Desert Child review: chilled-out racing on Mars

By Jon Bailes. Posted

Genre: Racing
Format: PS4 (tested) / PC / Mac / Linux / XBO / Switch
Developer: Oscar Brittain
Publisher: Akupara Games
Price: £8.99
Release: Out now

Desert Child is a game about hoverbike racing. But, as you quickly learn from taking control of its anonymous protagonist, it equally wants you just to wander through its world and soak in the laid-back vibe.

The game’s aesthetic expertly creates an atmosphere of detachment and indifference, from its washed-out colours and faceless NPCs, to the messy layouts of its streets and buildings. There’s a muted, downtrodden feel to its Mars colony setting, with an underlying sense of corruption and poverty. Yet our nameless character seems unfazed as he tries to scrape by, always with a mellow hip-hop beat kicking along in the background.

The action alternates between casual strolls through the game’s dozen or so locations and hoverbike events. Each day, you’re free to wander and visit a range of places to repair and modify your ride, purchase (or steal) upgrades and eat different foods, before jumping onto your bike to earn funds. Once the event is complete, a new day starts, and the cycle repeats. There’s an overall aim, but no rush to get there. Relax and take your time.

The bike events themselves range from straight races against single opponents to jobs such as pizza delivery, bounty hunts and kangaroo herding, or criminal dealings such as hacking bank systems or deliberately throwing a race. In practice, every event follows the same formula of driving from left to right for about a minute, then repurposes the basic move set – shooting, boosting, dodging and collecting – to define its contextual objectives. Racing remains the most engaging task, as you manage your recharging boost bar, time reloads, shoot targets to gather speed and jockey for position.

"There's an overall aim but no rush to get there"

While this combination of racing and ultra-light role-playing is certainly original and well-made, it’s all a little too sparse and never blossoms into anything truly involving. The way the game allows you to endlessly walk its locations and choose any activity at almost any point accords with its relaxed attitude, but makes the experience loose and inconsequential – there’s never much at stake, and no real need to plan ahead.

Similarly, on the bike, all the activities are fun, but ultimately not substantial, varied or challenging enough. In races, different environments and opponents provide little more than cosmetic variation, while the diverse objectives in other modes are actually very similar in execution. Even bike customisation, which introduces a neat puzzle element based on arranging modifications and power cells in a limited space, lacks sufficient depth.

Occasionally, an opponent makes you work for victory and it’s tempting to wonder if the bike racing could have really come alive in a different structure. But keeping everything in tune with the easy-going feel is more important for Desert Child. It deserves respect for adhering to its stylistic vision, even if the result is merely a pleasant way to pass a few hours, rather than something truly compelling.

Highlight

Desert Child’s soundtrack is exceptional, from the slow, funky hip-hop that accompanies your walks around town, to the more upbeat futuristic themes tailored to accompany each bike event. It all harmonises perfectly with the visual styling to convey the main character’s personality and boost the overall experience.

Verdict

Original and stylish, but too chilled to make the most of its content.

59%

_This story is an excerpt from Wireframe magazine Issue #5. Interested in regular updates from the world of video games? Become a subscriber. _

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