get­ting spaced out has never been more en­gross­ing

XBox: The Official Magazine (US) - - REVIEW - Tom Se­nior

Imag­ine you’re watch­ing your fa­vorite day­time soap and, in the mid­dle of a blaz­ing ar­gu­ment, you get to pause the show and then go and look around the char­ac­ters’ bed­rooms.

You can open their cup­boards, read their letters, and throw their pens around. Then you can go back into the room where the row is hap­pen­ing, rewind the char­ac­ters and fol­low them back into dif­fer­ent rooms, where they sit around play­ing gui­tar and talk­ing to them­selves. Now, imag­ine all this is hap­pen­ing in space, and your char­ac­ters are trapped in a ter­ri­ble cor­po­rate ar­range­ment aboard a space sta­tion that’s in dire peril. Wel­come to Ta­coma.

It’s a story game from the cre­ators of man­sion-ex­plor­ing and cup­boar­d­open­ing sim­u­la­tor, GoneHome. How­ever, in GoneHome you sim­ply walk around a man­sion and read letters; in Ta­coma you’re ex­plor­ing an en­tire space sta­tion and re­cov­er­ing de­tails of the dis­as­ter, as though you’re ex­plor­ing a huge, in­ter­ac­tive black box record­ing. You play as a con­trac­tor on a job to down­load the res­i­dent AI from the Ta­coma space sta­tion shortly af­ter it has been aban­doned. The AI, Odin, ad­dresses the sta­tion’s in­hab­i­tants us­ing an aug­mented re­al­ity sys­tem that lay­ers dig­i­tal in­for­ma­tion over the en­vi­ron­ment. Odin also records ev­ery sound and move­ment the crew makes. As you move be­tween Ta­coma’s mod­ules and down­load chunks of Odin, you can re­cover cor­rupted data in each area and watch the team’s ghostly in­ter­ac­tions.

Six ap­peal

The six crew mem­bers are rep­re­sented as col­ored sil­hou­ettes, and they have a sym­bol on their back that rep­re­sents their role—medic, sta­tion ad­min­is­tra­tor, botanist. This helps you to quickly iden­tify them early on be­fore you come to know their voices and per­son­al­i­ties. The first proper con­ver­sa­tion you re­cover is a great show­case for Ta­coma’s ex­cel­lent sto­ry­telling sys­tem. The crew is hav­ing a party in the rec room. Two of them flirt at the main ta­ble. The medic plays pool in the lounge nearby. The sta­tion ad­min­is­tra­tor prac­tises her speech with Odin in a sep­a­rate room, and the two other crew mem­bers pre­pare a cake in the kitchen. The sound of a huge crash unites the pan­icked crew mem­bers at the ta­ble. As they dis­cuss the ex­plo­sion they bring up their aug­mented re­al­ity in­ter­faces, which you can ac­cess to read their chat logs and emails. Th­ese in­ter­faces each have four icons, which you can press A on to open the email or chat log in a float­ing win­dow. You have your own aug­mented re­al­ity over­lay where you re­ceive mes­sages from your em­ployer, as well as in­for­ma­tion about your char­ac­ter and her background.

The whole event is a four-di­men­sional play that you can rewind and ex­am­ine at leisure. Press­ing X sets all the char­ac­ters in mo­tion, and you’re free to walk around and eaves­drop on any of them. X pauses the ac­tion again, and you can use LB and RB to scrub back and forth through the se­quence. It’s worth fol­low­ing the crew around and watch­ing their ev­ery mo­ment. Even when crew mem­bers are alone they of­ten dis­cuss per­sonal mat­ters with Odin, which gives you a lit­tle ex­tra in­sight into their lives. Re­mark­ably, though you are a mer­ce­nary tres­passer hoover­ing up pri­vate mo­ments for your own en­ter­tain­ment, it never feels nasty or voyeuris­tic. The crew’s to­tal lack of pri­vacy is a con­trac­tual ne­ces­sity of their em­ploy­ment on the sta­tion, and it feels as though their mem­o­ries de­serve to be recorded as they strug­gle hero­ically against dis­as­ter.

Nat­u­ral good­ness

The voice ac­tors de­liver strong nat­u­ral­is­tic per­for­mances, and the sil­hou­ettes are ex­pres­sive enough to give you a sense of each crew mem­ber’s mood. A few have also cou­pled up and their re­la­tion­ships are be­liev­able and, at points, quite mov­ing. As you re­cover more scenes you dis­cover mo­ments of quiet in­ti­macy that gives each char­ac­ter a strong sense of in­di­vid­u­al­ity. The ab­stract, phan­tom-like pre­sen­ta­tion of the crew works sur­pris­ingly well. A ver­sion of the same sys­tem with fully an­i­mated faces would likely have seemed more unnatural. The am­bi­gu­ity al­lows your imag­i­na­tion to pick up the rest of the work.

The sta­tion it­self is al­most as in­ter­est­ing as the char­ac­ters that used to live there. Each mod­ule is packed with ob­jects that you can pick up, zoom in on, ro­tate close-up and throw around. Ev­ery lit­tle item has been painstak­ingly mod­elled to make the set­ting feel au­then­tic—the pens even have the sta­tion own­ers’ cor­po­rate logo em­bed­ded in sil­ver.

The en­vi­ron­ments are full of lit­tle puz­zles too. As you dig through a crew mem­ber’s be­long­ings you might find a key to a locker else­where. A door code hid­den in some­one’s emails might grant you ac­cess to a new room. In each crew mem­ber’s quar­ters you can dig through their per­sonal be­long­ings and learn a lot about their past, and their fam­i­lies back home. Th­ese puz­zles aren’t dif­fi­cult, but they cre­ate some sat­is­fy­ing pay­offs if you are good at rum­mag­ing. Ta­coma re­wards you for be­ing nosy.

The game looks great, too, though there are hitches in per­for­mance. Th­ese are es­pe­cially pro­nounced when you’re hurtling down the el­e­va­tors that link the zero-G cen­tral

spin­dle to the sta­tion’s ro­tat­ing habi­tats. It’s a mi­nor an­noy­ance, though, and has lit­tle im­pact on

Ta­coma’s gen­tle ex­plo­ration. The sta­tion it­self is made up of wind­ing cor­ri­dors and sat­is­fy­ing, chunky bulk­heads. A lot of thought has gone into craft­ing a util­i­tar­ian space that is none­the­less de­signed to be lived in for long pe­ri­ods. It’s some­times a sur­pris­ing space, too. One mo­ment you’re prowl­ing the dark, busi­nesslike med­bay, then you dis­cover the tea room—an ob­ser­va­tion deck full of plants with a lit­tle ta­ble. It’s easy to imag­ine crew mem­bers en­joy­ing a hot bev­er­age and look­ing out at the stars here. Even though the crew isn’t around any more, their dec­o­ra­tions and gen­eral life-clut­ter bring a warm sense of hu­man­ity to Ta­coma’s grey cor­ri­dors.

The sta­tion is man­aged by Odin’s sooth­ing pres­ence. The AI is an in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter it­self; grown over time ‘like a red­wood’ and moved be­tween own­ers so that it can learn to bet­ter in­ter­act with hu­mans, Odin is part of a richly con­ceived sci­ence fic­tion set­ting. The sta­tion is owned by the Ven­turis cor­po­ra­tion, which keeps its crew in a form of servi­tude with a se­ries of loy­alty re­wards and pun­ish­ing in­surance ar­range­ments. De­tails of Ven­turis’ ac­tiv­i­ties are art­fully seeded in Ta­coma’s clut­ter, and each crew mem­ber has their debts to pay. As GoneHome played with play­ers’ haunted house ex­pec­ta­tions, Odin’s calm voice and se­cre­tive na­ture de­lib­er­ately evokes

2001:AS­paceOdyssey’s Hal 9000 AI, but then plays with that in in­ter­est­ing ways. We don’t want to spoil any story de­tails, but it’s a sat­is­fy­ing tale with some sur­pris­ing twists.

We’re cram­min’

It’s amaz­ing that Ta­coma man­ages to cram so much into such a short space of time. If you rush through you can pol­ish off the whole thing in two hours, but the game is far bet­ter if you take your time and prop­erly ex­plore ev­ery shelf. Ta­coma is also worth re­play­ing once you know what’s go­ing on. When you know how the game ends, small de­tails ear­lier on take on fresh con­text. As with a good book, par­tic­u­lar mo­ments and de­ci­sions stayed with us, and part of us still wants to go back and dis­cover new sto­ries be­yond the sta­tion cara­pace. It’s a good sign when it feels as though a game’s wider fic­tion is strong enough to sus­tain more sto­ries else­where in the uni­verse.

Ta­coma is the lat­est in a se­ries of short nar­ra­tive games that are cre­at­ing clever new ways to tell sto­ries. Ta­coma is great be­cause you have to ac­tively par­tic­i­pate to un­cover story beats and con­nect them into an over­all nar­ra­tive. This is a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment over com­pa­ra­ble story games such as Every­body’sGoneTo

TheRap­ture, which tells you a story with a se­ries of vir­tual plays, but with­out the en­tic­ing abil­ity to con­trol the ac­tors. Even the en­chant­ing What

Re­mains OfEdithFinch prefers to fun­nel you force­fully through its story beats. Ta­coma is a puz­zle rather than a slideshow, and it tells a story in a way that only a game could. Even with its un­even per­for­mance and short length, it’s an easy rec­om­men­da­tion to any­one who en­joys a well-con­structed yarn in a com­pelling world.

“When you know how the game ends small de­tails ear­lier on take on fresh con­text”

Why don’t the pro­jec­tions wear those party hats on the ta­ble? right far Right The small pri­vate mo­ments feel as big as the ones that in­clude ev­ery­one.

left More party hat ques­tions: Where did the crew get them from? Did they pack them in ad­vance ‘just in case’ they needed to party? Or are they es­sen­tial space sta­tion equip­ment?

Pub­lisher Full­bright / De­vel­oper Full­bright / For­mat Xbox One / re­lease date Out Now / cost $19.99

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