Review: Conglomerate 451
Review copy provided by publisher
I always love to see unique applications of genres, like when RPGs break away from traditional fantasy or puzzle mechanics find their way into unexpected settings. The dungeon crawler genre is admittedly a small one, so its no surprise that most of its big names like Legend of Grimrock stick to familiar ground. I had high hopes for Conglomerate 451, a project that took a unique cyberpunk approach to grid exploration and party management. But with every additional hour I put into scouring the city and neutralizing thugs, the experience rang more and more hollow.
The city is known simply as the Conglomerate, a nigh-infinite sprawl of glittering office towers, crumbling apartment blocks, and shadowy passages. Corruption in inevitable in a metropolis so vast, and sector 451 is currently bearing the worst of it under the crushing grip of four unchecked corporations. The Senate has granted you the power to form a special agency focused on wresting control from these disaster capitalists, and equipped you with everything a black ops commander needs to raise hell in a cyberpunk hellhole. Your field agents are all cloned from choice DNA, your funds and tech are salvaged from the missions you undertake, and your primary means of influence is deadly force. Build your team right and pick the right missions, and you might just take down these corporate overlords for your government overlords. Ahh, progress.
There are two layers to the gameplay here, and we might as well start with agency management. To complete missions you’ll need field teams, and you make those by cloning and equipping agents. Cloning can be done freely, and takes you through the process of selecting one of ultimately eight classes, picking four active skills from their full repertoire of six to eight, adding any DNA bonuses you may have unlocked via research, and then running them through the bio-printer. Agents are automatically equipped with basic weapons and shields for their class, which you can upgrade with money and tech for basic stat increases, or with SPUs recovered from missions which add more varied bonuses. You can also enhance their skills, and grant them specializations when they level up from doing enough missions.
You’ll have more options to customize your agents, but they don’t really add any depth to the experience. Upgrading weapons or skills results in tiny stat boosts, and plugging in SPUs add only slightly more significant boosts. Cybernetic parts are their own tech tree and upgrade system, but again only add new passive bonuses, arranged in such a way that all of your agents are likely to end up with the same set of cyber-bits. During missions you can use credits, tech, and influence to purchase info from hackers, SPUs from traders, software from illicit coders, and drugs from dealers. Most of these are not equipment or upgrades, but rather one-time bonuses to stats, mission rewards, and so on. Most of the time you’ll just be concerned with getting in, getting out, and getting paid.
That might be why the developers added the option to skip the entire first half of every mission, which is where you wander the city streets and locate those vendors. The back half of each mission is the meat, where you take your squad of three agents into a traditional randomly-generated dungeon maze of passages and chambers. Sure, it has the rusted metal and beeping read-outs that make it cyberpunk, but functionally it’s the same halls you’ve been dungeon-crawling for decades. You move around the grid, looking for loot and keys to locked doors, occasionally hacking things or extracting SPUs from machinery. When you encounter a group of foes, the game kicks over to turn-based combat, which is where I realized this game would never meet its full potential.
Combat should be the most interesting aspect of Conglomerate 451, because this is where all the leveling and upgrading goes. Battles are entirely turn-based RPG affairs, with initiative determining turn order, enemies maneuvering around your party to get their hits in, and status effects like radiation and shock flying around. Each of the four skills you give your agents is bound to be complex in the Darkest Dungeon way, meaning none of them are a simple “shoot dude” option. Everything does some status effect, gains bonuses off of circumstances, or is limited in range. Attacks can also target specific body parts, which in addition to changing the odds of hitting, affects critical chance and also grants chances for even more special effects depending on what you’re aiming at. However, none of the tactical considerations provide any benefit over just using your most damaging skills every turn. Hacking or irradiating or stunning or moving is irrelevant when you can just build for huge critical hits and vaporize foes in a turn or two.
With little variety or tactical depth to combat, the gameplay starts to congeal into a tedious mush only a few hours in. There’s little variety to the missions themselves, charging you with either shooting a specific dude or getting a specific item, and generally requiring the same amount of exploration and combat. I wish I could speak to the higher ranks of missions but it takes ages to get your agents upgraded to the point that the game will give you the green light for harder outings, far past the point that you can stomp all over your current tier. Ultimately there’s never going to be anything new or exciting to look forward to, no new weapon types or super abilities or unique missions or special loot. You do missions to get money to do research to unlock the next tier of the same stuff, so you can do the same missions a little better.
I was certainly enjoying my first few hours in Conglomerate 451, trying out different classes and upgrading my teams. The problem is that the game never evolved from what I was doing in those opening hours. Clearly this is a game that wants to be a deep, tactical affair with plenty to work towards, but it is absolutely not tuned for that. It pains me so, because the world could really use a good cyberpunk dungeon crawler, and this one at least looks good, with plenty of neon glitz, dystopian squalor, and cyberpunk excess to gawk at in the different districts. But again, it doesn’t lend the game any depth or meaning, being nothing more than scenery propped up against a poorly-balanced dungeon crawler. I made the mistake of banking on Conglomerate 451’s potential, and ended up plenty disappointed by the payoff.