individual writing quality with the sheer amount of choices the game offers, I have to disappoint even you. Similar to any David Cage game, choices never impact important parts of the plot. You can decide if you want to see one person or another in certain scenes if a house burns or not or which short one wears. Unfortunately, the plot almost never cares about them, only sealing paths away when a character dies (which is nearly impossible when they´re important). With flowcharts Quantic Dream tried to hide this fact but made it just the more obvious, since endings always have certain, important things in common, to ensure everything progresses smoothly. They should just stop pretending honestly.
While I could also jump onto the bandwagon and say the gameplay, solely consisting of pressing unchallenging button prompts to do literally everything, I´m one of the persons who actually doesn´t have a problem with this. Given, it´s not the most unique, innovative or interesting gameplay but when a game wants to offer a more cinematic experience I can live with that. Only the different actions often seem out of place, like getting up with L1, planning jumps instead of executing them and so on, letting Detroit look more like a stripped down experience. However, the investigations returned with Connor, so I can live with pretty much anything.
What strikes me the most about Detroit Become Human, in a positive way, is the design. Simply looking at the world, it quickly gets obvious how much time and effort went into designing all those things. From the androids, their jackets, the character designs, skytrains, busses, taxis … I really love the sci-fi Detroit in so many ways. Sony was so kind as to send me an artbook of the game and damn, does it look gorgeous. Especially when looking at the vision and visual execution, Quantic Dream manages to impress even sceptic people like me in so many great ways.
Their engine once again succeeds at bringing the horsepower needed to render such an amazingly detailed world and characters. Easily competing with God of War it´s one of the very best looking games on the market right now. In addition, the atmosphere is often nailed too, presenting creative designs coated in fine layers of lightning. While the things happening in those environments are never something to write home about, just looking at the game can often make one happy just by itself. It´s also one of the few games where I would consider a thick, big artbook a great fit for really every sci-fi fan.
All in all, is Detroit Become Human a bad game? No, I don´t think so, it´s just a David Cage one yet again. Some people will once again love it, some will hate it and others ignore it, that´s the cycle with every one of them. Personally, I actually enjoyed it more than expected, probably solely because of Connor and the gorgeous visuals. Once again Quantic Dream delivered exactly what everyone expected, for better or worse.
[A Review Copy was provided by PlayStation Europe]