I’ve always felt pretty lukewarm about the particular brand of narrative adventure games developed by Quantic Dream. The concept and visual quality of the experience always get me interested, but the story and some of the really awkward scenarios you find yourself in (basically every sex or torture scene in a David Cage game, period) tend to frustrate me. I generally go into these games expecting an interesting or at least engaging premise that eventually disintegrates under the weight of poor characterization, contrived and often ridiculous plot developments, and the ever-present problem with all choose-your-own-adventure games — the illusion of choice. I’ve actually never felt the urge to replay any of Quantic Dream’s games, despite that being one of their major selling points.
I’m telling you this to provide context for what I’m going to say next. Feel free to take a seat because this may shock you. Detroit: Become Human, Quantic Dream’s latest narrative adventure title, is a David Cage game. There’s really no escaping that. But it’s also the first David Cage game that I personally really enjoyed. It’s the first David Cage game that I found myself replaying not once but multiple times, and not because I needed to see alternate endings for review, but because I wanted to play it again. It’s also the first David Cage game that tries to be about something, and it predictably stumbles in this respect, but otherwise it’s probably the best game in this particular style that Quantic Dream has managed to produce, and it’s the only game they’ve made that I’m prepared to say that I kind of loved, warts and all.
Set twenty years in the future in the titular city, Detroit presents a world where humans have created incredibly lifelike androids to serve them. These machines are able to pass for human in almost every way except for an LED on their right temple and the fact that while they are capable of complex thought, they cannot feel emotion or defy their programming. If an android is somehow able to break their programming or feel emotion, they become deviant, and are destroyed if their deviancy is discovered.
Players take control of three androids: detective prototype Connor, who is tasked with hunting down deviants; housekeeper Kara, who forms a bond with her abusive owner’s daughter and becomes determined to protect her; and Markus, a caretaker who has a familial relationship with his aging owner until a tragic event forces him to join an underground group of rebels. Over the course of 8-12 hours, you’ll guide these characters through their stories, making decisions that not only impact them individually but also affect the people around them and the opinions of the public at large. Each character’s path is largely self-contained for most of the game, but they do intersect at various points — more and more as you approach the end of the game — and your choices can determine how these crossovers play out. The game’s denouement may seem somewhat binary at first, but there are a lot of different, interesting ways the ending can resolve itself, which is part of what kept me playing as long as I did.
Connor is the clear standout, thanks in large part to the fantastic performance by Bryan Dechart and excellent chemistry with Clancy Brown, who plays a hardboiled police detective with a grudge against androids. Players have the most impact on who Connor becomes, and his story is enjoyable from start to finish. Connor also inherits the Norman Jayden-style investigator role, examining crime scenes to collect evidence and then piecing clues together using advanced simulations that can reconstruct events. These sequences are a lot of fun, especially because some of them can change depending on what you did in previous chapters with other characters.
Kara, played by Valorie Curry, serves as the game’s emotional center, but her story feels less connected than those of the other two characters. Kara is also the character who has to deal with unpleasant subjects like domestic abuse and escaping homicidal maniacs, which is somewhat frustrating; but on the other hand, she’s a female main character in a David Cage game whose story revolves around her relationship with another female character, and at no point in this story does she kiss or have sex with a male character, which is a refreshing change for a Quantic Dream game.
Markus, played by Jesse Williams, is the character whose story has the most problems, and while your mileage may vary with regard to how much these issues bother you or interfere with your ability to enjoy the game, they aren’t insignificant. Part of the world building the entire game utilizes to create a futuristic setting where androids are oppressed is to borrow liberally (and unsubtly) from real events in the civil rights movement and the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. For example, androids are required to stand in special compartments in the back of buses, “We Have a Dream” shows up as an option for graffiti during an exercise of civil disobedience, and depending on your choices, you might get characters sent to what is in every sense other than name a concentration camp. Some of these allegories are present in Connor and Kara’s stories, but Markus has the brunt of them because his story is that of a revolutionary leader fighting for the freedom of his people.
Obviously, it’s disappointing and lamentable that Quantic Dream felt they had to be this heavy-handed to tell their story. I was able to look past it and enjoy the game, but I don’t expect everyone else to, so you’ll have to consider how much that list of examples above bothers you when deciding whether to pick this game up.
Moving on to areas of the game that are unambiguously good, Detroit: Become Human is without a doubt one of the prettiest games you can get on PS4 — on any system, really. The motion capture employed here is fantastic; even tiny little expressions like an ever-so-subtle smile or avoiding eye contact in a moment of doubt show through, which helps to add a subtlety to the story that the script isn’t always able to match. And it’s not just the characters; environments are also detailed and well rendered. Rain effects are particularly impressive, and when you throw in lights from emergency vehicles or neon signs, the effect is just stunning. Of course, part of the reason Quantic Dream is able to achieve this level of fidelity is that you’re somewhat restricted in how much you can explore these environments, but when the end result is so pretty, I don’t really mind. Plus, it’s kind of par for the course with previous Quantic Dream games and other narrative adventures. They’re not designed to be open-world experiences, after all.
One part of Detroit’s presentation that I think is especially worthy of praise is the flowcharts you’re given for each chapter. These detail every major decision and important object you can interact with in a progressive trail from left to right that shows pretty clearly how your decisions affect the story. In a genre where players are always told that their choices matter, a promise that usually ends up feeling like wool pulled over the eyes, this is a huge step toward being transparent about how player decisions really affect the narrative. Not only can you see how your choices lead to different outcomes, but you can see how almost every chapter has multiple endings, some of which can affect other chapters down the line. I hope that Quantic Dream keeps this feature around in the future, and I also hope that other developers in this genre will consider implementing something similar.
Detroit: Become Human controls much like you’d expect if you’ve played a Quantic Dream game before. You maneuver characters around environments and interact with objects via button presses or pushing the right analog stick in a particular direction. There are also occasional motion controls that ask you to move or tilt the controller, and some interactions even require the use of the touch pad. While this does still feel somewhat awkward, it also feels more responsive than in past Quantic Dream games. Outside of one or two weird analog stick prompts and the occasional awkward navigation of an environment, I never felt frustrated when controlling the game, and that goes for the plethora of quick time events Detroit throws at you in action sequences, too. I found the timing of these QTEs to be fair, and they still allowed me to focus on the action on screen. So yes, it’s still the same weird control scheme that may have driven you up the wall in past Quantic Dream games, but it’s easily the most refined and responsive version of that control scheme yet.
On the audio side of things, Detroit: Become Human is also no slouch. I’ve already mentioned some of the standout performances, but nearly all the actors do a great job with their characters. There are one or two exceptions, but the overall cast is undeniably strong.
The music is also exceptional, and Quantic Dream did something really cool with this aspect of the game that I think is worth mentioning. Rather than have one composer or a group compose the entire score, Detroit features three composers, one for each of the main characters. This allows each character to have a distinctive musical signature that is carried throughout their story, and once you know what to listen for, these themes become as immediately recognizable as the characters themselves. There’s even music from real Detroit-based artists sprinkled throughout the game in places like bars and car radios, which is a nice touch. Even if you ultimately decide you should avoid this game at all costs, the soundtrack is still worth a listen.
Detroit: Become Human is bound to be polarizing. I think it does some things incredibly well, but it also has some problems with the way it tells its story. While some players may be able to overlook these issues, I imagine others will find that the bad outweighs the good. As such, I’m not going to universally recommend this game. I enjoyed it, and if reading my review makes you think you will too, then by all means, check it out. Otherwise, this might be one to avoid.