Subject 13’s creator Paul Cuisset is no stranger to adventure games, having designed the commercially successful Flashback. Subject 13 is his latest crowdfunded project and is a throwback to classic 90s-era point-and-click exploration games like Myst. While Subject 13 hits the right beats with its engaging story and inventive puzzles, it comes up short of being a great modern adventure.
The plot begins with a scene of your character drowning. It’s not long before you inexplicably wake up in a pod, and a disembodied computer voice calling you “Subject 13” suggests you escape the facility that has imprisoned you inside. The rest of the story is told through short dialogues and hidden “testimony” voice recordings throughout the game. Although the conversations between 13 and the robotic voice are intriguing, the testimonies most effectively explain the lore behind the strange events and build up to the game’s big twist. While sci-fi enthusiasts may already be familiar with the game’s tropes, the narrative still kept me in suspense throughout.
Subject 13 bills itself as a third-person exploration game, a valiant attempt at transforming the traditional first-person pointer experience. However, your character controls awkwardly, frequently getting stuck between objects and having trouble turning corners. As you fumble around your surroundings, you find items to pick up and tinker with. The game’s inventory management is par for the course, allowing you to use items on the environment or combine them to create something new.
The crux of the gameplay lies in its puzzle design. There are numerous mind-benders and logic puzzles, but the majority of them come across as artificial. Many are simple variations of block sliders, code decoders, and symbol-matching challenges. It’s disappointing when you start up a machine, only to find yet another block slider. To the game’s credit, there are a handful of creative environmental puzzles that successfully make use of the game’s exploration and inventory management. Using a flammable mushroom to burn brambles, translating Mayan numbers using a crystal ball, and building a makeshift compass are standout riddles that should delight even the most cynical adventure fans.
The puzzles are tricky, but not overly difficult. If you get stuck, a helpful hint system ensures that you’re on the right path. However, none of that will help with the game’s cruel final puzzle, which is a gargantuan version of a well-known Windows freeware game. If you make even one mistake, the entire puzzle resets, only leaving behind a slight indication of what you did wrong. Even if you know how to solve it, the immense scale of the puzzle is utterly ridiculous and seems intended to shallowly extend the otherwise short five-hour experience.
There is one constant in every puzzle: clunky controls. Subject 13 began as a PC game that let you use a mouse, the preferred control for point-and-clicks. Other console ports from the genre have utilized the fairly precise d-pad. Instead, Subject 13 sidesteps that logic altogether and forces you to use the PlayStation 4 controller’s analog stick to unintuitively interact with 2D puzzles. The issues don’t stop there. You frequently have to rotate items, move objects, or manually open locks. In any other game, this would be natural with the analog stick. In Subject 13, you must press a button while moving the stick, as if you were dragging-and-dropping with a mouse. If that weren’t bad enough, the stick is poorly responsive when manipulating an item. As a result, it can take multiple attempts just to rotate an object 180 degrees.
On the other hand, the sound design is excellent. The soft, atmospheric music presents the game’s themes of dread and loneliness. An eerie violin plays when you solve a puzzle, reflecting both success and a fear of what’s to come. Creaky wood, clanking metal, and crumbling ruins also help create an ambience akin to a survival horror. The voice acting is fairly decent, considering that there are only two voice actors in the entire production. Sometimes the voices don’t match the text, but it’s a small nitpick. A lot of effort was put into the detailed backgrounds. Too bad the same attention to detail wasn’t invested into the main character’s appearance. He has an odd, emotionless expression most of the time, even when confronted by a bear.
As a point-and-click adventure fan, I liked Subject 13 despite its flaws. There were some shining examples of environmental puzzles and an interesting story that hooked me. Due to the faulty controls and the horrible final puzzle, I can only recommend this game to the most devout fans of the genre. This game was made for those fans, as the Kickstarter suggests. With just a bit more polish, Subject 13 could have been a solid example of a modern point-and-click adventure.
I am a lifelong gamer, having grown up with Nintendo since I was young. My passion for gaming led to one of the greatest moments of my life, my video game themed wedding!