Acolyte review - AI: The Cybersleuth Files
Adventure games are a rarity these days, with only notable major names being something like the upcoming Return To Monkey Island remake from Devolver Digital. However, this one is a return to tradition with a new coat of paint for both old fans as well as new ones. What if one craves a modern rendition of the format, deploying game mechanics in a way rarely seen today?
In that case, Superstring’s Acolyte is something worth checking out. It is an augmented reality game with a narrative-driven focus. Simply put, it can be described as a visual novel featuring an AI chatbot. But really, it goes a bit further than that.
Acolyte is an intelligent combination of various genres and tells an appealing sci-fi story
The game is presented in a smartphone format since Acolyte is a smartphone app. Developed by a fictional London-based company called Nanomax, it features a female personal assistant AI called an Acolyte. Since the app is nearing its public launch, players have been recruited as QA Tester to iron out any bugs. As such, users get their Acolyte as they must interact with and know more about this AI's ins and outs.
However, things take a worrying turn when a major bug dubbed Error 51 rears its head, transforming the Acolyte’s personality, almost as if she is possessed. Under this influence, players will discover that things are not as they seem.
Nanomax, of course, is on high alert for said bug and is quick to brush things under the rug, leading to further suspicions about the higher-ups. Eventually, players are thrust into a major conspiracy brewing in the background while being seemingly helped by an anonymous entity from the outside.
Do Androids dream of electric sheep?
The main mode of interaction with the Acolyte is talking directly to her. But first, let’s talk about the AI herself. Her default name is Ana but can be renamed as per the users’ wishes. Players may also choose to customize their hair, eyes, attire, and the background from a handful of picks. It lends a sense of personalization to the virtual experience.
Ana will respond depending on the context, like saying “Good afternoon” when the game is booted into during that period. She also responds to certain keywords, which will be beneficial throughout the adventure.
Players can ask her simple questions and get surprising answers as she recollects relevant information. The Acolyte is also connected to the internet and Nanomax’s servers so that she can access data on subjects like details on the company’s past and employees.
This is both a novel idea but at the same time frustrating, especially during investigations. As only specific keywords can trigger Ana to allow progress, players often find themselves stumped to figure out what to say to her for a while. Mentioning keywords related to the topic can get her to drop a hint, but that is as far the game will go - the rest is up to the player.
The narrative flows throughout set-pieces triggered by certain events. These events, in turn, progress via tasks. These tasks range from getting the Acolyte to reveal new information to checking emails.
Players also have a contact list of employees that keep track of their role in the game, from Nanomax CEO Fiona Nightingale to QA Manager Jennifer Khan. Only a handful of characters are of any significance to the plot, be it directly or indirectly.
Ways to manage all these actions are convincingly and organically presented, making players feel like they truly are a part of the program. The puzzles further accentuate this because they don't just ramp up in difficulty but also demand solutions that can only be acquired from elements outside the game environment. One of the puzzles has players decrypt a series of binary strings into written English.
Players must use the internet (via desktop browser) to translate a said string of 0s and 1s. Another task sees players scour through their game setup files to aid the investigation further.
Others bring in audio and image analysis aspects into play as well, so players can expect to get their hands dirty a fair amount of times throughout the 5-6 hour long narrative. All in all, these form the meat of the experience and are surprisingly intricate.
That being said, the limited scope of Ana’s vocabulary does hurt immersion as well as puzzle play to an extent. Definitely the opposite of a smart AI. Players may also have found a solution to a puzzle but cannot progress unless the specific keyword has been input to bring her to the same page.
Graphics, sound, and performance
Acolyte was reviewed on PC with the following specifications:
- Processor: Intel Core i5-8300H @3.9 GHz
- RAM: 8 GB DDR4 @2666 MHz
- GPU: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 4 GB
- Storage: 500 GB NVMe SSD
Given the simplistic nature of Acolyte, players should have no issues running it on any kind of setup. It is a Unity engine game and utilizes the Spirit AI Character Engine, a software tool for creating AI characters.
The game runs flawlessly, however, and seems to be capped at 30 FPS. The Settings menu is barebones, with only half a dozen resolution options for a portrait aspect ratio.
Note that anything above the 453 x 980 resolution will cause the bottom portion of the screen to be obscured by the taskbar of the desktop. As such, players will not be able to use the tabs at the bottom. Yes, the game does not render in full screen either, only a windowed mode.
The UI gets the job done and the graphics are basic but appealing. The main screen depicts the Acolyte with minor animations that portray her as more than just a static JPEG on the screen.
The sound is fairly decent as well, with chill ambient sounds one would expect from a sci-fi/futuristic game. It does loop a bit, but it's not bad by any means. As a whole, it does a great job of feeling like a smartphone app.
Acolyte is an innovative step forward for the adventure game genre, especially considering how it allows players to think outside the box. At times even almost literally, as players traverse webpages and game configuration files for answers.
While the AI herself is not particularly smart, the puzzles are challenging and the story is entertaining enough to keep things moving despite its simple flow. It does stumble with some obscure solutions and the lack of handholding ensures this is not a game for everyone.
But for those who can overlook these blemishes, it is a thrilling and enjoyable experience waiting to be found within Acolyte's digital world.
Reviewed on: PC (review code provided by publisher)
Release date: June 28, 2022