REVIEW: Volume

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Developer: Bithell Games
Publisher: Bithell Games
Price: $19.99 (cross-buy support for PS4/Vita)
Version played: PS Vita

Mike Bithell’s lovable platformer featuring geometric shapes won me over with its charming narrative, and although his new stealth game Volume has a bit of that going on as well, I found myself coming back because of its accessibly fun gameplay instead.

This futuristic retelling of the Robin Hood legend has been available on PS4 and PC since last year, but it just landed on the Vita handheld a few days ago. As much as I prefer to play games on the big screen though, Volume is among the best to-go games in the Vita’s arsenal–the narrative is minimal, levels are bite-sized, and there’s a seemingly endless supply of user-generated content to experience, thanks to its built-in level editor. I also want to live in a world that moves along with David Housden’s utterly gripping soundtrack, even if it means sitting idly at the title screen while doing other things on the computer.

Volume tells the tale of one Rob Locksley, a sneaky thief with a dated A.I. companion voiced by Thomas Was Alone’s Danny Wallace. Through the use of virtual (or augmented) reality, his A.I. buddy Alan replicates different rooms and layouts of the rich and infamous residing in England, while Locksley himself shows the world how to remain unseen within them. How? Why, the internet, of course! That’s right, Locksley is a near-future game streamer, and as such, his adventures will gain him a massive following, along with the occasional troll (voiced by the one and only Jim Sterling).

In his attempt to rob from the rich (and give the poor a crash course in doing the same), Locksley is met with a new rival–insanely rich arms manufacturer and award winning actor Andy Serkis. Well, it’s not as if the Lord of the Rings veteran is out to get you, but rather it’s he who brings Gisborne to life in-game.

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An enemy’s cone of vision is easy enough to spot, but even easier to avoid by seeking cover behind walls.

That being said, narrative doesn’t exactly run rampant in Volume. There’s a handful of cut-scenes that move the story along, and only a few brief back-and-forth moments of banter between the game’s three characters. You always get the idea of Volume’s goings on, but it’s far from overwhelming in terms of lore and text-based storytelling. Each level usually contains a snippet or two to read, be it a letter from a fan or a magazine article, and the stage select screen vaguely debriefs you on who and where you’ll be stealing from.

Mike Bithell keeps his futuristic tale grounded in reality with comedic nods to Locksley being “bigger than Minecraft”, navigating a stage inspired by Pac-Man, and even a brief mention of tweeting. Overall, it’s a nice dash of realism that’s steeped in cocky English humor.

Thomas Was Alone proved that storytelling could remain the focus of a minimalist platformer, but Volume is all about the gameplay. Clearly there’s no absence of story, it’s just not what kept me coming back. As expected, Locksley stealthily moves about the targeted area using the left analog stick, while using a combination of face and shoulder buttons to distract enemies, interact with the environment, and use a variety of handy thieves tools. Snapping in to cover is simple, and thanks to the game’s low-poly color scheme, it’s super easy to spot collectables and avoid an enemy’s cone of vision.

Where most modern stealth games bog me down with gadgets, weapons, and somewhat frustrating gameplay, Bithell’s offering dished out neat little features just as I was starting to get a little too comfortable. For instance, after using the bugle to distract enemies over the course of a few stages, I eventually unlocked the ability to leap walls, summon a distracting hologram, or place trip wires. Just as I became used to avoiding snipers, who have a rather long field of view, I had to contend with hounds and their penchant for drawing guards to my location. They can even see through my disguise ability, making them a severe nuisance.

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Totally a dinosaur.

Enemies aren’t palette swapped clones, with each having their own strengths and weaknesses, but their A.I. could use a little work. The most basic enemy types can be evaded simply by snapping to cover and sliding along two corner tiles every single time. They literally can’t see beyond their cone of vision either, so you can break dance or play the drums (theoretically) while standing directly behind them without fear of detection.

Volume lives by a strict set of rules, and I appreciate that. I usually know what to expect, and I can use that to my advantage when things get a little dicey. Some things are just wildly unpredictable, though. Locksley’s ability to send out a clone is supposed to draw attention to the clone iteself, but mostly brought the enemies to me instead. Rarely did it work as intended, so I came up with ways to avoid using it altogether.

Other gadgets, like the blackjack, seem severely over-powered. Using this item I could temporarily disable an enemy from a distance, but the cooldown timer was so short that I could use it repeatedly before said enemy could even regain consciousness. I knew that whenever a stage presented me with a blackjack, I could be as careless as I wanted–but that’s not how I wanted to play a stealth game.

Slight A.I. issues aside, my only other hangup is with Volume’s checkpoint system and its inability to reliably work properly. There were occasions where I was forced to replay an entire level after dying, even after crossing through multiple checkpoints, but those moments were few and far between. Thankfully each stage can be completed in mere minutes, so the setback was never major, but it’s still frustrating nonetheless. I did experience a slight bit of lag in some of the later levels–particularly ones that flood the screen with lasers and collectibles–but this only occurred after I’d been caught, so it was never an issue.

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Contrary to many of Volume’s promotional images, the entire game takes place from a top-down perspective.

Trophy hunters will be happy to hear that Volume is a straightforward Platinum. There are only a few story related Trophies, with most tasking the player with repeated use of gadgets, dying a bunch, and getting spotted. The only annoying Trophies have to do with reading lore items scattered throughout each of the game’s 100 stage. At this time (*cough cough* Bithell!) there’s no way to track which stages have lore items you may have missed, so your only options are to be extremely thorough in your search, follow a video guide online, or risk replaying through every single stage again and again. For a game that offers user created levels, a level editor, cross-platform leaderboards, and par times for each stage, I found it odd there were no Trophies associated with these features, but hey… I’ll take an easy Platinum any day of the week.

Over the last few days, it wasn’t surprising to find me buried under blankets, hood up, headphones on, totally absorbed in Volume’s low-poly universe (although creating levels really wasn’t my thing). It takes the basic fundamentals of the stealth genre and allows them to stand at the forefront of the experience, and it does so fantastically.

Volume has all the makings of a perfect to-go game and feels right at home on the Vita. If you travel a lot, have downtime between classes, or you’re just looking for something to play in short bursts, I can confidently say it’s right up there with the likes of Velocity 2X, Super Meat Boy, and Spelunky. It wholeheartedly deserves a spot on your Vita’s memory card.

*So where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I did spend a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if it’s worth playing.

Full disclosure: This review was done using a copy of Volume provided by the game’s developer, Mike Bithell. I pride myself on providing unbiased reviews to fellow consumers and constructive feedback to hard working developers. Whether or not I pay for the game is completely irrelevant. 

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