The tragedy of the Aral Sea is little heard of on our American shores, it seems, although it’s heralded to be one of the planet’s greatest environmental catastrophes. It’s located in Central Asia, bordering Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and in the 60s the Soviets were prone to irrigation projects which diverted the waterflow, disrupting the natural ecosystem. Worse, it has been the testing ground for biochemical weaponry. And this is the setting to Working Parts’ second game, Residue: Final Cut.
Set closer to present day, the desolate Aral Sea is littered with wrecks of fishing and drilling boats, their rusting carcasses a constant presence in the game. The revealed sandy beaches remind more of a desert, the remaining water hides dark secrets, and barrels filled with toxic sludge line the area. Also scattered about are ships holding memos and memorabilia of the crews that worked there some years ago. We play as the “good guys,” starting with a disgraced Russian entrepreneur named Nikolai, who found some secret in the depths of the sea that could potentially save it. As he and his assistant Ostrovska venture deep below to position a device they refer to as “baby,” something goes wrong. Though Nikolai escapes, Ostrovska heroically stays behind underwater to finish the task, with only a single oxygen tank.
Residue is essentially a narrative-driven platformer with multiple characters. The Final Cut refines the original’s controls and movement for a better experience. The controls are very simple – arrows keys and one “action” button for jumping, climbing, or entering doors. Joining the two are Ostrovska’s son, Emilio, and the boy’s grandfather, Jumagul. Arriving on site, the pair teams up, so as Emilio jumps around, the grandfather supports him. Along the puzzle-platforming, there is almost always someone talking, and all the narrative is fully-voiced.
The platforming being the heart of the game, there isn’t much trouble to get through the three chapters, subdivided into acts. Since there are no enemies, leaving the player free to focus on the game’s involving storyline, death is relatively uncommon and checkpoints are fairly frequent. It’s usually simple enough to figure out where to go next. The plus is that there are many secrets, such as conceptual art, to unlock, so avid explorers can get even more out of the story by finding stray objects, memos, and relics that give more insight into the setting and the characters.
There weren’t many difficulties in traversing the game’s world, although the 2D backdrop can be slightly confusing. The pathing is a little unintuitive, since the background ledges or ship elements come into play (as in, were climbable) only from specific vantage points. It’s a double-edged sword, as it lets Working Parts cleverly hide secrets, but makes progressing a little strange. The backgrounds themselves are colorful and impactful, since many of the tankers, ships, and crates contrast with the desert and water, but are simultaneously bleak, less vibrant than expected, somewhat washed out, drawing players in to the atmospheric graveyard.
While I’m a fan of the graphics, the animations are pretty awkward. It seems that all the characters could use a few more frames of walking. Climbing is worse, as the animation doesn’t really meld well with the background. It’s probably the most jarring with the hook-wielding Nikolai, who can get into some weird spots. (By the way, you’d think he would wear something other than a suit to an expedition.) I didn’t have much problems with hooking, as long as I knew where I was going. Everyone gets knocked down a little too easily though, either from a bird flying, a medium fall, or the hook itself. Still, the mechanics work fine, and one of my favorite parts was with Jumagul’s flashlight, who, being the slow grandpa he is, saves the acrobatics for others and instead provides supportive light. Shining it around revealed investigatory details that propelled the story.
Working Parts’ game design shines through in their interaction with narrative. The cutscenes rarely ever were non-interactive, almost always letting the character advance the story through his or her own actions. Some scripts were a little obvious to tell, but those were few and far in-between. For the most part, there are always two characters progressing in the scenery and interacting simultaneously. There are also frequent flashbacks shown with fade out “ghost” versions of the characters, which pull together some of the backstory. The Aral Sea’s dark imprint is visible on the characters, who are a little dark, far from innocent, and resolved to their viewpoints, almost painfully.
Dialogue is another matter. The voice-acting has convincing accents, and all the lines being voiced is definitely a bonus. Unfortunately, the delivery leaves a lot to be desired. While Jumagul has tangible warmth in his voice, showing his concern for Emilio’s rash actions, the boy sounds completely out of character, rarely showing any emotion at all. And that’s partially intended, but it makes him sound like someone from a school play. Nikolai works well, playing the emotionally-detached but determined businessman, yet worse is Altabek, who narrates a lot of the passages and functions in flashbacks. His voice sounds incredibly phlegmatic and lacks almost any inflection, unchanging for whatever lines he’s doing. Unfortunately, he gets most of the thoughtful, well-written lines in the script. The longer the game went, the more annoying it seemed to get. This isn’t a huge crutch, as lines are well-written (if a little too serious at times) and the ongoing action provides distraction anyway.
If the voice-acting is somewhat lacking, the music makes up for it. The soundtrack by Joel Bille is an incredible fusion of the folk-like, local accordion with orchestral overtones, backed up by a mystical-sounding voice. It springs up just at the right moments, as the action is rising, adding a little epicness to the already involving, grand story, which ultimately, is a much more personal tale than it seems. Although some moments are a tad predictable, there are both bloodlines and the sea itself at stake, a conflict personified by two different characters, with dramatic conclusions. Plus, the pause screen is one of the most memorable I’ve seen a game do, to date.
Maybe Residue isn’t downright fun, nor is it as perfect of a platformer as Super Meat Boy, but the folks at Working Parts deserve real credit simply for doing something different. But their storytelling isn’t just for the sake of standing out. It’s a genuinely transporting experience that invites players, almost unwittingly, to places they wouldn’t have thought to venture to otherwise. There are some parallels and design similarities to Residue‘s predecessor, They Breathe, and rightfully so. Working Parts achieves what not every indie game team does: Signature design. What’s emerging is a company that’s integrating classic 2D systems with uniquely set narratives, and weaving them together into experiences that stand out. While Residue has a short playthrough (although it has extras that extend its lifespan), for the asking price, it’s a win. It’s a testimony that experimental storytelling has a place, a market, room to growth, and a player’s ears, eyes, and imagination to invigorate. The game can currently be purchased for $5.99 on Steam.