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Lacuna, noun: an unfilled space; a gap.

Since first being exposed to the Sherlock Holmes books as a kid, I’ve become an avid lover of detective fiction – And Then There Were None, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the recent Knives Out being some of my favorites. The genre, and specifically the murder mystery or the ‘whodunit’ sub-genre, has been one of the most popular genres in fiction since Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1844, and for good reason – trying to deduce who the killer is and how he did it is a compelling and timeless concept.

Despite impressive efforts by the likes of Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell to absolutely decimate the entire genre with some of the most disgraceful crap ever put to film – like the creatively titled Murder Mystery and the disgraceful Holmes & Watson (a film so disrespectful that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s corpse was found in China earlier this year, scans show he had rolled his grave all the way there) – the genre still survives thanks to films like Knives Out & A Simple Favor, shows like True Detective & Mindhunter and books by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects).

However, no matter how much I enjoyed these stories, I constantly found myself wondering how much better these stories could be as video games. Inspecting the crime scene, collecting clues, interrogating witnesses and suspects, identifying motives, and piecing together the whole story bit by bit… it doesn’t take a master sleuth to suss out the incredible potential of the genre in an interactive medium!

Except for a handful of excellent must-play indie gems that take the idea of deduction through gameplay seriously – Return of the Obra Dinn, Her Story, The Sexy Brutale (yes, dumb name but I swear it’s good), and the Phoenix Wright series – most games, especially AAA mainstream ones, don’t dream big and fall way, way short of the promise, sticking to a traditional, linear narrative (looking at you LA Noire and pretty much any Sherlock Holmes game). To borrow a phrase from the modern journalism lexicon, they never made me ‘feel like Batman a detective’.

All that to say, when I found out about Lacuna, my gamer ears instantly perked up. Lacuna is a ‘sci-fi noir adventure’, the debut game developed by DigiTales Interactive and published by Assemble Entertainment. A detective story in a sci-fi cyberpunk-ish world? Let me at ‘em!

So, did Lacuna live up to my admittedly lofty expectations? Or was it just another disappointment? Let’s find out!

Interplanetary Noir

First off, let’s get to the meat and bones, the primary reasons to play the game – the characters, the setting, and the story.

You play as Neil Conrad, a detective for the CDI – the Central Department of Intelligence (basically, the FBI) on the planet Ghara (Earth for all intents and purposes), tasked with protecting an important political figure visiting from a human colony on a different planet called Drovia. The protagonist himself is sufficiently compelling, though perhaps a tad bit trite for a noir detective – he’s a troubled fella haunted by some of his past actions and struggling with imbalanced priorities – Neil’s a little too obsessed with his job which has led to him pushing his family way, and now has a somewhat strained relationship with his ex-wife and daughter who he feels guilty for not caring enough about.

That’s great and all and not to say that it isn’t executed in an effective way here, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen a hundred times before. The other characters are interesting enough as well but are mostly just pawns in the story except for your ex-wife Catherine and probably the most memorable character – Zora, who I’ll let you get to know yourself (some of the philosophical back-and-forths you have with her are *chef’s kiss*).

The main story, though, has to do more with the politics between Ghara and Drovia, and it honestly makes for one of the most fun, interesting and satisfying plots in any game in recent memory. You see, Lacuna is set in a world (or a future) where humans have already colonized a couple of other planets, Drovia being one of them. However, Ghara is still in control of Drovia, a fact which many in Drovia are not okay with – they want independence.

This is partly because a lithium replacement called ‘tyllanium’ mined on Drovia has become the most valuable thing ever, but, though it’s mined on Drovia itself, Drovians are forced to buy it from Ghara. Add to that a seemingly backward, anti-science religious group called the Saviants who are oppressed by Gharians and who may or may not be up to some mischief, and a new anti-Saviant terror group calling for an attack against Drovia… Suffice it to say, tensions are, like Snoop Dogg, pretty high.

If you understood nothing from the last paragraph and all this seems like a lot to process, worry not, because the game does a wonderful job, much better than myself, of letting you know what you need to know.

After a short but engaging tutorial-ish sequence that takes place during a pivotal moment in Drovian history, you’ll not only know the basics of the world’s lore but also be comfortable with the simple controls and game systems (which we’ll get to later). After these are established, a murder occurs that kicks off a wild story with surprisingly huge stakes and solar system-wide consequences.

Going into the game expecting nothing more than a simple contained plot to scratch that murder mystery itch, I was pleasantly surprised and at times, blown away by the attention and care put into world-building. I’m a sucker for lore, and Lacuna drip-feeds it to you as the story progresses as well as through the news mechanic. You can download news to your cell as the story progresses which provides more context about what’s happening and how people are reacting to it, some of which even reflect the choices you make.

The best part is, the fair amount of lore that’s steadily delivered through the plot, news items, and through conversations in the story itself, never gets overwhelming and keeps you immersed in the story and world from beginning to end.

Your Choices Actually Matter

Speaking of conversations, that’s what you’ll spend the majority of the game on, and this is where player agency comes in as well. Similar to titles by Telltale games, you’ll be able to choose different lines of conversation and make different choices at certain points in the story. Unlike a Telltale game, however, the choices you make actually matter and lead to different outcomes, some of which will have major consequences at times for specific characters and at times for the entire world.

Failing certain investigation sequences also leads to different outcomes, though these sequences, while they do require a bit of brainwork, are easy enough to the point I don’t think anyone will unintentionally fail any of them.

These forks in conversation are timed as well, which forces you to think and choose fast and adds to the tension. Also, the fact that there are no manual saves, only autosaves, means that you won’t be able to go back on a choice you made without starting the game over, which makes the choices that much more meaningful as you can’t save-scum like the scum you are, scum. Needless to say, there are multiple endings to discover on subsequent playthroughs.

You’ll investigate crime scenes, find clues, interrogate witnesses and suspects, and piece together what happened and why. Piecing together what happened is sadly too simplistic and just a matter of corroborating evidence (we’ll get to that later), but the why of it all, the wider conspiracy afoot is the true hook and I found myself completely invested in the story from the start.

The one negative I have is that the whole game (except for the tutorial) takes place on Ghara which was very disappointing as it doesn’t take full advantage of the world they’ve built up so well. The story is confined to only a few different locations on Ghara, and, though these all are distinct and stand apart from each other, the scope of the plot, I felt, is not reflected as well as it could’ve been. A couple of story beats on Drovia would’ve been much appreciated, as Ghara and Drovia never really felt less like two separate planets but rather, just two countries or even states, butting heads.

Other than that, the narrative is fantastic and excellently paced as well, there’s nary a dull moment and the game keeps you going from one plot point to the next effortlessly. If this were a book, it’d be a page-turner.

Actual Detective Work in a Detective Game? :O

All that said though, the game could’ve had the best plot ever, it could’ve been fucking Don Quixote and I still would’ve been disappointed if it didn’t implement the narrative into the gameplay well. It’s a game, after all, an interactive story. As I stated at the start of the review, I was desperately craving a detective game in which I actually had to do some, you know, deduction (which is a novel concept and too much to ask for in most AAA games apparently).

Thankfully, I’m overjoyed to say, the game did end up living up to those expectations. Though I have to say, most of the time the deductions were fairly easy, it definitely did require some evidence collection, corroboration, and deductive reasoning to solve cases. Though I didn’t have to think too hard about anything, I did have to think a little, which is all I wanted.

Also, the tools the game provides to do said deduction were very welcome and I’d definitely love to see more games incorporate these elements. First off there’s the inspection mode, which highlights possible clues around you that you can examine, as well as a tab on your Cell that documents all these clues you can come back to later. Then there’s the ‘Sheets’ tab where you actually submit your conclusion after the investigating.

But the thing I loved the most was the ‘Log’, which records every single conversation you have with anyone throughout the game! This Log ends up being integral to solving puzzles and determining who’s lying, examining motivations, etc., which I absolutely loved. Going back to what suspects said, comparing that with what other suspects said, and all of that with the evidence found on the scene – the building’s entry and exit time stamps, for example, was always fun and satisfying.

However, the rest of the gameplay interaction is extremely basic – the movement is just WASD, might as well have been a point-and-click, and there’s no combat at all, which is a shame as there are a couple of tense shootout scenes in the story which would’ve been ten times better if I had my hand on the wheel and was personally involved in the action.

The Sights & Sounds of Ghara

There’s honestly not much to say here, except rehash my positive point about the various places you’ll be visiting feeling distinct, and my disappointment that none of the story except for the tutorial takes place on Drovia or any other planet. Being confined to one planet when so much of the story is about the other makes little sense and is a travesty to the world-building the game establishes so well.

The few environments that you do get to explore are also pretty small and since there are no collectibles of any kind, there’s no real motive to explore either. I would’ve loved some non-clue ‘Examine’ options to further build the lore and provide historical context to the various places.

Aside from that though, the pixel art, while maybe not jaw-droppingly spectacular, is still pretty solid, stylish, and enjoyable. The animations are smooth and well, well-animated.

As for the audio, the soundtrack is honestly great! There are a few great, earworm piano melodies, a couple of which I found myself humming even days after I’d finished the game. The rest of the soundtrack is competent too and does a good job of establishing the suspenseful or ‘thinking-time’ atmosphere depending on context.

However, there’s no voice acting except for certain points throughout the story when the main character voices out his inner monologue, his thoughts, and feelings on what’s going on in the plot at that point, which I found very enjoyable and added to the noir aesthetic. Maybe the game would’ve been more engaging with full voice-acting but personally, I didn’t necessarily mind its absence.

Real Talk

At the end of the day, I definitely enjoyed every minute I spent on Ghara exploring, inspecting, conversing, smoking (don’t worry Mom, cancer has been cured in this world so no harm in it) and most of all, deducing. Lacuna is a fun and engaging game with a highly enjoyable plot, fantastic writing, great world-building, and some fun deduction tools that demand to be used, all of which make you truly ‘feel’ like a detective.

Honestly, Lacuna tells a really compelling story – easily the best story in any game this year and I’d go so far as to say one of the best stories I’ve ever played through in a game, ever, especially because of its choice-driven nature – it really makes you feel the gravity of each of your choices.

However, the game is a tad too easy, the world-building could’ve been even better with more explorable environments, and worst of all, Lacuna is criminally short – it only took me 6.5 hours to beat, and as someone who takes his time with games, takes notes, etc., I’m sure most players would finish it in 4.5. Also, the gameplay itself is not much more than a point-and-click, and the visuals, while solid, are nothing special.

Still, Lacuna is well worth it for its price and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking to do some sci-fi detective-ing!

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