Developer: Warm Lamp Games Publisher: Alawar/Curve Digital Platform(s): PC, PS4, XB1, Android, iOS Review code provided
More than anything else, Beholder taught me that I would rather be anything other than a landlord in a totalitarian state where you need to watch your tenants’ every move and potentially have them killed by the oppressive government. I mean, I was fairly sure beforehand that that job wouldn’t be the one for me anyway, but the game really drilled it home.
For some straightforward touchstones of what to expect from Beholder, think of it as Papers, Please meets This War of Mine. All three games share similar themes, those of oppression, famine, and morals when your back is up against the wall, but it’s Beholder that is the most overlooked of the trio of misery simulators.
That’s not to say that Beholder is the inferior game. When it’s at its best, frantically asking you to flip between obligations to your family, tenants, and the overlords who seemingly just want you to fail, it’s compelling and, at times, utterly brilliant.
You play as Carl, a family man who just wants to do right –or the best he can with the hand he’s been given– by his wife and kids. His introduction to his new role also serves as the dismissal of the previous landlord as he’s whisked away by the authorities; a damn effective way of conveying to the player just how high the stakes are.
And there are many stakes, too. Beholder offers anally retentive players the chance to micro-manage things to the borderline of obsession, owing to just how many different obligations there are to juggle at once because of the game’s mix of procedurally generated and organic scenarios. It’s a little overwhelming, asking you early on to somehow balance saving the life of one child alive while keeping the other in school. Carl can raise funds by following objectives given to him by his overseers, but it’s not enough, especially with him having a wife who somehow needs hundreds of dollars for groceries. The only real way to get enough money is to steal from the tenants and sell on their possessions, which entails going into their apartments when they’re out. There’s a fascinating cycle of life and routine at the heart of Beholder; when the game allows you a moment’s breather, it’s freeing to simply watch your tenants go about their lives, some brazenly breaking the state’s outrageously strict laws and others keeping their “vices” hidden.
Spying on residents is enabled by setting up cameras in their homes; you luckily don’t need to be sat behind a computer all day to spy on them, either. Carl can peer up and zoom in on everyone from any vantage point, but keeping track of surveillance and your husbandly duties is quite the tall order. After repeatedly failing to balance everything, I made the decision to just focus on my job – sombre cutscenes at gravestones soon followed. It’s a good job that they were terrible people (with the exception of affably childish Martha) with unrealistic and selfish demands, then. The rest of Beholder’s characters are far more gratifying to interact with and, almost inevitably, be the one who seals their fate.
Take, for instance, an early scenario wherein you are tasked with evicting a kindly, left-leaning tenant by the name of Klaus Schimmer. He and his wife welcome you to the complex with open arms, gifting you with a saucepan and books for your boy. It isn’t long until the phone calls (the government’s method of giving you tasks), however, and you are forced into action. There are a few methods of evicting Klaus with one rather long-winded process resulting in him fleeing the country, but, more importantly, staying alive. The other, which I opted for, is as simple as planting contraband in his apartment and reporting it to the authorities, watching as he’s carted away to certain death.
It’s unfortunate, then, that is one of the only few really difficult calls in the game. Due to the rotating nature of your tenants, some will occasionally just up and leave while others have short let agreements, it’s difficult to find a real connection to any of them, at least enough to really care about what happens to them. At one point, while I was desperate for money, I snitched on half of the people in my complex and barely even registered them being led away. Perhaps that’s almost intentional on the part of the developers, to make you feel an increasing disconnect between you and other people to reflect just how inhuman you have to be to do such a job, but I left Beholder feeling like I didn’t make enough amazing stories.
How you approach Beholder is ultimately up to you, though there is far more linearity than you would at first expect. While promoting freedom of choice, the guys at Warm Lamp Games force you down moral cul-de-sacs that frequently don’t pan out at you would expect. Almost all decisions have negative ramifications in one way or another, which I began to feel was kind of the point towards the end of my playthrough. Beholder asks an important question: in a world where everyone suffers, why should you flourish? It’s a dilemma that may work to highlight the evils of government and how everyone eventually gets swallowed up by the machine, but from a gameplay perspective, it’s more than a little frustrating to constantly come across miserly roadblocks. Your patience with loading old saves and changing things around will likely dictate your enjoyment of Beholder.
There are also a few technical issues that may hinder your appreciation of the game. On PC, it’s fairly streamlined to oversee everything going on, but on PS4, where Carl regularly gets stuck between “planes” and is either too far or too close to an object to interact with it, it’s irritatingly fiddly. Long load times between failures are another, so unless you can solve the ethical puzzles the game throws at you in time, expect to be staring blankly at a slowly moving bar for longer than you would like.
As this is the complete edition of the game, it also comes bundles with the Blissful Sleep DLC, which sees you playing as the previous landlord just as he’s lined up to be falsely euthanised because of his old age. It’s a more concise and targeted experience than the main game, but it falls into the same trap of giving the player too much to oversee. Still, it lets you pet a cat, so that instantly improves the experience.
With its sequel due for release at the tailend of 2018, Beholder should be approached as a smart concept with some flaws that laid the foundations for its already seemingly more ambitious follow-up. It offers flashes of greatness that do enough to undersell the game’s issues and is worth experiencing at least once, if for nothing other than to act as a harsh reminder of what can happen when we just roll over and let things happen.
While failing to offer true freedom of choice, Beholder still has enough great ideas to make it worth playing for anyone who has a dystopian itch to scratch.