Ritual’s Sin Episodes: Emergence is a strange case for several reasons. To begin with it’s a sequel to Sin, a game that’s eight years old. Most franchises are lucky to be remembered after two years have gone by. Second: though it is in stores, it’s being distributed primarily in digital form through Valve’s Steam network. Finally, the ‘episodes’ bit refers to the fact that Emergence is only the first in a series of small, budget-priced games that tell an overarching story. To my knowledge this is a completely new way of distributing games.
In the beginning
Don’t take this as a bad sign, but one slip-up the game makes right away is in omitting background to the story. If you haven’t played Sin (thoughtfully offered for free), it’s difficult to understand who the characters are and why you should care. The game launches right into its own events as if Sin had just ended.
To remedy the problem: your character is John Blade, the owner of a private police force called Hardcorps. His nemesis is SinTek chairwoman (slash nymphomaniac) Elexis Sinclaire, who you earlier learned is trying to ‘advance’ human evolution through a street drug called U4. As Emergence opens Blade and his team are tracking down an associate of Sinclair named Radek.
Up to speed? Good. While there is enough of a story present to keep you interested, the game is effectively a straight-forward first-person shooter, all about firefights. No puzzle or stealth sequences to be found here. At worst, you’ll have to find a control panel or some means of blowing up an obstacle.
There are plenty of explosions in Emergence. SinTek is curiously sloppy when it comes to chemical storage, so there are hundreds of containers waiting to be shot when enemies wander by. The pyrotechnics are quite something too, with blinding sparks, flames spewing everywhere, and punctured gas canisters flying around the room. Because the game uses the Source engine Blade can also pick up these containers and lay them as traps, or else throw them at the enemy and shoot them there.
This episode only has four weapons (a pistol, grenades, a shotgun and an assault rifle), but that makes sense given that it’s the opening chapter. I don’t mind at all, personally. Each gun has an alternate fire mode and remains useful to the end, so it never feels as though you’re resorting to anything. Polished sounds and animation help make combat extremely entertaining, as it ought to be in a shooter.
Enemy variety is also limited to four main types, which is a little more disconcerting. There’s the standard SinTek guard, a guard with a jetpack (another exploding container), a minigun-equipped SinTek soldier, and a couple of sizes of mutant. After a while, the predictability of the enemies might grate on a few players. It’s just fortunate that the guards have the same assortment of weapons and fire modes that you do.
Actually, Ritual has also added something called the ‘Personal Challenge System’ to Emergence. Hokey name aside, this feature is used to scale difficulty automatically based on an adjustable rate and your in-game performance. A handy illustration is that if you find yourself being decimated, Emergence will notice this and eventually make enemies easier to kill. Conversely, it will start to make them tougher again if it realizes you’re rolling right over them. Keeping the PCS slider in the middle seems to ensure enemies will always be challenging.
Something refreshing about Emergence is that if you stick to default difficulty and PCS settings, the game is still unapologetically hard on your first run. Many current first-person shooters are prone to giving you a wide berth before you can fail; this one, by contrast, may kill you before you have a gun. That sounds like a negative, but in this case it’s just showing respect for the average gamer’s abilities and persistence. Other developers could stand to learn.
Having said that, Emergence is a short game no matter how hard it’s configured to be. Six or seven hours is the most you can expect outside of replays, so you may literally finish the game in a single sitting. I would normally call this a deal-killer for the same reason I tell people to stay away from games like Black - six hours is not worth $40-60. Thankfully Emergence is selling for $20 US, and if you order through Steam you don’t even have to pay tax or shipping. At this price the game becomes a reasonable value.
Really, I’m straining to think of something that could constitute a serious complaint. I could talk about the game’s sexism - the two females in the game have been made into sex objects - but at that, they’re at least treated as intelligent, well-armed sex objects. Besides, anyone who might be offended by a hint of sexuality would likely take issue with the violence first.
Emergence should serve as a great launching point for Ritual’s experiment. It’s a solid game that knows its audience, and while it is pared down, that’s only as far as needed for a game half the length and cost of an average one.
For me the important question is whether Ritual can maintain (or improve on) the quality of Emergence in upcoming episodes. Repeating the same formula throughout the series could cause interest to drop fast, or outright destroy the idea of episodic development, leaving gamers disappointed and long-term resources wasted. Here though lies an opportunity. Because each episode is supposed to have such a short turnaround, concepts that didn’t make it into one product will have the chance of slipping into another a few months later, rather than years. This could allow the series to evolve faster than its full-sized competition, which would be a fitting tribute to Ms. Sinclaire, if Ritual follows through.