In an all-too plausible future, the world is addicted to coffee. The human race has expanded into the far reaches of space, but it didn’t do so without its early morning caffeine fix, so new worlds are mined in order to produce synthetic caffeine. This is where Caffeine finds us – alone, frightened, and desperate for a hot cup of synthetic Joe. Like an expensive espresso machine, Caffeine is sleek, dark and shiny, but it could certainly use an extra shot or two to kick itself into gear.
You don’t expect a game named after a stimulant to be quite so quiet and ponderous. That’s not entirely a criticism – there’s something to admire about the game’s rather muted sense of dread – but far too much of Caffeine is spent wandering around aimlessly staring at post-it notes and shiny corridors. Clearly, these notes are meant to be followed – Gone Home style – in order to progress further through Caffeine’s lonely space station. But some notes happen to be completely illegible, not because of their author’s handwriting, but because the text appears warped and washed out.
These notes are a novel idea, and a clever way of side-stepping the age-old horror game trope of smearing the walls with silly blood messages. When you find a room wherein a large vent is mounted on the wall, and the note next to it reads: “He watches from here”, it feels like Caffeine is working its way towards something resembling a mystery. The trouble is, that all gets thrown out of the window faster than you can say “Pumpkin spiced latte” – if you look to the left of the message, the words “HELP ME” are spelled out in big coffee cups. Yes, it is as laughable as it sounds, and it positively vacuums away any tension the game had created previously.
This is to say nothing of the numerous visual and gameplay bugs hiding out in Caffeine. On start-up, the game chugged along at an appalling frame-rate until I lowered every graphical setting, at which point the admittedly decent visual design of the space-station looked rather more grainy and washed out. On a rig that runs the Star Wars Battlefront Beta on ultra settings, I shouldn’t need to hamper the visuals of a game populated only by chairs and cups.
Other tension killers include erratic physics effects (including flying chairs), water that jumps up and down on the floor (as though on caffeine!) and a number of clipping errors. In fact, the scariest moment I experienced in Caffeine was clipping through the floor of the station and plummeting into a nearby star, after which I was forced to start the game over again. Sure, it’s only an hour long, but being unable to save or hit checkpoints only exacerbates the feeling that you’re not actually getting anywhere. It really becomes a problem when you can’t actually equip vital keycards, so if you drop one and it clips through the floor, you’ll find yourself running around the entire station before you realize you it’s impossible to progress any further.
Thus, the process of attempting to read faded post-it notes, falling through grates in the floor, and trying to turn on machines that don’t operate becomes tedious. We’re not given any reason to care, no desire to continue past the notion that something spooky might happen further down the line. We’re just dealt with a series of long, winding corridors, and expected to backtrack through them at an agonizingly slow pace.
It’s a shame too, because there’s a solid premise on offer here, and some terrifying sound design that oozes tension – but none of it leads anywhere. There’s no payoff, no feeling of achievement, and there are only fleeting glances of a narrative to grab onto. It’s baffling that this is supposed to be an episodic experience. An opening episode is supposed to hook you in and leave you hungry for the rest of the series, but Caffeine Episode One doesn’t even have enough substantial material for a single instalment.