Desert Child Review - Free Enterprise on Mars
Desert Child is a confusing game and parsing whether it has deeper meanings that are unclear, or just non-existent, is exceedingly frustrating.
Review copy provided by the publisher
Desert Child is a very confusing game. The premise of the game is very simple, get to Mars, participate in the Grand Prix. To do so you will need to save up enough money to buy in, with multiple avenues of earning, and even more so for spending, that money. However, once you’ve filled up the cash bar enough to participate, and win the ensuing races that aren’t that set apart from every other race in the game, the credits roll and your time is finished. Whether this abrupt end has a meaning, and what the game is about on a deeper level than the surface level objectives and text is already complicated before starting a New Game Plus in which pronouns for certain terms have been swapped as if to make what was once subtle more overt.
White House and USA appear where they didn’t before, food places are replaced with BURGER, money becomes Freedom and ammo become Freedom Candy. Parts of these changes seem to have purpose, such as Mars being repurposed into USA, either to point out that the USA has taken Mars as its own or to serve as an allegory for Mars becoming the desirable “land of opportunity” as most immigrants see it as. The change of food such as ramen and fish and other items becoming labeled Burger also appears to be an allegory for the homogenizing of culture within the melting pot of the US. Certain aspects of the game, such as the newspaper plotline and conversations with Scarlet, hint at a larger arc, but it all comes down once you become the Grand Prix champion, are given lackluster rewards, and sent off to view the credits.
“Races take some getting used to, mostly because of the need to line up shots to earn power cells and money.”
This abrupt conclusion seems to be a way of pointing towards a simple lesson that has become a trope, it’s not about the destination but the journey, or, the treasure was the friends we made along the way. Desert Child is also short, taking less than two hours if you are efficient with your time, as each day only allows you one race activity, each with different payouts, and depending on your performance, costs for the next day. Managing repairs and hunger never endanger you, and bad performance in races really just means it’s going to take you longer to reach the end. Whether taking that journey at all is worth it is hard to answer.
A majority of the game is split between two acts, wandering the various screens on Mars (or USA) and racing. Each screen has a different perspective on a specific location from a city block, the rundown trailers, a beachfront, a bridge, the river, and a generic park/city center. Each screen has at least two, and at the most three, exits, and are all inter-connected. Each screen also has a vendor at which you can spend your Freedom in order to purchase repairs for your bike, food to quench your hunger, beans for random effects, music to play during races, or whiskey which I’m not sure does anything to you. Most of these purchases influence races, as bike damage and your hunger can negatively affect the ability to boost during races.
“Managing your cash is never challenging.”
The races themselves are simple, each map is presented from the side with the background shrinking objects as they are farther away from your view and the foreground embiggening objects as they are closer to your view. During the race objects will appear that can damage your bike if you run into them, and robotic television-looking things will appear, some contain money (or Freedom), some shoot purple laser spheres as you, and others can be destroyed to increase your speed or boosted through to replenish one piece of ammo to your overall count. You only have one weapon, selected at the outset, and firing all your ammo requires you to boost into an ammo truck that will appear after an undetermined amount of time once you reach zero. This means you must either only take shots when you know they will hit, or let wild and hope during the period between firing that last shot and the truck appearing the finish line doesn’t appear and your opponent boosts through it.
Losing races means not earning power cells, which on Earth are sold for money but on Mars are kept to power bike parts that give you different boosts depending on which you have equipped. One is an advertisement, lowering the cost of a specific food item the more you race with it. Others increase your gun (or Penis as the New Game Plus description puts it) size and ammo count or amount of money that gets dropped during races. Earth is also the template upon which the main portion of the game, Mars, is built upon. On Earth, you only have the one screen to traverse with a shop to sell power cells, a shop to eat food, and a shop to do repairs. Once you’ve settled into the cycle of racing/spending you’re already off to Mars to buy your way into the Grand Prix.
“Each area has its own camera perspective and theme, from generic city center (here) to trailer park and downtown city block.”
Desert Child has a good sense of style, from the camera angles for different sections of Mars you walk through to the ability to simply chill on your bike, it has a firm grasp on what it’s presenting visually. Purchasing tracks early on is a must as it greatly varies the music played during races, something you will be doing a lot of on the journey to $10,000. The perspective of races takes some getting used to, especially when it comes to lining up your shots for moving objects. Being able to accurately shoot the objects that contain money can be difficult when you’re speeding alongside another bike among obstacles and hazards on a large playing field that is constantly in motion. Eventually, you begin to pick up on the patterns for how objects spawn, as well as the matching size of your bike against the item as a good indication if you’re lined up to make a shot.
Unfortunately, Desert Child is hardly recommendable. While I appreciate its brevity, especially in comparison to larger games that trade on filler and goal-post moving to artificially extend gameplay time, I wish it had been clearer in what it was. Reaching the Grand Prix only to find that the three races were all there was to the climax was very confusing. Side activities aren’t even enough to fill the time saving up for the Grand Prix since only the newspaper reliably offers new text for each day and the rest can be experienced way before you make $10k.
Deciphering whether racing is supposed to be a greater allegory for freelancing, if the ability to spend at more places than you can earn is a critique of consumerism, and if the word change is supposed to be an indictment of the US probably could take more time than it does seeing all the game has to offer, and is frustrating because I’m not sure whether to damn myself for not seeing what’s on display or to damn the game for failing to make it clear, if there is even anything at all to be made clear beyond the base messages. A theme in the word change of money to freedom could be a statement of how money is the gateway to freedom, though even that could be an ironic statement given the willful ignorance of rich individuals such as Kanye West, and even less charitably, Notch.
With a stronger central theme that went deeper than base critiques of the US and its cultures, Desert Child could have been much better. While its got style, it’s disappointing how little it does with it. Races are fine, the world it presents quickly becomes finding the quickest route to reach the end, and once reached it all ends so abruptly you can’t help but begin it again with the curiosity of there having to be something more. In the end, there isn’t that much more to it, and even an easy Platinum trophy on PlayStation 4 doesn’t make this a game I would recommend to anyone.