Review: Beautiful Desolation Mixes Stunning Visuals, Interesting World with Forgettable Gameplay

There are so many indie games that have cool gameplay ideas with simple stories and scaled down visuals. They come up with a cool gameplay hook and build everything around that while staying within what the team has the time and ability to make.

Beautiful Desolation manages to be the opposite. The graphics, visual effects and world are unbelievably attractive for a game from a small studio. The story and world have depth and introduce some interesting concepts. The gameplay, however, simply isn’t fun. The controls on console (I played what is technically a PlayStation 4 game on a PlayStation 5) are cumbersome and inefficient, but it is a point-and-click adventure after all. You should know what you’re getting into on that front. It’s best played with a mouse and keyboard.

Screenshot: Beautiful Desolation

It refers to itself as a post-apocalyptic African sci-fi adventure story and as far as short, but specific descriptions go, that one is pretty good. Beautiful Desolation‘s setting is reminiscent of the movie District 9 if it had more alien species and was set in the future.

Beautiful Desolation is set in South Africa, like developer The Brotherhood, with a pair of brothers who speak with heavy South African accents. Many of the characters you run across in the world speak in South African accents. It also has that broken down sci-fi look to it that District 9 did so well.

Screenshot: Beautiful Desolation

The opening premise is that there is some advanced technology in modern day South Africa that reminded me of the spaceship looming above in District 9, called the Penrose. Main character Mark Leslie goes with his brother to see what is really up on the Penrose and winds up in the future somehow. The brothers try to get back to their time, but first have to go on a series of fetch quests and decide which tribes and groups will wipe out their enemies.

The isometric camera perspective is a mixed bag. It shows off the beautiful scenes, but also makes it very confusing on what you can and can’t navigate. I spent so much time just walking into invisible walls that weren’t clearly communicated due to a lack of clear depth perception. A significant part of the game was just figuring out where Mark could walk to see if I was missing another section of the scene.

Screenshot: Beautiful Desolation

There are on the ground scenes where Mark picks up items, walks to other areas or talks to characters. There are also scenes flying around in your ship. Both are visually stunning, colorful and fit the tone. There’s even the occasional short cut scene.

From a gameplay perspective though, I found it to be simply unfun. Beautiful Desolation gets really granular sometimes in how you are supposed to advance. One character might say they need a thing and only a certain species has that thing. Maybe you talked to a character from that species a while ago, but forgot what species they are or that they even said that because it felt like a minor detail in the conversation.

All conversations, which have voice acting and dialogue choices, are kept in the interface for re-reading, which is useful. However, digging through dozens of conversations isn’t a fun way to search for a clue.

Screenshot: Beautiful Desolation

I am not typically into point-and-click games and this one communicated very early on that it was not going to be an easy one. Thankfully, there are guides and video walkthroughs. Is that cheating? Maybe, but it was more enjoyable than wasting time banging my head against a wall trying to figure out what I needed to do.

Eventually, I almost entirely gave up on trying to play on my own and just followed the guide. The thing that surprised me was how enjoyable of an experience that was. It was like reading a book. I didn’t have to think about what to do next. I just followed the roadmap when I didn’t immediately know what to do, which allowed me to enjoy the characters and stories more. Those elements of Beautiful Desolation were good enough to sit through without the need for gameplay.

There are humans, aliens, AIs, modified humans merged with machines, intelligent fungi creatures, talking slug parasites. Some have intense wars or rivalries with others and in Mark’s journey, he has to figure out how to navigate that while getting what he needs. And Mark needs a lot of things.

Once Mark finds out that he needs a few items to activate a device that can send him back to his time, he’s constantly making deals to get those things. He will ask a character about a thing he needs. That character will say they know of someone who has it. Then, Mark goes to that creature, who says they need Mark to get them something in return. It’s all a series of repetitive fetch quests and trades ultimately leading to a binary decision where Mark has to pick between two rival groups in order to get his item. You can play with save files to see both versions, but either way, the outcome is the same for Mark. He gets his item and doesn’t need to interact with those groups again.

Screenshot: Beautiful Desolation

The fetch quests wouldn’t have been so annoying if general traversal wasn’t tedious. Beyond having to figure out where Mark could and couldn’t walk, going from location to location requires time. There’s no true fast travel. There are a handful of locations in an area and the ship has to fly to each to land there.

Different areas have to be accessed through what the game calls the Warden, which allows you to fast travel between these bigger areas via the ship. I can’t imagine what the load times on PS4 or Nintendo Switch are like. They weren’t too long on the PS5, but there’s a lot of load screens so if the load times even doubled, that would become very tedious over a 10-15 hour game.

Screenshot: Beautiful Desolation

Overall, Beautiful Desolation does some things really well, but others poorly. If you’re into point-and-click adventures and like the general style of the game, it might be up your alley, but play it with a mouse and keyboard if you can. If you’re not into point-and-click adventures but love the general style the trailer shows off, make sure to have a guide at the ready.

Beautiful Desolation is available on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, PC and Mac.


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Dan Santaromita

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