Platforms: PC - HTC Vive (Reviewed), Oculus Rift
Budget Cuts, the full release of Neat Corporation’s stealthy, knife chucking tech demo from back in 2016 successfully brings the core concepts we saw in the demo to life in a full-length VR title that’s fun and intense to play whether you’re new to VR or an old veteran.
The mechanics all feel carefully catered to the platform in a way that keeps things fun and natural the way the best VR games manage to pull off. These mechanics when combined with the Portal-esque humor and charming level design almost make you forget that you’re repeating a series of fetch and retrieval quests similar to some of the most basic indie horror games on the market.
What’s more, the number of obvious bugs present combined with a nearly game breaking glitch that kept us stuck on the first level for the initial hour or two of our time with the game were frustrating enough to make us wonder if Budget Cuts didn’t splurge in the right places during development.
Turn up the charm
Before we dive into what’s wrong with Budget Cuts, lets talk about the many things it does right, because it does do a lot of things right, so much so that it’s incredibly close to being one of the standout VR titles of 2018.
A lot of this comes down to Budget Cuts’ environmental design and atmosphere. Both of which pair well with a unique batch of gameplay features that work to create a sense of tension leveled off with a dry sense of humor that somehow keeps things upbeat when the game starts to show its buggier side.
Budget Cuts takes place in a post automation office environment under the thumb of a mega-corporation that’s slowly working to phase out its costly human workforce for a series of somewhat depressed robots. As one of the last humans working in the office environment that hasn’t been sent on permanent vacation, you’re tasked with navigating a diverse set of levels to track down the truth, along with a pile of keycards before you can make it out alive.
Along the way you’ll have to dodge a number of angry, gun toting battlebots that the CEO of the mega-corporation in question enlisted as “supervisors” for his workforce. Stealth is your friend in these situations, but the game also occasionally encourages you to experiment with various pointy office supplies like scissors or letter openers that just happen to be perfectly for throwing into the chassis of the occasional battlebot.
This is where Budget Cuts really shines. Dodging around desks to avoid supervisors, quickly snagging throwing knives with the intuitive inventory and grip mechanics and chucking them with varying degrees of finesse while trying to duck and weave around incoming shots. It’s heart pounding and the game feels like it would work as well as a full-scale office ninja simulator as a stealth game.
At one point I chucked a throwing dart at a supervisor while peaking out a vent in a broom closet, expecting either a quick kill or some funny reactions from what I thought was a safe area. Instead, the supervisor sprinted in a side door I hadn’t noticed and brought along three or so of his buddies. The ensuing chaos involved a lot of knife throwing, the discovery that I could disarm the battlebots if I was fast enough, and a lot of crazy ducking and weaving that left me sweating, covered in digital oil, and victorious.
These moments were fun and intense, and almost redeemed the stress and frustration caused by the bugs and glitches we encountered. It’s a simple balance of combat and stealth that adapts well to VR that Budget Cuts manages to nail.
The level layout also gives players a lot of options in terms of how they approach objectives and dodge around threats. I was actually surprised to find how many little nooks and crannies there are spread around the map that let you hide and stay stealthy. The level design is incredibly reminiscent of games like DIshonored and Prey, with multiple paths through levels that let you choose how you want to play.
I found myself accidentally stumbling into combat or being discovered quite a bit, partly because I was so interested in exploring I would usually walk face first into whatever new kind of guard or supervisor Neat Corporations had in store for that level. Fortunately, supplies were usually plentiful and the few times I was caught empty handed by smaller bots I was able to actively panic and slam some of the smaller detector robots into a wall to break them, which is a nice bit of interactivity that I enjoyed immensely.
That said, most of the objectives themselves are primarily focused on travelling from point A to point B, with various brands of keycards and light investigation in between. The level design and the humorous atmosphere helps here, but after a certain point it starts to get a little stale when you have to go rummaging through office supplies for yet another keycard that some employee forgot to turn into security.
The teleportation mechanics are also a great touch for a stealth VR game, and functions kind of like a portal gun that tosses a little ball out that you can then use to preview or scout an area before you teleport. Personally, this mechanic felt cool, but a little slow and clunky for my taste. There were plenty of times where I died while waiting for my little teleporter ball to find a home near a desk or somewhere similar, and the fact that you can’t teleport into a location if you’re even somewhat clipping into the environment got a bit frustrating at times.
I found myself craving a basic locomotion system for small micromovements or more mundane walks down hallways pretty early on, because having to wait for the ball to finish bouncing and then trigger the teleport once the connection was established meant I spent quite a bit of time just lightly waiting for the game to catch up to what I wanted to do.
Fortunately, the whole game can be cleared in about four hours if you don’t encounter any major bugs, so this fetch and retrieve style of objectives and the teleportation doesn’t really have time to get too stale. There are a few optional difficulties, but the humor can get repetitive so unless you’re really trying to scrape together a reason to dive back in you probably won’t feel the need.
Four hours of gameplay is a little light for a $30 game, and considering the bugs we’re about to discuss we’re hesitant to consider this worth the money until the developers roll out some patches to fix the game.
The pink slip
That said, the bugs we encountered while playing Budget Cuts are the biggest mark against the title in general, and we hope that a lot of them get ironed out in the next few months.
There are a lot of small issues that are easily forgivable because they were generally only mildly inconvenient or easy to work around.
For example, I had a bit of trouble teleporting with something held in my hand, which would cause the item to seemingly collide with the edge of the preview portal on the teleporter and fire like a dart into the wall in front of us when we teleported. At one point this did send me back to a loading screen when a knife launched into a wall near a supervisor, which made enough noise for it to turn around and spot me, but as I played I learned to keep the knife away from the teleporter preview and that leveled off.
There were also plenty of AI bugs, the occasional NPC walking into a wall, even a guard that I thought was dead at one point that hopped up and sprinted away never to be seen or heard from again. There were also occasionally areas where a guard would spot you after stealth teleporting even if it had no line of sight. All of which were annoying little issues that usually sent us back to the loading screen or the beginning of a level.
The bug we couldn’t forgive was the one that had us stranded in the first level for over an hour as we tried to troubleshoot the issue. The bug in question involved the first suitcase in the game, which you’re supposed to unlock with a key hidden on your desk.
Except, after we died trying to figure out the stealth teleport mechanic later on in the level, it started us from the beginning, made us run all the way through the tutorial again, only to bring us back to the briefcase with the key stuck in the lock and no way to open it to get the item we needed to progress in the game.
We couldn’t fix the issue by restarting the game, we could temporarily fix the game by starting on a fresh save file, but when we died later on in the level once again, the bug repeated itself. By the time we found a reddit post about bugs in the game we had gone through the tutorial and first level more times than we’re willing to admit. Even then the post just revealed that we could open the menu and restart the level by holding the touch pads, which just meant we had to run through the sequence again one more time, not die, and then complete the level to progress.
Normally I would be willing to forgive this kind of thing in a freshly released VR game, but Budget Cuts was released on June 14, after they delayed for several weeks to fix other bugs. We’re reviewing it now in the second week of July, and we still ran into these bugs, which makes it feel like a lot of these issues aren’t being addressed.
Based on our research most of these bugs are hit and miss depending on the player, some people never have to deal with the issues, others have reported that they can’t finish the main game because of broken or missing items, getting teleported outside of the map, or being stuck on a level because of a broken briefcase.
Maybe the devs are waiting to fix a bunch of bugs in a single patch, maybe the bugs are particularly difficult to track down, but over three weeks after release feels like a long time to wait for a fully released VR game to iron out issues like this. Either way, we can’t recommend a game no matter how interesting the VR content is, if it still has issues like this that make us question whether we wanted to keep playing at all.
By the time I managed to get through the first level, I was ready to quit entirely, and I only kept playing because I knew I was writing a review. I’m glad I did, because the gameplay afterwards was undoubtedly fun and engaging despite the other smaller bugs I ran into, but the fact that I almost quit because of a nearly gamebreaking bug on the first level says something about the quality of the experience you can expect.
Given a few months for the developers to do some QA testing and to release a few patches fixing many of these issues and Budget Cuts would fit right at home on a list of top ten VR games of 2018, but until then it’s buyer beware.