'Abermore' Is an Almost-Great Bad Game

'Abermore' had the potential to be one of the year's sleeper hits, but will forever be held back by serious technical issues
A thief hides from a glowing eyed guard as he scans the room for their presence.
Four Circle Interactive

Abermore, a recently released independent immersive sim built by a handful of developers, is, by most metrics touted by consumers, corporations, and critics alike, not a very good video game. It is a technical nightmare, with see-through floors, inescapable ventilation systems, and visible but functionally non-existent glass through which you can grab valuables which have clearly spawned in the incorrect orientation. The game's mechanics, too, are just a bit off. Servants, guards, and even security matrices are inconsistent and, for the most part, totally unaware—thanks to the game’s extremely binary stealth system. But, for fleeting moments, all of this melts away and Abermore, along with the city of its namesake, sings in a rasping, tired, and beautiful voice.

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Abermore is a stealth-action immersive sim clearly inspired by genre classics Thief and Dishonored—which is to say that it is defined by the complex interaction of multiple systems. The game follows the latest in a line of thieves, all of whom have assumed the identity of ‘The Unhanged Man,’ a mythical, mystical figure who has plagued the wealthy oligarchs and aristocrats of Abermore for centuries. Following a short encounter with the previous Unhanged Man, Pearl, you are handed her mask and, with it, the ability to use powerful tarot cards which grant their holder supernatural powers. 

Upon arriving in the sprawling city of Abermore, you are invited to join the heist of the century, planned by Pearl before her capture. You have just 18 days to assemble your arsenal of traps, tricks, and powers, and to recruit a handful of essential co-conspirators, before attempting your final score. 18 days and 18 heists, all of which take place in a city that is furious, hungry, and unafraid of wearing its influences on its sleeve. It’s a great pitch—one that Abermore comes within a hair’s breadth of actually fulfilling, falling just short on account of some brutal technical issues. But unlike most games released in the modern ecosystem, where ongoing support has become the standard, Abermore will likely never get the chance to live up to that promise. 

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In this tweet thread, posted on the day of the game’s release, Lead Designer Dan Pearce states that, following the game’s official announcement and “difficult” development process, the vast majority of its developers were forced to take other jobs within the industry. As such, Abermore will likely be abandoned. Patches for major issues may arrive, but that should be a welcome surprise, not an expectation. Despite this transparency, the game’s reception has been brutal.

Abermore carries a “Mostly Negative” rating on Steam. As of this piece’s publication, only six of the game’s 33 reviews are positive. Those reviews have an average playcount of around an hour. Every review above the two and a half hour mark is brutal, on account of the game’s many, many game breaking technical issues.

Abermore is all but defined by broken level geometry, which creates see-through floors and softlocks with heartbreaking regularity. Even as someone who is extremely permissive of technical jank, the game is borderline unplayable. And in spite of this, most of the game’s harshest reviews are underpinned with the notion that Abermore could’ve been something great. 

Abermore's unfortunately "final" and yet hopelessly incomplete state finds a lot of parallels in the history of games, and a lot of classics had near-misses with Abermore's fate. In his 2017 GDC talk, Deus Ex developer Warren Spector tells a short story about the game’s condition just months before release. When the game was given to family and friends to test, the feedback was brutal. The game just wasn’t fun. However, in those two months a handful of changes were made to the game’s systems, level order was changed, and a few tweaks were implemented to the game’s progression. What resulted is a game that many consider a masterpiece and is, without a doubt, the defining game of the immersive sim genre. Spector describes polishing—significant polishing, sure, but polishing nonetheless. The game’s major systems were in place, everything technically worked, but it just wasn’t coming together. All of that changed in two months.

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Anecdotes like this make it easy to point towards a lack of time as the end-all-be-all indicator of a game’s success. “If Abermore had cooked for longer, everything would’ve been fine,” we could hope. The reality is likely much more complex. Games, like all art, are a product of the material conditions under which they were made. In all but the most well documented development cycles, these material conditions are utterly opaque to the broader audience.

A thief breaks a glass cabinet open to steal the valuables within.

Screenshot by Four Circle Interactive

Many video games are visibly haunted by the ghosts of what they could have been, evident in the echoes of half finished systems and pages of patch notes which try to recreate something never seen beyond the domain design documents. Abermore, instead, is haunted by what it will never be. But what a beautiful ghost it is.

Abermore’s spin on the supernatural stealth game is terrific. Its tarot based power system only allows you to hold three, single-use cards at any given moment, limiting your ability to just knife-wizard your way through the game’s levels. Early game powers allow you to teleport, turn enemies to stone (which isn’t technically lethal), unlock anything, or become totally invulnerable. These early powers are simple, sure, but the foundation is strong enough for the game to feel expressive. One early mission saw me unable to find a way through a security grid to the first floor of a mansion, so I made myself invulnerable to fall damage and jumped from the top floor, landing only feet away from a nearby NPC who I had to quickly dash behind cover to avoid.

Another mission tasked me with breaking into a safe in order to tarnish the reputation of its manufacturer. I went into the mission expecting to sneak my way to a safe, perform a quick lockpick, and then quickly disappear into the night. I’m unsure if this was a quirk of the game’s technical issues, or a clever choice by the developers, but the safe didn’t have any locks to pick, nor anywhere I could insert a key. Despite the claims of my client, this up and coming manufacturer had actually built a damn good safe. This forced me to scour the level for the Skeleton Key card, which allows you to open any one lock. Moments later, I disabled the building’s alarms, broke a window, and slipped back into the city.

These stories are small and, in the greater tapestry of immersive sim history, relatively unimpressive. I used a single ability to manipulate the game’s systems and escape a bad situation, twice. But the systems are there and, in these fleeting moments, work well. It is so easy to imagine what the game’s later heists could look like in a kinder world, one where the game’s developers had the time to fix all of the softlocks and broken geometry, which only get worse as the game’s levels increase in complexity.

There are likely dozens if not hundreds of games that came this close to greatness, and quite a few great ones that came just as close to irrelevance. Games journalists all have their lists of games that disappeared after an amazing E3 presentation or demo, or games that proved to be inexplicable disappointments on release. A lot of career developers end up working on an amazing project that never sees the light of day, and only exist on hard drives full of unused assets and documentation. What makes Abermore so unusual is that it so clearly embodies the intangible qualities that separate greatness from mediocrity. I can't recommend it, but it still has value as a collection of almost-beautiful fragments that, in a kinder world, might have been more.