You are Carl, the manager of a crumbling apartment block in some grey European city. Which doesn’t sound like a particularly thrilling video game role, we’re sure you’ll agree. That is, until you realise that Carl is a cog in the grinding machine of a totalitarian regime, and was appointed to his new role by the state.
So, alongside repairing TV sets, introducing yourself to the new tenant in apartment 4 and making time to see to your young family’s needs, you’ll be spying on your neighbours and reporting on their every misdeed and foible.
You’ll sneak into their apartment when they’re out at work and install spy cameras and rummage around for incriminating evidence, using the state’s ever-increasing number of proclamations to catch them out. Sometimes you’ll be instructed directly by the state to dig up some dirt on one of those tenants, and if they’re squeaky clean you might have to force the issue through murky means.
It’s not imperative that you sell your fellow man up the river. You could warn them that they’re under state surveillance, or even offer to help them. They might even thank you for it. But those thanks won’t reward you with the money you need to keep your son in an education, or to pay for the costly repairs from a recent terrorist (or, depending on your view, freedom fighter) attack. Toeing the party line is always the most lucrative option, which naturally creates plenty of moral quandaries.
Beholder: Complete Edition (so-called because it includes the Blissful Sleep DLC) is all about the tough decisions, and achieving some kind of balance between making a life for yourself and retaining a shred of humanity. There are consequences to your actions, too; our first run ended prematurely when we tried to do a bit of wheeling-and-dealing on the side, then attempted to deflect the blame up the ladder when it all came crashing down. We soon found ourselves dying at the hands of one of our tenants, and judging by the brutally abrupt concluding scene, the rest of our family wasn’t far behind.
Beholder is played from a strange 2.5D perspective, with a hyper-stylised and shadowy aesthetic. You’re granted a side-on cross-sectional view of your apartment block, though you can move into the background to interact with furniture, and zoom in and out of the action at will using ZR and the right stick.
It’s impossible to see inside your neighbours’ apartments without one of those aforementioned cameras (which actually behave more like overhead lamps), or by peering through individual keyholes. Spot a neighbour doing something illegal, and a click of the right stick will commit that evidence to the records, ready to be written up and reported. You’ll need to check in regularly with your anonymous government contact, and you’d better come running when you hear that phone ringing.
There’s a grim satisfaction to performing your treacherous task, interspersed by moments of profound guilt. Watching the pleasant old man who gave your son an expensive book for his studies getting beaten and dragged away by the police was one such occasion. It was Carl (okay, us) who planted an apple in their cabinet before dobbing the innocent chap in.
Yes, apples are considered illegal in this regime. It’s a handy example of Beholder’s blunt, exaggerated, even darkly humorous world. Its political points are rather on the nose – corrupt state control bad, civil liberties good – but effectively delivered, nonetheless.
It took a while for us to click with Beholder, and that’s down to a couple of issues. For one thing, the controls can be quite fiddly. Whenever multiple interactive elements are stacked up close together, it can be a real pain selecting the appropriate contextual prompt with the A button. The developer has brought in the left arrow buttons to flick between these elements in such situations, but there’s no escaping the flakiness of the system.
Also, we found ourselves a little confused during the opening stretch of the game. Maybe we missed the part where it was mentioned, but we found ourselves wandering around looking for the shop that was being talked about – until we realised it was accessed from a simple menu. There was nothing in the help files on this, either. Things tend to get mentioned in passing and then left to you to muddle through.
Indeed, while Beholder: Complete Edition isn’t a difficult game to play as such, it can leave you at a loss as to what to do next. Often the solution is simply to wander around talking to everyone and looking for the appropriate conversation option. Generally speaking, you’re looking to tick tasks off in the right order, according to the time you’ve been given for each. In fact, once you figure everything out, it can feel like so much busywork. The mechanics and rhythm of play can start to take on a repetitive, monotonous note.
But there’s no denying the power of Beholder’s setting, or the basic soundness of its core systems. Placing you in a grotesque dystopian world and casting you as a flawed cog in ‘the machine’ rather than a righteous saviour is a brave move for any game. It pays off with a strategy management game that constantly makes you think about the human toll of your decisions.
Beholder’s dystopian world provides a grimly satisfying management playground to work in. It’s got plenty of heart – albeit a rather scorched black one – and it forces you into making genuinely interesting moral and ethical decisions, which should be enough to see you through the tiresome grind, muddled signposting and rather flakey controls.