There’s an occasional saying that is both equally cherished and equally derided in the world of gaming (depending on whom you ask). Something akin to the popular saying “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” And this saying goes “It’s not a game. It’s an experience.” Wales Interactive’s Master Reboot will be both equally lauded and equally judged based on how gamers feel about this statement, whether they’re looking for a fully polished video game experience or an interesting trip down a digital rabbit hole.
But one thing is for certain: Master Reboot has a lot of interesting components that together craft a larger narrative, components that don’t always fit together well but do show off Wales Interactive’s potential at telling unique stories.
Master Reboot takes place inside the Soul Cloud, a virtual world created to upload the memories of a person — essentially their soul — so that after death, they can be visited by relatives and loved ones. After a massive success, something disastrous has destroyed the server, leading to a major crisis that mysteriously leaves you on a beach after a crash in the Soul Cloud. This is where your adventure starts.
From the very beginning to the very end, Master Reboot proves it’s not like other games. The game doesn’t tell its story in any traditional sense, as far as full cutscenes or dialogue boxes. You don’t know your name, what you’re doing in the Soul Cloud, and potentially whether you’re the actual protagonist or antagonist.
No, instead, the story is revealed bit by bit, by completing Memories (read: stages/levels), which unlock a string of images. By finding the game’s collectibles — Blue Duckies — things like images, photos, emails or documents are revealed that further expand upon the backstory of the plot. Through all of this you begin to understand how you got to the Soul Cloud, the other people involved, and why Seren.exe — the Soul Cloud’s security program — is trying to kill you.
The game has players exploring various worlds via Memories; 11 stages are accessible via a Hub world called the “Soul Village” the player later finds themselves in. These include Childhood, a Street, School, Park, Hospital, Beach, Fairground, Flying, Circus, Graveyard and Library memory, each with their own two or three segments apiece, and each with a variety of puzzles, chases and challenges within. Each of these Memories are selectable in groups as buildings in the Soul Village, with the first four available to play in any order, the next four in any order, and then the final three available right before the finale of the game.
When it comes to gameplay, Master Reboot is a mixed bag. Each stage usually has a blue cube that will lead you to the next destination, a green cube that allows players to safely teleport back to the Soul Village, and red cubes that allow for interaction with the current memory and for completing the stage.
These change memory by memory: for example, the Childhood memory involves being shrunk down to doll size, and using platforming and puzzles to unlock keys. Later, players are chased by a Seren.exe-possessed monstrosity, where players must press computer icons to drop barriers and race to the cube that will get them out. The Street level involves racing against traffic down a crowded street, trying not to get hit. The Flying memory, on the other hand, involves using stealth to avoid Seren.exe, before navigating your way to the front of the plane and then later racing down a lonely platform below the plane before it hits the ground and kills you.
But with this random array of mechanics also comes a loosely connected experience and a lack of consistency. At best, many of these controls feel serviceable, with the only unifying mechanics being the ability to sprint, jump, use Square to interact with items, and R2 to use items. The biggest problems is that these experiences lose their strength from the lack of any strongly developed mechanics.
The Flying Memory’s “stealth” mechanics, for example, involves the plainest definition of the genre, with Seren.exe walking up and down the middle aisle while players try to look around the seats for buttons that will open the door to the next segment. At first, there’s a bit of fear and suspense, but then the feeling drops when you realize that you can walk as closely and loudly as you want behind Seren.exe, as long as you don’t touch her or allow her to see you. Duck behind any row of seats, and you’re set.
Usually, players will be using their wits to figure out how to solve puzzles and move onto the next step. But then players either have little mental challenge or find themselves lost since there’s often no real guidance as to exactly what you should do. Players may even overthink certain puzzles. The Fairgrounds, for example, give you little to go on, and I found myself wandering about like a ghost, haunting the carnival until I happened upon the last piece of the puzzle. The Park, on the other hand, involves a simple set of puzzles that merely involve finding items scattered around the perimeter and figuring out where they belong.
But some players may delight in this lack of guidance, since that’s what Master Reboot is all about. Just like the narrative, the developers at Wales Interactive want players to figure things out for themselves, and piece together in their own time what must be done to continue. And it’s this sort of wandering about that makes the game intriguing: the whole point is to get lost in the world — or rather, worlds — and figure out the mystery. To experience the Soul Cloud. And again we return to experience over gameplay — where Master Reboot may not be along the lines of, say, Portal, it does offer a similar approach to presentation at its core.
The world of Master Reboot is at times plain and minimalist, and at others visually stunning, (relatively, for its scope), with a lot of interesting concepts used. Yes, there’s a few Tron-like neon-edged worlds, and yes, there’s a few rather ordinary stages like the Library or Flying Memory’s airplane.
But then there’s the Soul Village, which becomes more littered with the relics of the Memories you’ve explored the further in the game you go, to the point that it becomes more like a trophy room than just a hub. And there’s the first forest of the game, where going forward towards your destination bathes the palette in warm colors like red and orange, while backtracking changes the palette to cool colors like blue and indigo. There’s also the second beach in the Beach Memory, where looking into the sunset colors the nearby reeds a rich Vermillion red. One of the best things about Master Reboot is that there’s a lot to see in this world.
There’s also a sort of collectible to experience during the game with the use of purple glowing sigils that, when interacted with, offers quotes with philosophical statements that usually suggest your doom. These, along with the game’s audio, help add to the creepy, surreal and horror-filled ambiance.
There are times when the audio fails; when watching a video early in the game the audio is extremely low, or how during the Flying Memory Seren.exe’s footsteps sometimes are loud no matter where she is. But often, the audio gives the right sense of discomfort, like a creepy nursery song that plays during the Childhood mission (occasionally layered with an unsettling toy fire truck wail that brings full meaning to the phrase “spine-tingling), or the music and sound effects that make the Park Memory a little more edgy than it is.
Master Reboot is, as said before, a better experience than it is a game, a notable demonstration of what Wales Interactive is capable of, and indicative of the quality they could produce with just a little more polish and resources.
It’s undoubtedly flawed, but it’s engaging enough that it should be experienced by those who want a taste of something a little different from that shooter game or that sports franchise. And while it’s not a perfect masterpiece, I’d love to see what the studio has in store next.