Review: Volume

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I’m pretty vulnerable to stylish presentations, enough to help me overlook weaker parts of a title. The clean, ultra-modern look of games like Lumines or EDGE is one I’m particularly fond of, and that’s a space shared by this snappy stealth outing. Volume does a lot right in its look and feel, and luckily doesn’t fall apart in its gameplay either. It might not be revolutionary in its mechanics but the solid quality throughout should be enough to keep anyone heisting through levels.

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There’s a lot of story to unpack in Volume so I won’t explain too much, but you should understand enough to get the appeal. You play Locksley, a charming British fellow living under the dystopian rule of Gisborne Industries. He’s hacked his way into a volume, a VR index of real-world locations used to train security in how to keep the valuables of the ruling class away from the grubby hands of the proles. With the help of the volume’s AI custodian Alan, Locksley intends to broadcast himself breaking the security systems wide open so that the people can follow his lead and retake their country from the rich oppressors.

It’s a clever set-up, casting you as a virtual streaming Robin Hood educating the masses in the art of wealth redistribution. Cleverer still are the little bits of dialogue between Locksley and Alan as the human fills in the AI on the events of the past nine years, both for his benefit and for you, the player. The writing here is something special, and further elevated by the very high quality of the voice work. Interactions are charming and flow naturally, giving you plenty of insight into Locksley’s laid-back hacktivist views and Alan’s shift from company algorithm to reluctant anarchist. There are even some worthwhile notes to find, everything from adorable office romances to background on the rise of AI to a tutorial message that realizes its already obsolete.

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The story is secondary to the stealing, of course, and Volume gives you plenty to steal and plenty of challenges in stealing it. In each level you have to grab all the gems (VR abstractions of valuables) and reach the exit. This is complicated by patrolling guards whose vision cones need to be avoided by ducking under counters, vanishing into lockers, or using tools to distract. The tools are the most interesting part, numbering nearly a dozen and offering all sorts of ranged or delayed distractions, stuns, or cloaks to get your past particular hazards. One level is full of tiles that make tons of noise, forcing you to pick your way to the other side of it without alerting any guards. At the end you get the Mute which allows you to run silently back through the level and grab everything you missed.

Interesting levels like that are an important part of what makes Volume worth playing. Admittedly the creeping about virtual rooms and hoovering up gems can get repetitive over the game’s 100 levels, so unique layouts or challenges help alleviate that monotony. The different tools are spread wide across the entire range of levels, along with new obstacles like force fields and alarms and guard dogs. You’ll also come across neat gimmick levels like one based on Pac-Man or one where the simulation is glitched out. Later on levels also open up a bit more, offering a choice of tools to tackle them and paths to take.

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The stylish graphics and engrossing story do a lot to make the game feel polished, but there remain aspects of the gameplay that detract. The biggest for me is how dim the guards can be once they find you. I don’t mind their small vision cones and I like how predictably you can lead them around with audio distractions, but it’s laughably easy to ditch pursuers in some situations. Guards need several seconds to draw a bead on you, but if you can break their line of sight they’ll only follow to the last place they spotted you. Couple this with the little shimmy you can do around corners and you can simply lose an alerted guard by ducking all the way around a pillar. However, if you get caught out in the open with no corners to juke around, you have no recourse whatsoever.

Volume isn’t a particularly hard game, and it certainly won’t tax your brain the way Thief or Mark of the Ninja will. But as a puzzle game it very much gets the job done, with a layer of panache that makes it worth your time. I can’t guarantee it’ll carry you through all 100 levels, but it’s captured my attention and kept me plugging away at a dozen or so levels a night. I haven’t gotten tired of learning to use new tools or hearing more about the grim cyberpunk fate of future England, even if their guards are kind of stupid. Volume does a lot with solid, if simple, mechanics and offers plenty of style to keep its substance fresh.

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