Note: This review will attempt to avoid any major plot spoilers, but read at your own risk.
Quantic Dream’s newest outing into the territory of choice-based story games comes in the form of Detroit: Become Human, a tale about a group of androids developing a new form of consciousness. This PlayStation 4 exclusive is set in Detroit in the year 2038, where over 100 million androids hold jobs in society, ranging from housekeepers to caretakers to prototype detectives. When some of the androids vary from their programming, becoming “Deviants,” three protagonists must navigate through a changing world. Players control the stories of Connor, Kara, and Markus by making major decisions that lead to branching story paths, essentially letting users choose their own adventure. The characters could collide, or never meet at all. They could live until the end, or they could permanently die. It is Quantic Dream’s most ambitious undertaking yet, and the end result is a lot to unravel.
The story of Detroit: Become Human works both to the game’s benefit and to the game’s loss. As a whole, all three of the protagonists’ plotlines are extremely developed. Almost every chapter is a distinct, memorable, and entertaining snippet of science fiction storytelling. Some scenes are hilarious, others are tear-jerkers, and much of the story is thick with tension. The plot explores some excellent philosophical ideas, albeit with some clunky implementation of historical and religious imagery. However, the story’s detriment lies in its dialogue and pacing issues. While much of the game’s dialogue is believable and purposeful, characters often state their exact feelings, and their mood swings can be spastic. These interactions come across as unrealistic and corny, and this is made even worse when coupled with an especially brusque pace. Two of the plot’s most interesting characters have around ten minutes of screen time each. These issues really are a shame, because they detract from the gripping story.
The weakest aspect of Detroit: Become Human is that–like the rest of the Quantic Dream lineup–the game lacks raw mechanics. Most gameplay sequences consist of small-scale exploration with some environmental interactions. Action sequences are all composed of quick-time events, telling players which buttons to press in a preset order, and there are a few instances of digitally constructing past and future events in order to analyze their outcomes. These are entertaining, but they leave a lot to be desired. The game would have thrived with a well-rounded combat system or an over-the-shoulder shooting mechanic, just to help offer more agency during these encounters.
While the mechanics of the game are noticeably weak, Quantic Dream games never market themselves as mechanics-based experiences. The primary appeal of Detroit: Become Human is the consistent offering of choice. Nearly every major decision made by one of the three androids is ultimately up to the player, and the choices will have major consequences, potentially resulting the permanent deaths of key characters. In addition, tiny bits of dialogue paths or exploration discoveries can influence the story in surprising ways. They all amount to a multitude of endings, which can vary widely. This emphasis on choice is the main selling point of the title, featuring an unbelievable number of branching paths for the three storylines. Choices even repeat themselves at different points throughout the story, allowing players to define personality changes and character arcs, even redefining the game’s themes. The structures of these choices are expertly established, and it is clear that writer/director David Cage has learned from his previous work.
As for the game’s leading androids, Valorie Curry is immediately likeable as Kara, as she propels her character’s story with dramatic intensity. Bryan DeChart’s Connor started off a bit stale, but as he establishes a nuanced relationship with his fellow detective, Hank (portrayed by the multi-talented Clancy Brown), he becomes the most interesting character in the story. The partners have a clear onscreen chemistry in every single scene, and it makes them both extremely sympathetic. Of the three main characters, Jesse Williams’ Markus is the least impactful. The actor delivers a solid and consistent performance, but his story mostly concerns external events and world-building/plot-building. Thus, his character’s arc lacks the reflective introspection that breathes life into both Kara and Connor. Of the entire cast, the weakest actor is Audrey Boustani as Alice. As a physical performance, the young actress excels, but her dialogue delivery is often cold. She has a few exceptional lines, but the performance lacks the polish of her more experienced colleagues.
From a technical standpoint, Detroit: Become Human is a masterpiece. The visuals and sound design bring the motion-capture performances to life in a unique way. Visuals are exceptionally crisp, complimenting detailed backgrounds and character models. Scoring was performed by three separate composers–Philip Sheppard, John Paesano, Nima Fakhrara–all of whom bring distinct styles to their respective sections. Finally, the motion-capture technology is top-notch, wonderfully rendering even the slightest movements of the actors. With its excellent production in atmosphere, the game is the most cinematic title on the PlayStation 4 to date.
In spite of a mechanical drawback and the aforementioned writing problems, Detroit: Become Human is engaging entertainment. The major choices offered and the high stakes attached to them help command players’ attention, drawing them into a thought-provoking science fiction story. It is a great hybrid of niche gameplay and immersive storytelling. David Cage’s games still have major bumps in their roads, but Detroit: Become Human is evidence that Quantic Dream is steadily finding its niche. Fans of mechanically sound games could pass this title up, but story and sci-fi enthusiasts should find quite a bit to like here.