Beholder: Complete Edition Review
For a game about surveillance, it’s all too easy to miss things in Beholder. In one playthrough the entire apartment block blew up for seemingly no reason, killing your character, Carl Stein, and all his tenants. Booting up the game again we realised our mistake: failing to pick up the telephone early meant we missed a warning that a bomb was hidden in the building. Our second go was more successful, culminating in a tense (but enjoyable) back and forth to find the bomb and figure out how to defuse it. But the first explosion, the one that came out of nowhere, left us with a bitter taste. It’s typical of how Beholder unfolds: events can quickly spiral if you miss one step in its narrative chain but are easily reset once you’re kicked back to the starting menu. It’s a paradoxical feeling that something very important has just happened, yet something entirely inconsequential.
It’s a feeling that plagues the game. Even the main mechanic of sneaking into people’s apartments and searching for clues about their lives or contraband items bears little to no punishment if caught. You’ll merely be asked to leave by the resident of the apartment and that’s that. But why all the sneaking? Carl has been tasked by the government of a shady non-descript vaguely European country to spy on his tenants and report any illegal activity. Doing so will earn you rewards, financial if you send off profiles of your tenants (or more lucratively, use the information to blackmail them) and in finding out more about them earn you reputation points which can be spent on character interactions to unlock information or better camera equipment.
Ah yes, the cameras. They can be installed within the fire alarms in each apartment (two to each room which seems very safety conscious for a country that’s disinterested in most of its citizens’ health) and once fitted grant access to the comings and goings of the inhabitants. All the more easy to spot someone illicitly reading a foreign novel or drinking a (now prohibited) fruit juice, say. You can spy in a more rudimentary way through the keyhole, which casts a fixed triangle of visibility until upgraded cameras make it almost unnecessary. Tenant characteristics can be captured and added to your notebook by pressing down on the right analogue stick; it’s a slightly clunky method which works some of the time and not others depending on how far in the camera is zoomed. In general, the UI is a little fiddly, perhaps a hangover from porting it to the Switch from its more native PC. When searching for clues the side menu pops up and to reset requires cycling back the menu and manually hiding it again. All the while this takes time away from your window of opportunity for snooping.
For a game that offers “tough choices” it all too often undersells the consequences. You’ll find yourself undertaking dodgy government tasks (like reporting your tenants to the police or helping an evil chemist escape assassination) just for something to do and to drive the story forwards. The consequences of certain actions don’t always find the right balance between random and surprising. Regularly a tenant will be arrested or forced to leave before you’ve realised the cause of it, was it something you said or failed to say? A pity because in doing so it prevents an emotional attachment being made to the characters so that turning them over to the government or saving them from their fate is more a whim than an informed decision on your chosen playstyle. The DLC, Blissful Sleep which comes preloaded in the Complete edition, does a slightly better job of it by giving you a set cast of characters who you get to know over the course of the game — it also features a cat, which always helps. As such assisting with your tenant's tragedies and triumphs while avoiding the hovering threat of euthanasia (very Logan’s Run) becomes a more interesting and emotional task.
It’s the core feedback loop of spying, fetch quests and information gathering that brings you back each time and makes for compelling gameplay that draws you into the story. It’s great on the Switch for playing in short, pacey bursts. There is a real sense of tension when you’re sneaking about and trying to judge if you have time for one more search before getting caught. The bold shadow puppet character design works well too. Each person looks unique and has an impressive amount of character for what is essentially outlines and flat colour. Handy when you need to know who lives where and if they’re about to burst in on you (minor inconvenience that it is). Smart also, is the decision to confine the action to one building as it allows you to learn the layout of the house, who lives where and what their routines are — so long as your tenant turn over isn’t too high and there are no pesky explosions blowing it all to smithereens.
Beholder aims for the political commentary of Papers, Please but falls short in its too generic Orwellian “evil government versus underground resistance” schtick which holds little room for nuance. Tonally too, it’s rather chaotic, often aiming for hard reality and sudden deaths akin to This War Of Mine but moments later undercutting it with humour (and even one misplaced sexist rant) that undermines your character choices and moments of pathos. The DLC adds more of the same gameplay, but in its focused, narrower approach tells a more compelling and coherent story. The lack of consequences (despite multiple character deaths) and little punishment for being caught spying imbue a laissez-faire approach to its narrative choices when they should feel weighty and purposeful. At a mechanical gameplay level and in its small character vignettes, Beholder hits its mark but any gesture towards a broader political narrative is sadly lost amongst the totalitarian cliche.