Volume Review: Unsubscribed

Volume 1On its face, Volume is an ambitious step up for Mike Bithell and his merry collaborators after their critical darling, Thomas Was Alone. They’ve gone from a two-dimensional platforming adventure starring colorful rectangles to a top-down sneaking mission reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid’s early days. Touting 100 “core” levels, a sophisticated level editor and a cast that includes the talented Andy Serkis, Bithell Games seem determined to make something grand and memorable.

Volume certainly wants to be a memorable, significant experience, but our masked hero’s journey just doesn’t have the density to sustain even its low-volume story. Worse yet, its individual pieces are at odds with one another, leading to a very confusing mess that sends mixed signals about what it *actually* wants you to do.

You play as Robert Locksley (yes, Robin Hood), living in a dystopic future where a corporation has successfully privatized the entirety of England. Utilizing a decommissioned VR training simulator, he’s streaming his “playthroughs” of the government’s houses, banks and storage facilities, essentially teaching his ever-growing viewers the most effective methods of stealing from the rich. Locksley’s night is filled with ups, downs and a face-to-mask chat with England’s shadowy puppeteer, voiced by a benevolent-yet-sinister Andy Serkis.

Sadly, this brief confrontation with an incredible actor does no favors for the newcomer playing Locksley. While it was an inspired choice to cast a real-life YouTube celebrity for their tale of “Let’s Play Robin Hood,” Charlie McDonnell’s performance is as flat as they come. When the AI companion he’s bossing around displays more humanity than the sole person in the room, something has definitely gone wrong. Bafflingly, he also fails to take advantage of the premise in any meaningful way: Locksley occasionally addresses the audience, but aside from a few oft-recycled lines after starting or failing a mission, the regular chatter found in most YouTube gaming footage is noticeably absent.

Volume 2Indeed, the story never cashes in on its one-of-a-kind premise. Your AI pal will chime in from time to time, letting you know how the outside world is reacting to your exploits, but aside from a few audio snippets and text files hidden throughout most levels, these reports from the front are the only context you have outside of your VR warehouse. Though Locksley talks of wanting to form a team, and some of his allies from the classic Robin Hood tales are present in one form or another, the game ends long before any of this comes to fruition. Volume is so focused on making hooks for an eventual sequel that it fails to make its own present engaging and worthwhile, offering few answers beyond resolving the cliffhanger in the opening (with a twist so obvious that you probably saw it coming before the first tutorial level ended).

Plenty of games have skated by with weaker stories, but Volume’s stealth is just as shallow as its framing. Its simplicity isn’t the problem: stealth stalwarts like Monaco and The Marvellous Miss-Take have excelled at giving you a similarly scant number of tools and a sliver of health to solve complex challenges. But the pieces present in Volume never cohere in a satisfying way, and often sabotage one another. Security lasers spread throughout the later levels are split into miniscule grids, but Locksley’s movement is 100% analog (even difficult to steer at times), and the game doesn’t have a consistent way of broadcasting when you’re in the danger zone. This led to moments where putting my toe over one grid wouldn’t set off the alarm, but the exact same positioning in an entirely different grid would do me in.

To alleviate the trial and error, each level is chock full of checkpoints that become your new respawn points as soon as you walk through them. But this generous gift quickly becomes a curse once you figure out that respawning from a checkpoint will simultaneously retain any cash or gadgets you picked up and reset the patrol routes. This, combined with a leaderboard system that rewards you for finishing levels as quickly as possible, often means you’re regularly encouraged to throw away stealth entirely and sprint to the nearest goal post, with little to no regard for the guard preparing to shoot you with his lethal crossbow. Volume prioritizes getting the job done and rewards sloppiness over finesse, never providing an adequate reason to attempt mastery.

This lopsided focus further hurts Volume’s story when you remember why you’re streaming this VR sim in the first place. Locksley’s viewers don’t have the luxury of checkpoint-spamming guards or sprinting to the finish line, guards in tow: these are real people facing off against real guards, with real bullets (or swords and crossbow bolts). The plot heralds Locksley as a stealth wunderkind who teaches the masses how to take back their wealth, and in the same breath, prioritizes the least safe method of getting from A to B. The plot and gameplay are at odds with one another, leaving you in this unsatisfying middle ground of piloting the best-worst thief ever devised.

Volume 3Even if you choose to ignore the par time and solve things like a proper professional, Volume’s AI guards aren’t up to the challenge. Their patrol routes and cones of vision are easily avoided, and if you do happen to set them off, they’ll return to normal after a handful of seconds, as if nothing took place. There is no joy to be had from outwitting these faceless buffoons, and despite a throwaway line about the occupying force growing duller in the years since their victory, it’s hard to believe the guards outside your cozy little Volume are as easy to trick.

Despite being an attractive little game with split-second loading times and a suitably momentous soundtrack, Volume is one lousy bore. This is a stealth title that rewards you for discarding stealth entirely, and if you happen to tune out its mixed messages, you’re left with challenges that can be overcome in your sleep. The plot fares no better, dragged down by a weak lead and a refusal to thoroughly explore its own setup. There’s a chance that the community will build their own worthwhile levels, but as it stands, Volume is a wafer-thin, flavorless snack that just isn’t in the same league as other indie stealth stalwarts.

Volume is available for $19.99 on PC/Mac, PS4 and PS Vita. A press copy was supplied by Bithell Games.