Games created by one person usually have a distinct style, which makes sense given that that single person is making most of the decisions. DESERT CHILD is one of those titles that bleeds style from its sole creator, Oscar Brittain. While its soundtrack and visual style help establish its unique attitude, the gameplay can’t quite keep up.
Granted, it is a high bar to aspire to because of how far its soundtrack and visuals take it. Its music is made of up a collection of lo-fi hip hop reminiscent of when the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring the Ruckus” was a new record and when most mumble rappers weren’t even conceived yet. Groovy, easygoing beats make it easy to nod along to and are even purchasable in the game’s store. Lyrics-focused artists like Mega Ran and Girlfriend Material help balance out the more atmospheric beats of Yokito Pilot and equal a soundtrack with a similar tone but a healthy amount of variety.
Pixelated visuals also help cement its old school aesthetic. Colorful, blocky models help inject life to the unique setting since its simple animation aren’t sophisticated enough to do the job. Small touches like the hilariously crude graffiti penises that gradually appear on structures also help fill out the world in wordless ways, which helps since there isn’t much of a story. Sometimes its crude animation and feels like a cheap shortcut, but for better or worse, it mostly fits in with the other parts of the game.
Desert Child Review – Losing Control
But with such a focus on music, the player should have a more control over it. Buying music is one of the vital parts of the game and those songs spin as you wander through the hub worlds. However, you can’t choose the playlist or order and Desert Child is a mediocre DJ. Songs are often overplayed or underplayed as it cycles through the same handful as you enter and exit races. Essentially, its killer soundtrack is significantly hamstrung since you rarely hear more than a select portion of it. Giving the player some sort of controllable in-game music player on the shoulder buttons would easily solve this issue and let players enjoy all of the soundtrack, instead of getting annoyed by a portion of it.
Tracks mostly play when you’re walking about the town, which is the designated RPG half of Desert Child. Although it’s less about gaining levels and more about managing your money to make it through the next day. Much like real life, a hunger meter requires that you spend money to buy food, which, also like real life, usually goes toward ramen. But your hoverbike also needs fixing and you also need cash to afford the trip to Mars.
Desert Child Review – Getting Your Ass to Mars
Racing that hoverbike is your main money maker so it’s imperative to keep it running, but an empty stomach significantly slashes your boost meter. Desert Child hinges on the tension of managing your money, but it hardly ends up being an issue. Once you can invest your winnings, your pennies multiply exponentially and you’ll have Dr. Dre dough before the next Martian month ticks by.
Although earning cash is caught between two extremes because of how repetitive it is to get to that point where you’re ballin’ with the big bucks. It’s a cycle. You enter a race, buy food, fix your bike, enter another race, and repeat until you hit your goal. Days are hardly different from another and most events have the same flaws which makes the whole thing feel even more like a Groundhog Day-like routine.
The RPG systems would be more substantial if the hoverbike racing was challenging enough to require you to make tough decisions. After nearly two playthoughs, I only lost three or four matches total; a small percentage given how many you have to grind through. Easy, 60-second races make upgrades nearly meaningless since you don’t need them to win and buying them will only set you back. And that’s where it feels like a grind: you either waste cash on upgrades you don’t need or continue doing monotonous races with the same unaltered toolset to reach your main goal more quickly. Illegal racing attempts to give you shadier ways to earn cash and is usually worth the risk but it doesn’t make piloting the hoverbike any less repetitive.
Desert Child Review – Bringing a Noticeable Lack of Ruckus
Although, the racing mechanics don’t quite allow for the depth necessary for a decent challenge anyway. Opponents drive as though they’re scared of taking first and the few hazards in the way don’t slow you down much. Ammo for your mounted gun is plentiful but somehow still a pain to reload since you have to wait for the slow ammo truck to show up. It’s cumbersome, not based on skill, and doesn’t match the pacing that a hoverbike race is supposed to have.
Racing isn’t a complete loss though. The perspective is novel and it’s passively—if not mindlessly—enjoyable enough to not be actively bad. But most goodwill crumbles because how closely the other parts of the game depend on tension during races to make the economy more stressful. Without harder races and deeper mechanics to prop up the RPG mechanics, each gameplay half fails the other.
Desert Child is built upon the promise of solid ideas that don’t quite come together. And sadly, they’re so deeply intertwined that a mistake in one aspect of the game critically injures the other part of the game. Hoverbike racing is a neat central mechanic but it wears thin and is stifled by its lack of difficulty and useless upgrades. Planning how and where to spend your limited funds is a creative, relatable mechanic but suffocates under the repetitive racing and the needless upgrades associated with it. The dope soundtrack and unique atmosphere do mostly come through despite the game’s best effort sabotage its best aspects. But the slick tunes aren’t enough to drown out the monotonous engine roars of its disappointing hoverbike racing.
Desert Child was reviewed on PS4 via a digital code provided by the publisher.