Beautiful Desolation is a 2D isometric adventure game developed by The Brotherhood and set in a post-apocalyptic South Africa. The game originally released on PC in February 2020 and was published by Untold Tales for Nintendo Switch and PS4 on May 28, 2021. It has the gritty and moody look of a Fallout or Wasteland game; however, it plays like a point-and-click game with more puzzles and a focus on story and exploration rather than deep RPG systems. This is aided by an outstanding game soundtrack by Mick Gordon, known for his work on Doom, Prey and Wolfenstein. I love P&C games so this gelled with me straight away, though it did take some getting used to playing it on the PS5 with a controller.
The game starts off in Cape Town, South Africa in 1976. Mark Leslie and his wife Charlize are driving at night in a rainstorm. They are discussing what to do about Mark’s brother Don when they hear a rumble and suddenly see something appear in the sky which causes a shockwave, ripping up the road and throwing cars at them. They consequently crash, Charlize is killed, and Mark ends up in a leg brace. 10-years later, Mark, who is a journalist, arrives at brother Don’s airfield. Through interacting with a video PDA at the airport, we learn via cutscene that the Penrose object has advanced human technologies, eradicated hunger and disease and created immortality. The cost though is that AI has taken over with robots and other species gaining control.
Mark has been doing some digging and he believes the Penrose is not what everybody is saying it is. Mark wants to quickly land on the Penrose, take a backup of the data from a server and then they can blow the conspiracy wide open. Don is cautious as there is a big storm forecast but takes them up anyway. It is here where I faced the first of the game’s puzzles, and the solution involved sifting through the PDA for evidence you have collected thus far, in this case a code for a keypad was found. If you get to a puzzle and you have tried all options, you may need to explore more nearby zones to collect items/drawings. We are startled by a robotic dog-like drone creature, but as it is about to alert the authorities, an energy surge occurs, and we are whisked into an alternate future. Don and Mark, along with the robotic dog Pooch, need to figure out what happened and how to get home.
Not only did the story setting and amazing environments of Beautiful Desolation attract my attention, but more so it was the South African accents of the characters that gripped me. This is something I have rarely heard in a video game, and I enjoyed hearing the way they pronounced certain words. I have heard South African accents and slang in movies, and I have had a few South African friends and workmates over the years, but to see the words written in the subtitles, it gave more meaning and definition for me. Simple things like when they say what sounds like ‘ya’, it is spelt ‘ja’. And then there is ‘kak’ which I am totally adding to my vocabulary as its direct Afrikaans translation is ‘shit’.
Despite being 2D and isometric, there was an incredible amount of detail and depth perception in each scene. In doing some research into the game, the developers used photosymmetry to build their vision of a sci-fi African apocalypse and were able to put actual pieces of Africa into the levels, art and characters themselves using this method. There were some truly breathtaking vistas, locations and varying characters of different races, shapes and sizes ranging from twisted metallic AI, to talking moss, trees, and humanoids.
Navigating each scene with the controller in Beautiful Desolation took a bit of getting used to but overall was not too difficult. I learned early on to use the landscape as the pathway if a road or staircase weren’t obvious. There are invisible barriers to keep you falling off cliffs or broken bridges, and sometimes I wanted to go a particular path but had to wiggle my way around until it got the character onto the right path up some stairs.
I really struggled without having a minimap of each zone, particularly when there was a heap of backtracking between quests with no waypoints and trying to remember where a particular NPC was located. Thankfully when you are on the Buffalo, which is your method of quick travelling between locations and zones via warden teleporters, you can navigate the overworld yourself, or my much-preferred method was to bring up a list of locations and automatically path find my way there. I was very thankful for this pathfinding method otherwise a lot of time would have been wasted trying to remember where everything was situated. I admit, I had to do refer to Beautiful Desolation walkthrough’s to find particular NPCs, particularly if I had a few days break between playing sessions.
Meaningful objects in a scene are automatically highlighted with short descriptions to give you optional detail about the area and items around you, and interactable objects have a flashing icon, so there is no screen searching with the mouse like in PC point and click games. Being new to the PS5, I could see there were shortcut buttons at the bottom of the UI that would do something, but it took me a good while to figure out it meant pressing the directional arrow buttons. That is not a game issue, it has just been about 5 years since I have used a PlayStation controller.
Every single character you meet in Beautiful Desolation is voice acted and you will be given conversation options that dictate the tone of your response. As you progress the game and reach key plot points, 3D cutscenes are shown which helps to enrich the story arc you are playing through. It is a lengthy game, taking me about 15 or so hours to get through and I played in short bursts, so sometimes it was hard to remember what I had been doing previously. These cutscenes helped to make sense of what I had just completed, giving greater connections to the characters and their plight, and was a great addition.
You will find at a few points in the game where you will need to make a choice in which side you support in given situations. As you complete the steps towards completing each of these, your brother Don and Pooch will give their reasons for siding with either faction or race at that time, and your choice is permanent. In some instances, it meant completely wiping out the other choice, which has a permanent effect on the world, such as a devastingly burnt out crater where once was a village. It is quite impactful and after the first of such decisions, I was more cautious and ensured I paid closer attention to what the game was telling me about both sides. It made me care and make a measured choice, no matter if Don or Pooch had more reason to support either side.
Overall, Beautiful Desolation is a decent isometric game with outstanding voice acting featuring South African dialects and slang, amazing environment art and a gripping story. It will not be for everyone and is more of a slow burn story progression which suits me just fine as a gaming dad with limited time. Without a full journal and minimap that I am accustomed to these days, I did struggle with direction at times, particularly after not playing for a few days. However, it’s worth persisting to complete the story journey and meet all the weird and wonderful creatures along the way.