Platforms: PC (reviewed)
When we think of the spy genre, we usually think of daring agents who use sleek cars, clever gadgets, and a silver tongue to save the day in style, but we don’t often think of the many men and women behind the scenes who help to grease the proverbial wheels for their super-spy comrades. Safe House, a new game from indie developer Labs Games, attempts to flip the script a bit by focusing on the happenings of a secret government headquarters. However, what begins as a clever twist on conventional strategy gameplay quickly devolves into a tedious, repetitive slog that will test even the most patient of gamers.
Running The Show
In Safe House, players are put in charge of their very own clandestine operations facility where they can complete various tasks (puzzles) and deploy operatives on missions. The facility is viewed from a sideways 2D angle and, aside from a few starter rooms such as a front entryway and a cargo loading dock at the back, the player is given free rein to construct additional rooms, each with their own specific purpose.
The game’s story campaign also functions as a sort of drawn out tutorial mode as the player is slowly introduced to new rooms and their associated functions, all of which are catalogued in a dossier the player can access at any time. Of course, while the game’s narration implies that the dossier is optional, it very much isn’t. In fact, constantly pulling up the dossier is mandatory for most of the game’s puzzles since it contains key information such as ciphers and puzzle keys that the player has to constantly refer back to, making the lack of hotkeys just the first in a long litany of issues.
A large majority of the rooms that a player can build unlock an associated puzzle-based task, though calling some of the room tasks “puzzles” is being a bit generous. In almost every instance, the game fails to adequately explain how a puzzle works, leaving the player to troubleshoot on their own. For example, the very first puzzle you’re introduced to involves meeting potential informants at the front entryway. The informant is supposed to provide a code word and, if the word is on a prescribed list in the dossier, the player gives a specific response, and then if the informant replies with a second code word, they’re admitted entry.
What the game doesn’t explain is that the informant doesn’t just say one word, they say an entire sentence, leaving the player to carefully scan the sentence for code words. On my first attempt, I tried to respond with a sentence of my own (you have to manually type in words rather than just select them from a list) that contained the correct response word and failed the puzzle. It wasn’t until later that I discovered you’re supposed to only respond with the single word response. This was a persistent problem I would end up encountering many more times: Safe House was all too happy to fail me for the slightest error, and yet would not say what exactly that error was.
The Spy Who Bored Me
The story that ties Safe House’s main campaign together is standard boilerplate stuff about the U.S. trying to overthrow a rogue foreign government, and to its credit the game makes an admirable attempt to drum up drama. But the brief flashes of compelling narrative the player witnesses as part of the story campaign aren’t worth the hours of monotonous gameplay you have to wade through in the meantime. Once you’ve unlocked all the different puzzle types, the main gameplay loop becomes a tedious slog in which you solve randomized puzzles and earn cash until the day ends.
Along with puzzles, you can also eventually recruit spies and soldiers whom you can then send out on missions in which success is determined by a small series of RPG-esque stats and skills (each mission has a percentage chance of success and that chance is improved if the operative you deploy has ranked up in certain skills).
Failing a mission has no real consequences other than having to retry it the next day, but failing a puzzle not only denies you the cash you would have earned (cash is used both to construct and upgrade rooms, and to hire new operatives), it also saps that cash amount from your existing stockpile and awards it to your unseen enemies. If the amount of cash your enemies acquire reaches certain thresholds (i.e. if you fail too many tasks), you’ll incure penalties such as a decreased chance to successfully complete future missions.
Again, all this sounds interesting in theory, but believe me when I say that, in practice, it’s actually just frustrating. You only have a limited amount of time each day to complete puzzle tasks (though you’re allowed to finish up your last task of the day once the timer is up) so you have to balance efficiency with accuracy since, as mentioned above, failing even a single puzzle can have severe consequences.
My entire story mode playthrough of Safe House took about four hours, but much of that time was spent waiting for a day to finish so that any pending story-related tasks I had left would be completed (it takes an entire day to finish a mission or build a new room). Little story events help to break up the monotonous waiting somewhat, but towards the end I was trying to get through story tasks as quickly as possible just so it would be over.
On top of all that, Safe House’s user interface is very spotty, with the game often struggling to register mouse clicks, or worse, register them so quickly that I would inadvertently select the wrong option for a puzzle and fail it. I also noticed a few typos in the game’s text prompts along with other minor UI errors, though they honestly didn’t bug me that much since I was already quite frustrated by the inconsistent mouse clicks and repetitive gameplay.
To be totally honest, Safe House feels to me like a game that was designed for mobile platforms with its time-gated structure, repetitive gameplay, and click-heavy 2D interface. It should be mentioned that the entirety of Safe House was made by a single person (Labs Games self-identifies as a Canada-based one-person operation on its website), but even that doesn’t excuse how little fun I had playing it.