“Two things inspire me to awe—the starry heavens above and the moral universe within.”
In May, 1804, Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Corps of Discovery, a special division of the United States Army, and tasked them with the exploration of the vast tracts of wilderness included in the Louisiana Purchase. Thousands of (light)years later, the new Corps of Discovery has ordered a group of scientists to make planetfall onto hitherto unknown celestial bodies, all in the name of discovery and profit. Corpse of Discovery, an indie walking simulator by Phosphor Games, places players in the midst of the expedition and delivers a compellingly mysterious story set against a backdrop of gloriously colorful planets.
After having woken up inside a temporary research lab with a splitting headache and vague-at-best recollection of past events, the main character is charged with exploring a dusty red planet known as Tellurus. Accompanied by a voiced support drone known as AVA, the wayward scientist must plant several beacons around the area, all while avoiding solar radiation overdoses. Upon completion of this task, his AVA drone dies and he is overcome by hallucinations until finally passing out far from his base. When he finally comes to and groggily wakes up back in the comfortable confines of his lab, a voice message from the commander tells him he must now explore a verdant jungle planet known as Tellurus…
Following an arc similar to that of Moon (including the ever-sardonic AI), Corpse of Discovery treats players to a series of mysteries that tease the imagination and drive the game forward. Each planet, or each version of the same planet, not only offers new geographical obstacles and scenery, but also gives players the chance to uncover more clues and dig down deeper into the psyche of the main character. At the risk of sounding even the slightest bit introspective, each new planet seemingly breaks the character’s resolve just a little bit more, and soon enough, questions of “Where am I?” become “Who am I?”
One of the game’s craftier story-telling devices is what happens behind the scenes during each blackout. Waking up at the start of each mission leads to the discovery of a new drawing on your wall or a novel specimen in your lab, and the voice messages from your loving wife and children really drive the point home that you’re out here, alone, with no one to rescue you. The slow descent into madness and disarray, as evidenced by the ever-changing status of your living quarters, adds to the soul-crushing feeling of panic and desperation.
In terms of actual gameplay, it’s a walking simulator set in low gravity that can be knocked out in under four hours. You do a lot of walking, even more jumping, and a butt-load of gliding with your jetpack. The main mission on each planet is always a slight variation of the same fetch quest, and players will soon find themselves rushing to each waypoint just to progress the story. Even the addition of several side missions (also fetch quests) can’t shake off the rusty shackles of mundanity, and it doesn’t help that the only things that can kill you are easily avoided, giving the game a risk level equivalent to a trip to the zoo.
Though it could be argued that this is a game to be observed instead of played, I’d respond with the question of why they didn’t just make it a movie. The environments, while colorful and vast, are somewhat poorly rendered and rough when examined close up, and the geographical arrangement of each cliff or floating boulder varies by mere degrees, as if to not mess up my jetpacking capabilities. I appreciate what the developers were going for, throwing players through a densely packed jungle only to force them onto the surface of Mustafar’s little brother the next moment, but the landscape’s organization and detail feels horribly rushed. It’s a classic case of too many surfaces and not enough rendering.
The game’s soundtrack fits nicely with the attempted environment, coming off more minimalist than anything else. The genius behind AVA’s narrative deserve a goddamn medal for being so clever, as her degradation matches that of the main character’s almost to perfection, making her almost more interesting in the grand scheme of things. The aforementioned video messages from the family left back home and the voiced orders from the mission commander also add to the story, if not in a stereotypical, archetypal fashion. I only wish that the main character’s inner monologue had been given voice in the same manner.
Corpse of Discovery is, for lack of a better term, adequate. The little gameplay that exists isn’t bringing home any awards, but it certainly isn’t broken. The visuals, while colorful and varied, are from from sharp, and the open level design is limited by linear fetch quests, cutting out any reason to go explore beyond the mission parameters. The game’s plot and narration are what truly keep things afloat, and the massive slew of questions left unanswered will certainly keep a few of you thinking long after the game ends.