E.Y.E. Divine Cybermancy – A Solipsists Dreamscape

Repost from Sunday, 25 September 2011

(I’m going to do a full review of the game, however my focus will be on the “story”, or rather in the case of E.Y.E., the experience.)

E.Y.E. Divine Cybermancy is certainly one of the strangest games I’ve ever played.

Just before I played E.Y.E. Divine Cybermancy I finished playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution, so I read some of the reviews on it afterwards to gauge my experience against the general consensus. The phrase I often encountered was that Human Revolution was “clever”.

If Human Revolution is “clever”, Divine Cybermancy is almost transcendental.

But let us start with the basics.

Gameplay

E.Y.E. is a no hand-holding, PC, cyberpunk, sci-fantasy FPS-RPG with a very unique character.

At character-creation you select three DNA types from a list of templates that will determine your stats semi-randomly. Your stats include the standard RPG-fare like strength, endurance, agility and accuracy to psi-force, hacking, medicine, mental balance (used for the elaborate mental health system).

Then of course we have the derived statistics like critical hit, superhuman reflex (for dodging enemy attacks), health and karma (i still have no idea what that really does).

As you can see from the start, the RPG-mechanics are not just tacked on, and there is a lot of depth to them beyond what I just listed, like armor-mitigation, critical injuries, etc.

You invest skill points into those stats every time you level up, at a certain level they start costing more and more points for a stat increase. The stat-distribution also defines your “job” or “class” which is displayed above your level.

What E.Y.E. does exceptionally well is to fuse true FPS mechanics with true RPG mechanics. Contrary to games like Alpha Protocol, Borderlands, Fallout 3 or Bioshock which clearly leaned toward one or the other, E.Y.E. manages to perfectly walk the fine line of a true hybrid.

Combat is largely old-school FPS, enemies usually drop with a single well-placed shot (although armor and armor-piercing plays a role) and there are no bullet-sponges like in Fallout 3 where unloading two clips in the face of an opponent happened rather often.

However there are your cybernetic abilities and PSI-Powers where the RPG aspect and some micro-management comes in. Your whole body is laced with high grade implants, from your brain over your nervous-system to your legs. These implants, if invested in, will give you amazing (active and passive) powers like dermal plating, heightened senses, cloaking, hacking, or even resurrection in case of death.

While Cybernetics can be directly invested in from your character-screen if you have enough money (Brouzouf), PSI-Powers must be bought from a med-bay.

You start with 2 basic powers, Alchemy and Polyclone. Alchemy transforms any item on the ground into health, while Polyclone creates mirror-images of yourself with a certain amount of your stats depending on your level.

You do not invest points into PSI-Powers, they automatically level with you and are depending on your PSI-Force (and other) statistics.

There is a variety of powers available to choose from, however there are three that stand out, the “gate”-powers. You can find only -one- of these powers per play-through (this is significant in the story), they are very powerful spells that can either drive a subject mad, summon minions by exploding an enemy or teleporting you into (!) an enemy instantly killing them. These powerful gate-spells however eat at your sanity, a very important stat in the game.

Once your sanity reaches zero you can have a variety of effects, one can be “Paranoia” where you start loosing control over your character at random intervals and start shooting blindly into dark corners. Another can be that your environment gets dark and grainy while enemies become more visible and pronounced.

Loosing sanity can be triggered by a variety of events, like taking a lot of damage in a short amount of time (shock) or seeing too many gruesome or bizarre things like monsters (this can be offset by studying corpses of monsters to “understand” them, and by understanding them you learn not to fear that type of monster). In general watching your sanity is always a good thing to do.

The inventory in E.Y.E. has a static size with generally space for one “large” weapon like a rifle, sniper rifle, minigun and/or sword and multiple pockets for smaller weapons like pistols and SMGs. You can change your equipment load-out at any time during missions at an armory which has infinite amounts of weapons and ammo available. This creates a way to adapt to different situations the game might throw at you. If there are huge amounts of enemies swarming a static position you might want to take heavy armor and a Minigun, if the mission takes place in a large open city-area you might want to go for a silenced sniper-rifle, or if you are crawling through tight sewers an automatic shotgun could be the answer.

And here is where your X-com angle comes in with researching tech, alien artifacts, or corpses.

You have a research menu in which you can research different items that you pick up from your enemies, that will give you either weapons, gadgets or unlock an ability or passive upgrade for your character. Research can be started at any time during gameplay and continues past loading-screens in the background. However it stops when you log out of the game.

Every action in the game can be mapped to a radial menu accessible by pressing C for quick actions. These can be psi-forces, cybernetic implants or other actions like hacking or body maintenance (the function removes broken limbs, bleeding and mental illness)

And here we encounter the first problems of the game. As you see in the screenshots navigating the menus is cumbersome and unintuitive. Especially the size of the menus seems out of place, covering most of the screen while displaying everything in text and no visual cues.

Granted some actions can be bound to hotkeys (flashlight, reload, maintenance) but its not enough. With 10 cybernetic powers and 10 PSI powers to manage, cycling though them with a hotkey takes too long, and the radial menu only fits 7 slots. Furthermore I never figured out how to bind weapon-groups to the 1,2,3… keys a function that should be either -clearly- available or standardized (1=melee, 2=pistol, 3=SMG,.. etc.)

But lets stray a bit to examine some of the different gameplay-styles that are available.

Every level is designed to be passed in different ways, like Deus Ex it supports stealth and hacking gameplay (even enemies can be hacked if they posses cybernetic implants). However this usually is impossible to accomplish due to the very bad AI system. Every enemy on the map knows immediately where you are if you get detected, some enemies can even spot you through walls (walking-sound plays a role). The game is just too sensitive for stealth-gameplay, it becomes almost impossible to do stealth-runs due to over-sensitive AI.

This can only be offset by using the cybernetic cloak function, however enemies still hear you, so the camouflage is not perfect. When trying a stealth/hack run where I intended to kill most enemies by turning them against each other or hacking turrets ended in disasters where i needed to gun most of them down anyways. Taking out one enemy with a sniper rifle, even a silenced one, still alerts all enemies to your exact presence.

Maybe its just my general incompetence with stealth-gameplay, but playing the game as anything than a straight FPS with utility-powers turns into a chore.

The worst offender however is the hacking mini-game and hacking-interface.

While Deus Ex: Human Revolution showed us probably the most fun and entertaining hacking-minigame in decades, E.Y.E. shows us one of the worst, visually and gameplay wise.

You have 4 actions available that you can engage in when targeting an enemy for a cyber-attack: Posses, Hack, Destroy, Steal

Posses makes you see through that targets eyes, it lets you also control them as your minion

Hack turns the target friendly to you (locked doors open, turrets don’t shoot at you)

Destroy, well, destroys the target

Steal, steals some energy from the target.

This already is too much, “Steal” for example has absolutely no place in the game, stealing energy is not necessary or advisable in a fight, as hacking a target takes at least 10-30 seconds and the game doesn’t pause while you fiddle with your menus.

Now the minigame works as follows. As you can see in the above screenshot there are five “viruses” you can use against your opponent, and so does he. Once activated you will bounce those attacks off each other with a boring loading-bar at the bottom and declining “Cyber HP”, the one that reaches zero first, looses. For you, this can mean you get locked out of the system, or your HUD gets corrupted, or…your brain melts and you die.

Hacking is a high-risk low reward minigame. Usually destroying your target is the easier and faster way. The amount of money you get from hacking bank-terminals for example is so small that killing an enemy is more “lucrative”. And this is all the fault of the hacking minigame because there is no -consistent- way to win. There is strategy involved, but the speed at which the minigame operates makes it almost impossible to keep track of messages like, the type of virus being used by your opponent, your attack, your defense, your HP, the enemies stats, etc.

It all boils down to the problem of being all text-based with no visual or audible cues. There is just too much to take in at the same time while fighting the random number generator. Hacking in E.Y.E. is reminiscent of old rogue-like text-adventures. One second you are hacking a turret with ease, the next you are lying on the floor, your brain oozing through your nose. And to top this all off, death in hacking is the equivalent of permadeath, it restarts the level, it doesn’t use your “Resurrector” power that can resurrect you on the spot after a few seconds of “coma” (a sort of old school “lives” system which i found very refreshing)

The game also suffers from the problem of having an inverse difficulty curve. The first levels are going to be the most challenging, while your later levels are going to be much easier due to your powers and upgrades.

But lets move on to the visuals.

Graphical Fidelity

The game uses the Valve Source Engine so expectedly the graphics look dated.

The graphics also have a distinct feeling of someone unexperienced. Speaking from experience I can see my own old mistakes in creating real-time graphics.

For example, a lot of the textures have unnecessary normal-mapping but lack any specular maps making them glossy and “wet”, a lot of surfaces are unnecessarily reflective, others are not reflective but should be, planar surfaces usually lack polygonal detail, lack of baked ambient occlusion and soft shadow maps, etc.

A lot of bloom, motion blur and HDR is used to mask some of the faults but you can clearly see that it is made by someone with little experience in 3D graphics design.

The weapons and character models are a lot better though. Especially animations and small details like feinting or a badass dust-cloud when you land from high jumps give the feel of realism and weight.

Aesthetics

Curiously the rough texture-work and low-polygon models work in favor of the game. The art-style was carefully chosen to impose a sense of desolation, emptiness and roughness and the low-resolution textures actually magnify this feeling of a concrete jungle, devoid of any real life.

The levels are usually very tall with high ceilings, large statues and floating advertisements, it creates a unique sense of your insignificance in this world. The streets and corridors are largely devoid of live, except for mutated critters running along the floor there might be a few Looters or enemies sprinkled in a very large environment.

The style of the game leans toward a mix of cyberpunk/scifantasy/Warhammer40k with all sorts of temples, symbols, yet with neon-lit urban sprawls, towering corporate skyscrapers reminiscent of Blade Runner or games like Hard Reset. However even in the more colorful locations you still have the sinking feeling of emptiness, desolation and ruin. Civilians are never seen in this game, its like the whole world is in this conflict, there is no peace or serenity, only a heavy blanket of silence, as if the whole world just stopped living and died, quietly.

In summary the aesthetics are depressing, and fit perfectly with the theme of the game. Corporations controlling people, a weird and deadly interplanetary mental illness going around, monsters, looters, criminals. A world in which being depressed is almost a requirement.

The game never gets “scary” in the sense of Silent Hill but rather stays at the edge of tension of just being really haunting and empty. The choice to not give you a map or a radar on which you can see enemies, only adds to this experience.

Sound Design

Sound design is something E.Y.E. brings home, all those visuals combined with a very subtle, haunting and depressing score make the game what it is. The music or lack there off in places, the humming ducts and shuffling critters give the game its presence, its character.

And let me tell you it has one of the best weapon-sounds on the market. Ever felt while playing an FPS that there is this awesome gun you are holding, but something is just not right? Well no fear here, every pull of the trigger is satisfying, from the silenced SMG to the large caliber anti-material rifle, every bullet-impact will make you pull the trigger again and again.

Voice acting, almost non-existent as it is in the game, are the same story. The distorted voices are gibberish, but they are delivered with a complete monotony, devoid of emotion, character or individuality.

And thats not a complaint, its an compliment, and I will shortly elaborate why. Please be patient while I quietly segway into the next segment.

Narrative Delivery

And here is where my praise for the game ends. To be perfectly honest, maybe it is really just a problem of the translation, but the delivery of the narrative is just plainly horrible.

This is mostly the problem of the dialogue, it reads like something written by a 10 year old. No normal person would have conversations like these. Its embarrassingly bad, reading the dialogue and the few entries of consoles and journals is like reading a fanfic, a bad fanfic. I wouldn’t be surprised at this point if Tara Gilesbie wrote everything in this game.

Yes, its that bad.

Characters have no character/motivation/nothing, they are empty shells, they just suddenly say things for no reason. I’ve never seen conversation this badly forced except maybe in porn.

This is the main and central fault of the game, the plot is interesting, but its delivered so clumsily it is literally impossible to follow without external input like a wiki or forum.

Its a chore to read the text on screen, i kid you not, i powered through it only by the virtue of the plot being intriguing enough.

Story

Ok, lets dig in shall we?

Where do I start, a recap of events isn’t exactly helpful here, because the “plot” of the game could be completely nonsensical (and it is) to have the same impact at the end. It could be about a guy eating a burger at Megacorp Burger or about a Taxidriver driving home, it wouldn’t really matter.

Well lets give you a quick overlook over the backstory anyways just so you are up to speed about the lore.

The world is run by The Federation, essentially a bunch of corporations controlling everyday life (and death), this is not known to civilians, all they know that The Federation is their government. Some time ago (2127) The Federation or Feds in short were established to counter a rebellion of Mars that attacked Earth for no reason with very advanced alien weaponry. All singular nations had no resources to fight a global war like that so they turned to multiple corporations for help, since they had their own military and security forces. The war was won, but the Federation slowly crept into every aspect of governance all over the world.

Some time after that The Federation started with interplanetary colonization, and one of the first colonies was Jade a green jungle planet. On this planet the colonists found a crashed alien craft with an artifact inside that was in essence a Warhammer. Shortly after the discovery humanity was contacted by an alien race, the Orus, claiming ownership of the ship and artifact, but the Feds lied about the ship being destroyed and started to move the ship to a Moonbase. The obvious answer to this was war between Orus and Humans. Humanity was vastly outgunned and lower technologically than the Orus so the human fleet was mostly wiped out, and ground-combat was decided by the Orus’s cyberwarrior-monk caste, The Nemesis, that cut through our boys like butter.

Just as earth was on the brink of being invaded, a third faction appeared, kicked the butts of both the Orus and the Humans, destroyed the moon-base with the artifact, and then promptly disappeared.

In the aftermath the Orus finally admitted that the alien ship wasn’t theirs after all, and that they found the location on some ancient ruins with a warning. Peace was signed, and technology was shared to counter that third faction in the future. This was the birth of the Secreta Secretorum, humanity’s version of The Nemesis, and in the Secreta an internal division was created, the E.Y.E.

You are part of the E.Y.E. elite, a cybernetically pimped up human killing machine, specialized to counter the “Metastreumonic Force” that is now invading known human space, believed to be the third faction that attacked humans and Orus in centuries past. The Metastreumonic Force is part monsters, and part mental illness. It specifically manifests as metaphors of our desires and fears in a corporal form in any place that is a breeding-stock for those emotions, so in this universe – everywhere. Not much else is known about it.

Ok, so the point is, you are a badass cybernetic warrior monk, you kill shit for a living. However you were recently in an “accident” in a cave where you lost your memories, or your memories were removed, who the fuck knows. Anyways you go on badass missions for both your Mentor and your Commander.

The plot involves some back and forth about loyalty, betrayal, some feeling, etc. pp. the standard conspiracy fare.

Its mostly competent, but nothing to gush over really, there is some artifact belonging to the third alien faction, both the Feds, the Secreta and Orus want it for themselves. Three way war of subterfuge and intrigue commence.

But this is not the cool part.

The Cool Part (SPOILERS)

Essentially there are only two ways you are going to experience the “end” of the game, either you will throw down your mouse and keyboard in disgust and go downvote the game on Metacritic or you will stop.

Just stop.

And then think.

Think for the next 3 hours, like I did, and then you will play the game again, and again, and again, and AGAIN.

Because the game doesn’t end here.

(I can’t give you a proper review of this game without heavy spoiling so if you want the full experience yourself, stop reading here.)

You are the prisoner of the game. Metaphorically, literally, in-game and in real life. You see you are a Commander of the Secreta, and this is your punishment. You are in a prison, a mental prison, you live in cycles, re-living the same events over and over with minor differences. If you finish the game, you respawn at the beginning, keeping your gear and levels.

The Metastreumonic Force? Red Herring. The three way war of the Feds, Secreta and Orus? Red Herring. The Artifact? Red Herring. Reality? Red Herring.

Every time you re-play the game you gain one of the three powerful “gate” spells, if you replay it one more time, you gain access to what i call the “master gate” which lets you travel to a place in your memories. There you meet your wife, the one you tortured to death because she broke the rules of the Secreta by looking at the artifact in the catacombs.

She offers you a choice, continue with the cycles, or abandon your search and go to the final gate to a place where you will experience either solace or despair.

If you choose to continue the cycles, you respawn at the beginning with all your gear, again.

If you choose the final gate, you find yourself on a desolate floating island, with nothing on it except for a seal that if broken will respawn you at the beginning.

Its a perfect prison, one that dangles you a carrot of hope in front of you, and then takes it away, over and over again. It quite literally promises you answers when you finish the game if you play it just one more time. It tempts you with what you want, loot, money, better cybernetics, more power…..closure.

The game doesn’t let you die, the Resurrector will always bring you back, there is no death, no escape, no hope.

You are desperately trying to find “reality” the “exit”, the gate that will take you “out”

And when you are sitting there on the island, staring at the screen, you finally realize:

The only winning move is not to play.

Now you can scream, kick, and shout, but the prison -masterfully- manipulated you, yes -YOU-, the real life YOU. Just like this perfect prison perfectly manipulated its only inmate. You followed the struggles, the depression, the dreariness, the schizophrenia of the character, you -were- the prisoner, quite literally.

It is magnificent in its malevolence and masterful in its setup.

This is why I hinted at the beginning that E.Y.E. is not about the story, the plot or the narrative, but the experience. Its not the journey that matters, but the -end- that matters, and only you can decide when this happens.

The developers turned one of the basic “choices” of -any- game, the choice to quit, into a narrative element. They turned the tables on the player, created a game where the game plays the player. Its so wonderfully meta, its absolutely fucking genius.

E.Y.E. Divine Cybermancy is a one-of-a-kind game, and an experience that will leave you thinking for a long, long time.

Summary

I will now demonstrate why I almost universally hate scoring systems.

If I were to rate this game on a scale from 0 to 10, I’d give it a 6. It has simply too many flaws to ignore for it to warrant a higher score.

This in turn would mean that the game is “mediocre”, but its not.

E.Y.E. Divine Cybermancy is an -exceptional- game. Its flawed in its technical aspects, yes, without a doubt, but its innovative, daring and grand in scale of both narrative and mechanics.

Ultimately its downfall and flaws are to be attributed to the small development team and low budget. But on the other side, no “respectful” AAA developer would have made this game. This game would not have existed in this unique form if made by a high-profile studio.

E.Y.E. is the prime example of the Indie vision. It aims high, it has scope, it tries something radically different and actually succeeds. This is a hidden gem for any gamer and well worth your 20$ (half the price of a regular title) on Steam.

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