Trapping you in a vast field of space wreckage with nothing more than an immortal chicken for company, Breathedge is a survival-adventure game with an undeniably novel setup. Instead of punching trees, you’ll navigate a three-dimensional, zero-gravity environment in order to snag supplies, craft tools, and avoid suffocation, all while trying to uncover the twisting plot behind the crash of the largest space liner in history – which happened with you on it. Despite the fresh setting, you’ll only get a taste of some rudimentary survival gameplay before a scripted story takes over and drives you out of the survival mechanics entirely. The sense that another wondrous discovery is just around the corner is what drives these games… and Breathedge doesn’t have it.
Breathedge is desperate to please with its jokes, slapstick humor, and goofy concepts like corpse-powered coffin robots. It’s self-aware that it’s a single-player, story-driven survival game and makes references to tropes of the genre (as well as other sci-fi games like Alien: Isolation and Mass Effect), including gags about shoehorned plot contrivances, artificially extended wait times, stale gameplay, and fetch quests. Unfortunately, Breathedge is guilty of the things it makes jokes about, full of the most tedious, repetitive kinds of survival game clichés. Even when I was laughing, its awareness of these issues doesn’t make them any less of a problem, and humor isn’t a substitute for innovative gameplay.
Breathedge’s main contribution to survival games is its movement, which is at least different enough to make the early routine novel. It was fun to putter a round in microgravity at first, bouncing off things and peeking behind asteroids. It’s amusing to snag floating resources out of the debris field that surrounds you. Many of the ruined spaceships that make up its world and the environments within it are designed quite well, with new things to find often hidden nearby or enticingly placed in plain view across a distance that you’re not sure how to cross yet. The layout of the early survival areas is one of Breathedge’s greatest strengths, feeling both very deliberately designed and like they could be real places. Which is good, since you tend to go back and forth through the same parts of them over and over and over.
That’s because everything you do is limited by your air supply, which you have to constantly keep an eye on. Your ticking clock will peak at only around 10 or 15 minutes, and that’s if you devote lots of inventory space to oxygen refills. Generally I had far less time than that to explore and gather before I needed to retreat to a source of air… then tediously wait for my air supply to refill, which can take two minutes. Then I’d travel back out and get a few minutes of work done (if I was lucky) either exploring or gathering resources before I had to go fill up my oxygen again. The idea of limited air supply works a lot better in a game like Subnautica because when you’re running low on air all you have to do is swim straight up for a quick breather before returning to the interesting things you were doing.
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In addition to tediously waiting for your air to refill, you also have to wait for crafting to finish, which involves watching a bar slowly fill as you do nothing at all. You’ll also need to wait for research to finish, which operates on a timer of 15 minutes or more that goes down no matter what you’re doing. Killing time like this is absurd in a single-player game with no time pressure otherwise. It does nothing but make Breathedge longer.
So most of your time is spent either waiting for a bar to fill or collecting resources. In true survival game fashion, you collect resources to make the things you need to go collect more, different resources, all in order to build some other thing to advance the plot. Gathering resources is as simple as moving around to snag floating things or getting out a new tool from your inventory (for some bizarre reason you only have four quickbar slots) to click on a static object with it. Doing all that in zero gravity starts out novel, but it never evolves in a way to keep it interesting, and even lacks any satisfying sound or animation to accompany it. No terrain deformation, no automatic or upgraded gatherers, no factories – no real meaningful base-building at all, actually. It’s just a lot of clicking and hand-crafting, offering what’s essentially the most basic, early gameplay of games like Subnautica, Empyrion, or ARK without any of the significantly more efficient and fun advancement that comes later.
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Meanwhile, your oxygen has ticked down and you’ll need to go back to refill it. Oh, and your frustratingly flimsy tools broke midway through doing that. I frequently carried two copies of every tool because one wouldn’t even last through the most basic expeditions. Why force me to recreate tools when a repair system would work just as well? Why not provide upgraded versions with increased durability for more than a single one of the five common tools? These are problems plenty of survival games have solved already, but Breathedge ignores them all.
Your reward for success in here is to do the same thing over again, and I felt punished for doing well. When you build a base, for example, making it bigger means you get to spend more time plugging oxygen leaks with chewing gum every time you come home. There’s no automation or efficiency upgrades to be found, nor are there advanced tools that change how you play or give you new resources. Aside from a few cosmetic things to construct, there’s barely any progression at all. The stuff you do in the first hour is the stuff you’ll be doing for the next 15.
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It’s the worst kind of survival gameplay, making all the simplest mistakes from games that came before it. For example, even as you get faster travel methods or gear to speed up exploration or reduce the burden of your air supply, the environments get bigger to match. A few more seconds of speed boost or a goofy space car don’t do much to dull the sense that you’re not making meaningful progress each time you leave safety.
It’s quite unlike most survival games, where exploration is a key factor that rewards the curious or bold – exploring the wrong way in Breathedge mostly seems to end in sadness, death, and a reload if you don’t happen to find a new oxygen source. Considering that the autosave only kicks in at station entrances and exits, there’s a lot of potential to lose significant progress if you forget to use the manual save option.
And when you have every upgrade and can finally explore at your leisure? Breathedge discards the oxygen concept entirely, along with the crafting and whatever pointless base you’ve built, shifting entirely out of the survival genre and into something more like an adventure game. That’s right: The last 10 hours of the survival game that took me 25 hours total aren’t a survival game at all. Arguably that’s a good thing, because Breathedge’s survival elements don’t manage to shake things up beyond the basics, but what comes after is worse.
Instead of discovery, the second half relies entirely on plot to drive you forward. However, that plot is simple and linear, and the first two chapters take place in the sandbox survival environment, with two to six major things for you to explore and build. As the story goes on, it shifts to other environments and becomes completely linear, with its sandbox elements disappearing entirely in favor of constrained areas that play like a 3D adventure and are laid out like an FPS from 2005. Or, perhaps more accurately, a straight-line walking simulator – except sometimes you have to backtrack to a crafting station because your tool broke.
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It’s a shame, because I wanted to like things about Breathedge. A lot of love went into the whimsical-yet-grim Soviet retrofuturism of its visual design, and enjoying its spooky stations, propaganda murals, or fictional pop culture is one of the best parts. It’s an attempt at an extra-goofy, Russian version of Fallout mixed with Subnautica in space. Sometimes the jokes do land, like the many slapstick death poses you find other passengers in, the sci-fi parodies, or the silly designs of different ship components and other bits of the world. Riding a vacuum cleaner like a rocket motorcycle? That’s funny. You poke dangerous things with your family heirloom – an immortal chicken – to disarm them, and it’s hard not to enjoy the absurdity of that.
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But for every joke that hits, even more land flat. Your spacesuit’s AI directs you around while constantly quipping, but it gets obnoxious fast and the joke writing is mostly terrible. It speaks so quickly I could barely catch the jokes without reading the subtitles, and the ones I did were often like a standup comedian doing a rolling, observational comedy routine, but delivered by the guy who reads the legal terms as quickly as he can at the end of pharmaceutical commercials. There are also some truly weak attempts at irreverent, provocative humor, like taking some dated-feeling jabs at cross-dressing. I’d say they might be funny to someone, but they’re actually just… bad jokes.
Adding insult to injury, if you die you get to hear all those same lines again the next time through. When that joke is a fourth wall-breaking meta-commentary about game developers making things hard or tedious to pad out the total gameplay time, it starts to feel less like a referential goof and more like an obnoxious lack of self-awareness.
This article was originally published by IGN.COM