Story-driven games are a curious breed that always ropes me in and yet shoves me away. When I heard Divide was built from the ground-up to present a story, I knew if it was pulled off well I’d be hooked to it firmly. I do love stories in our interactive medium. A lot of my favourite games are ones built with a tale in mind with the mechanics reinforcing the narrative (e.g. Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward). Yet, like gameplay-driven titles, it can lead to the lack of a safety net if the primary drive falters due to such focus. This is something that, unfortunately, Divide demonstrates to a disappointing level.
Divide is an isometric title by Exploding Tuba Studios whose creation, according to founder Chris Tilton, was to “make a game that told a compelling story about an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances.”.
Appropriately, you play as an ex professional photographer and now stay-at-home-father whose wife dies in a mysterious accident at work and now cares for his daughter. After one of your wife’s ex-colleagues entrusts you with a suitcase that you then proceed to open (because curiosity is the sweetest and most delicious fruit), you get thrown into another world of lasers, citizen points and augmented reality that is dominated by the research company your wife used to work at. To make things worse, you do not know where your daughter is. So it’s time to find your daughter and get home from wherever you are.
At first I thought the hook to the narrative would be said “extraordinary circumstances”. That through a character who know about the same as I do, I would be learning about a changed world in comparison to the modern/near-future setting the game begins on. Except, as I tuck into Divide, I can’t help but feel like I’ve done this tango before. Insidious corporation who controls everything in an authoritarian-like form that you fight against as the central antagonist? Check. Clinical and clean environments hiding a grim oppressive privately-owned security force? Check. Augmentations that create augmented reality? Check. Hacking and drones a frequent threat? Lemme check that!
That’s right, we’ve stumbled waist-deep into a cyberpunk tale. I specify “waist deep” because it seems with this focus on a controlling corporation with augmented reality and “citizen points” you fight against there are some things missing. To be precise, in the parts I experienced, there was no sign of the grim noir-style environments that work as the gripping contrast to the pristine and clinical corporate setting. Instead it is cold whites, greys and blues predominately used through-out. Even with the logs informing me of the lore, I became burnt out on the setting as a potential lure.
“Well, there’s the mystery, right?”. I think? I admit I’m a bit confused at this. There is the initial mystery of where you’ve gone. However, it is one quickly correctly guessed and there’s no replacement mystery when the reveal occurs relatively fast.
However, both can be excused if there’s good enough characters to be invested in. Especially as, for all I know, the “reveal” of the mystery could have been an incorrect theory by the protagonist and the setting might have had an interesting underbelly going on. In addition, a good set of characters can colour and bring dimension to a setting. The reality is, well, there’s nothing interesting or three-dimensional about them. The protagonist is generic person in unfamiliar situation without any apparent flaws, while the main companion character appears in the coincidental nick of time to only then help you for no reason and serve as a lore delivery machine. While the writing of the daughter does make a good effort to inject personality in the plot, and the voice acting team make a strong attempt of conveying emotion into the lines, the characterisation never goes above an okay time.
All this combines together to present a narrative where, by about the 4th hour, I was completely checked out and not remotely invested in what was occurring. Maybe an incredible twist was sneaking around the next corner with a chuckle, one that would recontextualise everything with a beautiful flourish, but I was so worn down by dull writing with wallpaper paste characters that I just couldn’t summon anything but apathy from that point on.
That said, maybe Divide was hiding a fantastical twist waiting to turn everything upside down in a glorious de-rooting of people’s expectations? I confess I didn’t get all the way through the game as a glitch stopped me from opening a door required to continue on. From what I experienced for the first, what felt like, 6 or 8+ hours (sadly the save system lacks a “time played” statistic to my knowledge) there was no suggestion the writing would go beyond just okay with the rare moments of good. The combination of apathy, no indication things would get better and a glitched door preventing progress is something you may recognize as a colossal problem in a title touting its narrative as the primary goal.
So this raises the question: How is the lesser focus, the gameplay? The gameplay can be boiled down to dungeon crawling in an isometric view. However, rather than the challenge coming from combat or resource management, Divide demands you to play a frustrating game of hide-and-seek with the objective. You’ll spend the majority of the time just trying to find what is needed, with the possibility of finding it but at the wrong time and having to refind it later. Even with the map, assuming you have one, getting to where you need to be is like stumbling around an urban version of a hedge maze without the option to just take a chainsaw through the walls.
This is assuming you have the required points to hack into the objective device. You pick these points up by hacking random computers dotted around the level, assuming they’re even connected to the server, or by hacking seemingly-randomly-placed “hotspot” sign-in spots that regenerate as you stumble around like a drunk upon being tossed out of a pub. That isn’t to suggest there is a hacking mini-game, it is just stumbling about poking things for points.
Where it gets particularly aggravating is if you’re short on points upon tripping over an objective. It means you have to wander off again in the search for computers. If there are no computers left to hack (as they are single-use, if they are even hooked to a working server), then it means poking regenerating hot-spots bit by bit which can take 10s of minutes of grinding to grasp the required amount. As a stark rarity, it wouldn’t be much, but objectives that require hacking points is a common expectation. So this gameplay angle becomes patience testing fast, especially when combined with having to refind the sodding objective.
“But there are enemies, right? It isn’t just a walking simulator…Right?!” is something possibly bustling around your head, and you are right. However, we’re talking about enemies of the laughably simple sort. Sure you can spend precious hacking points (which given enough time you can have enough in your pockets to need a belt to hold up your trousers) to deactivate the drones or turn them against each other… Or you can just shoot them. You also can bribe guards to look the other way with your points… Or just shoot them. There’s just no good reason to not shoot them, besides having to then wrestle with clumsy aiming controls that get particularly awkward, anxious and nervous if elevation enters the picture. That said, with a small amount of practice the usefulness of hacking over shooting melts away as hacking points are often needed. Which once you get used to shooting, it feels reactive and forgiving enough that you’ll be shooting like a pro in no time at all.
Still, this rudimentary combat doesn’t quite do enough to distract from the core gameplay being a patience-testing “find the right PC to hack” test constantly. There’s simply no sign of mixing things up via diverse enemy tactics/types, or a penalty of going loud versus sneaking or even possibly boss battles.
The final score is a flat 5 out of 10. When people talk of hard games to review, it is never the good nor bad titles. It is the deeply inoffensive mediocre titles. Similarly, I know someone who believes “boring” is the worst thing a game can be. As a combination of the two, Divide defines what it means to be mediocre to an apathy-inducing level. I can’t even get angry at it, as even its stumbles in narrative and gameplay are so awkward and minor that I struggle to even force emotion from within me. Perhaps there is a great plot within here somewhere or perhaps the tale originally had potential to be a best-seller novel, but it seems to of gotten buried under dull gameplay and the lack of anything to get invested in. Instead of feeling the thrill of an exciting story to get hooked in deep, as I love narratives, I just feel apathetic and sad inside. I think I’m going to go lay down for a bit.