The most prominent pre-release press that The Farm 51's new game Get Even seems to have received was regarding its release delay in the wake of May's awful bombing at the Manchester Arena. Beyond that, it's largely operated under the radar, hype free and Wikipedia-content sparse. Some might've seen the moving of the game's launch date back a month with cynical eyes, with late June, that short post-E3 lull, absolutely a quieter time for new releases. But having played its first couple of hours, I totally understand why publisher Bandai Namco paused its commercial progress.
From the off, this is a bleak experience—in an aesthetic sense initially, and soon enough thematically too. Locations are grimy, broken, looking for the world like they've been shattered by conflict, and by neglect. You push through grey walls and floors; you put a bullet in the head of a man on the phone to a partner, possibly former, discussing where to take the kids this weekend. "Something more than a burger, this time," and oh fuck, did I need to do that?
And then comes an incident that sets the rest of the story, so far a muddled mix of fractured memories presented in playable flashbacks and here-and-now exploration and exposition set within an asylum, in motion. You are a character called Black. Black is here to rescue a girl, probably in her late teens. You find her, but she's tied to a chair with a bomb attached to her chest. She frantically, breathlessly, deliriously tells you she thinks she knows the code. You move to disarm it. Things do not go well.
Things don't get better, tonally, with Get Even's early moments full of very real horrors, of madness and murder and malleable criminal minds—but the game does get weirder, quite spectacularly so. First thing to know, going in: Get Even is not a first-person shooter. Well, it is. But that's not the whole story. Hell, it's not half the story. Black carries a gun, sometimes two of them, sometimes a prototype that can shoot around corners, but to use them is to play the game wrong, and for the game to scold you for it.
"Stop acting like you're in a video game." The words in Black's head are spoken by Red, a guide, a torturer, a presence that I am most likely several hours away from totally working out. Red speaks in both a male and female voice, interchangeable, sometimes overlapping. They appear on TV sets in the present-day—well, 2015, says the phone in your hand, and more on that in a moment—as corrupted images, flickering faces, crackling from flat screens. "Every time you kill someone, you rewrite the memory."
The memory. The memories. Black isn't here—wherever this actually is. The notifications, the inmate documents, around the place make it out to be Lithurst Asylum, Spirehouse Lane, Blackwell, Bromsgrove B60 1QD. Look up the postcode. It's a real location, a real street, even if the building itself is not. British midlands, on the outskirts of Birmingham. Look around—the electrical sockets, three entry points, they're all UK standard. The license plates, too. The voices, Black's a kind of budget Sean Bean generic northern growl, they're all British. The Farm 51 is a Polish developer, ex-Painkiller series, but I don't recall the last time I played a game that so convincingly made me feel "at home", like this was unmistakably a British setting, however harrowing it becomes. It's… quite eerie, actually.
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Black isn't here, a lot of the time; he's in the past, his past, as he recalls it—but the recollections are broken, and as he walks through them, Red watching on via some kind of virtual reality headset called a Pandora, skeletal glitches appear, identifiable through his phone screen. And what a phone it is—at the touch of a button, what isn't there now is. Cars. Doors. Escape routes. Uncovering these missing elements and bringing them back into this world of make believe made real is a good thing; popping bullets into guards, not so much.
"You're remembering events in the wrong order," Red says. A message on our phone, number unknown, reads: "This is your fault." What, we don't yet know. The girl, though. We were there to save the girl. We use a UV light on the handset to follow footprints; we use a thermal function to spy potential foes in the darkness, and sneak around them. It can scan evidence and compare the findings to a criminal database. What a phone. But it all keeps coming back to the girl—who she was, and why we failed her. We find notes on Black himself—he's ex-military, and later, essentially, a contract killer, "unable to kill without feeling wrought with guilt, yet only able to find purpose in life through killing." Wait. Were we supposed to save the girl?
"Minor confusion is expected," says Red. "But now isn't the time for questions." But questions are what I have, right now, my toe dipped and my curiosity piqued. Just what the hell is Get Even? When it's not being a shooter that tells you off for shooting, it plays like a horror game, where jump scares could manifest at any time but, again so far, don't. But the music, the sound effects, the rising heartbeats and burning, grinding mechanical noises—they're designed to elevate tension. There's mystery, intrigue, so many strands of story wrapping around each other. Unraveling them is either going to be quite special, or depressingly unfulfilling if any questions go unanswered.
When an inmate breaks free, after you've passed on releasing him (again: optional), he makes an aggressive beeline for Black. My Black puts him down, a straightforward double-tap—but, again, should I have done that? Was he going to attack me? I find information on him: a former door-to-door salesman turned self-confessed cult leader after a breakdown, but no comment made on violence, then or now. Maybe he just wanted out of here, and thought I could help? Red congratulates my action. I've not lost "it", apparently, my reflexes sharp. But Black is lost, so very lost—and all I can do is push him onwards, into whatever's next, into whatever's real or rendered in such a way to feel it. Into another black.
"Your actions will have consequences," Red is very clear on that. It's repeated, a few times. Cause and effect, that's what this is all about. I'm yet to find out what those consequences will be, but for all of its grimness, I'm hooked on Get Even.
It doesn't have the best gunplay nor the slickest stealth, its art direction feels dated and its voice acting is serviceable at best. But there's something here, I can feel it. A core of cleverness—or, at least, that's what I'm hopeful of, coming out of the other side of this darkness with conclusions on my side, having played something that didn't collapse into Just Another Shooter. There's the suggestion of cult appeal, classic status within that niche, even—that, if this were a movie, there'd be someone like Neil Marshall or Shane Meadows behind the camera. The promise is, right now, palpable. This is certainly unlike anything else I've played, lately.
I glance back at Black's phone. "You've abandoned me. But I know the way. The passage is open." It's from Samson. Who's Samson? Did I miss something? To know any more, to get any kind of closure here, to know for sure what happened with the bomb and the girl, and who or what I am, I've got to step through. I'm excited to do so, but if this all falls apart, I am going to be pissed.