Don’t you just love it when a video game takes you by surprise? I had not even heard of Back to the Dawn when PR Outreach reached out (hehe) for an opportunity to check out the upcoming prison-break RPG (not to be confused with the TV series that overstayed its welcome). Even though swamped with pending reviews, I nevertheless agreed to check it out because the premise sounded interesting. It’s not every day that you come across a prison escape game set in an anthropomorphic animal prison, that too, an RPG. I had this preconceived notion of Back to the Dawn being your typical linear adventure game with arbitrary RPG elements thrown in and, let’s face, it- the title Back to the Dawn seemed like a misnomer for a game where you play as a furry fox trying to break out of a prison. 20 hours later, I stand corrected (except for the thing about the title, it’s still pretty bad). Back to the Dawn turned out to be a feature-rich, complex, and immersive mix of RPGs, survival games, and social sims with a big focus on player agency and featuring plenty of replayability. Presenting, Gameffine’s Back to the Dawn review. Expect a more comprehensive Back to the Dawn review once the full version is out.
As evident from the title of the review, Back to the Dawn is an Early Access title. Now, don’t go frowning that brow, as this game is one of the most feature-complete Early Access products I’ve had the pleasure of checking out. The current build features the campaign of Thomas the Fox, a furry journalist wrongfully imprisoned by corrupt politicians for nosing around a sinister conspiracy. Thomas’ storyline is more or less complete, with multiple endings, over a hundred quests, various escape routes, and more. The difference is that the full version of the game will add a second storyline starring a black panther, and that’s about it. Back to the Dawn is feature-complete, boasts a pristine coat of polish, and offers the player 20–50 hours of gameplay value for the introductory price of $17.50 USD. That’s a steal if you ask me.
Being wrongfully imprisoned, Thomas’ sole aim is to escape the anthropomorphic prison and get to the bottom of the conspiracy regarding toxic chemical dumps and the upcoming mayoral election. But it’s easier said than done because the prison is ruled over by a strict warden, his corrupt subordinates, and three competing gangs. The prison is inhabited by all sorts of animal prisoners, some of them nice, and some outright crazy. A lot of love and care has been poured into Back to the Dawn, which is evident from its gorgeous HD 2D visuals, crisp spritework, and levels crafted with acute attention to detail. While the game doesn’t have voice acting, it does have over 300,000 lines of text and the writing is filled with black comedy and pop-cultural references. The writing strikes the perfect balance between morbid and tongue-in-cheek humor without tipping over each extreme. You’ll meet around 50 inmates with their own interesting backstories, motivations, and alliances, like a pangolin who lives in constant fear of its scales being stolen to make aphrodisiacs or an annoying martial artist kangaroo giving combat lessons for the measly sum of $500.
The gameplay loop of Back to the Dawn is reminiscent of Dreams in the Witch House, which I’ve reviewed recently. The game is built around a persistent timer. The mayoral election is coming up in 21 days. Each day is divided into five time cycles starting with headcount and work schedule, lunch, recreation, leisure activities, and lockdown. Learning time management is an integral part of the experience as you’re supposed to befriend inmates, do quests, work for money, maintain your diet, work out, read, shower, and most of all, figure out an escape route. Even as someone who dislikes time limits in games, I didn’t find this system in Back to Dawn to be a hindrance because time only passes when you’re performing actions such as talking, working, reading, taking part in mini-games, etc. You get ample time to take part in all that the game has to offer once you get the hang of the systems.
Back to the Dawn is an RPG first and foremost. The game is reliant upon a classic attribute system with Strength, Agility, Charisma, and Intelligence, each of which influences their respective actions. But these cannot be modified by the player directly. Upon starting the game, you get to select one of three backgrounds for Thomas the journalist. Alongside providing a backstory for Thomas, these give you several traits with positive and negative modifiers. For example, choosing the war correspondent background provides you bonuses to strength checks and combat, but the downside is that you will need to consume two sleeping pills to get a relaxing sleep due to all the horrific shit you’ve witnessed. Picking the TV personality background gives you bonuses to the charisma stat and makes it easier to befriend other animals while getting a penalty to strength checks.
Leveling up and unlocking skills work somewhat differently. Performing actions related to attributes gives you points in each of them, and skill points are unlocked by spending these points. Skill points can then be used to purchase and activate skills, which are gained by performing specific actions and reading skill books. For reference, working out successfully gives you points in strength, which then can be used to unlock three skill points necessary to slot in a particular strength skill. This system does need a bit of time getting used to, as the contextual tutorial pop-up doesn’t explain it too well.
Then comes the simulation elements. Since survival is of the utmost priority in prison, Thomas has to constantly keep an eye on his vitals, energy, digestion, and mental state. Players will have to maintain Thomas’ health by eating meals and snacks, energy by resting and sleeping, and mental health by laying back and consuming questionable substances. These deplete by performing the respective actions. Thomas will incur negative stats if these drop below a certain point. Furthermore, there is also another resource called Focus that is necessary to perform several actions, such as talking to NPCs, crafting, taking part in mini-games, etc. You only get a limited number of focus points, and they regenerate once every hour, or you can use items to replenish them. This resource seems kind of overkill, as it really limits your interactions in a time-limited game, especially in the first few hours. After you get acquainted with all NPCs and figure out who does what, focus does get slightly less annoying to manage, but if you ask me, it’s a resource the game can do well without. Its functions should have been reprogrammed to stamina, or at the very least, streamline the two resources into one.
Back to the Dawn also has a heavy emphasis on social sim elements. As a fresh fish, Thomas’ chance of survival is slim unless he makes friends, allegiances, and, foes in the process. Almost every NPC in the game can be befriended (or pissed off), thanks to Thomas’ irresistible charm as a journalist. But it’s not as simple as walking up to a person and applying charm+1. Back to the Dawn makes you work for it. Each NPC has a rapport meter, which is to be filled by chatting with them and giving them gifts of their liking. This, in turn, gives Thomas access to their exquisite stock of goodies and gear. You can even do quests for the three opposing factions and the guard captain to enjoy the benefits of having an increased reputation such as getting free access to gang-controlled activities, better jobs, access to a single cell, the ability to make more calls per day, and more.
Speaking of quests, there’s a wide assortment of them to choose from, such as taking the blame for someone else and spending time in solitary, plating contraband, beating up and extorting inmates, collecting 20 bear asses, reading occult tomes, etc. Plus, there are several mini-games available, including playing poker, betting on underground boxing matches, ironing clothes, sorting packages, and putting asphalt on the roof in exchange for a cold one, Shawshank style. You can even plant herbs in the courtyard, engage in pen-pal stuff, screw over others, dig through trash, play games on the library computer and so much more. There’s never a dull moment in Back to the Dawn
Back to the Dawn is not just about talking your way into and out of things, it’s also about combat. Combat is turn-based and fairly standard. Since my Thomas is a broadcast journalist, I didn’t run into too much fighting and from what I’ve seen, it’s nothing new but gets the job done. Since Thomas’ strength is low already, I would try my luck with his tongue rather than his paws. But if you are going for a rough ‘n tough build, I’d suggest going with the War Correspondent background and joining up with a gang ASAP for that sweet, sweet extortion money.
Since the game is in Early Access, Back to the Dawn is relying upon its community to fine-tune things around. Content-wise, the game is in a great place right now, and the only suggestion I have is balancing. The most obvious balance change I’d suggest is to make rapport-gaining more rewarding. Figuring out and keeping track of which inmate likes what is a huge pain in the butt, and even then, rapport only increases a little per gift. There’s also the fact that you can only gift a person once a day. The whole process of gifting becomes an act of trial and error. It’d also be good if the prices of meals (yes, you have to buy meals thanks to the corrupt captain) could be lowered a bit. Most of the money you gain from questing and working goes into keeping Thomas in a well-fed state.
As for bugs, I only ran into one issue, and that was my save files getting wiped. Steam Cloud might have something to do with that since my saves got wiped as I booted the game up on my PC after finishing a session on the Steam Deck. This was kind of disheartening but the game has tonnes of replayable potential. So, I wouldn’t mind having another go at it. I mentioned that I have playing the game on the Steam Deck. It’s my preferred way of playing the game. The HD 2D visuals scale perfectly on the Deck’s small screen, the gamepad controls are great and you can squeeze in more than three hours of battery life with a TDP of 10.
I regret not knowing about Back to the Dawn sooner. I’m glad to report that we finally have ourselves a worthy RPG centered around prison escape (looking at you Planet Alcatraz). Don’t be dissuaded by the Early Access tag. Back to the Dawn offers a complex prison-breaking experience enriched by an interplay of traditional RPG tropes, social sim elements, survival systems and backed up by a brilliant anthropomorphic setting with a pinch of excellent gallows humor. A FURPG it is!