“There is a real magic in enthusiasm. It spells the difference between mediocrity and accomplishment.”
-Norman Vincent Peale
The success of an indie game can largely be predicted by the passion of the developers. While they typically have fewer resources to work with, a number of these little studios still manage to shine through the morass of pricey AAA titles with their utter devotion to the craft and almost innocent infatuation with the product. A good developer treats their game like a baby. Radioactive-Software treats their game, Just Death, like a red-headed stepchild.
Just Death describes itself on the Steam page as an “open-world sandbox crime game,” and while this colorful characterization brims with creative potential, the experience falls somewhat flat of expectations. In an effort to ape Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row, and Payday, Just Death offers up online multiplayer and offline solo player game modes, while completely eschewing any chance of a cohesive narrative. The game’s solo player modes are hastily concocted mashups of variations on “shooting people”, and the online mode offers nothing more than a “create your own fun” playground sadly lacking in toys.
If you suffer from a fear of social contact and find yourself inexplicably needing to play Just Death, your options will be limited to the Vigilante, Bank Heist, and Gang War offline modes. Vigilante mode places players in the shoes of a homunculus-looking troglodyte out seeking revenge against a gang of bikers (who incidentally aren’t even in the vicinity of a motorcycle, so we’re reduced to taking the game’s word on it), and each round ends when you’ve killed each and every one of them. Bank Heist mode focuses on you and a crew of NPCs tasked with robbing a bank and escaping in a van, though I found you could still pass the round if you left all the money and your teammates and instead just ran to the van and drove off. Lastly, Gang Wars mode has players compete against rival NPCs for turf within city limits in a Splatoon-esque “paint the city” marathon. Each of these modes are horribly executed and exceedingly dull, and the limitations listed below only add to the mundanity.
There are several glaring issues outside the actual game modes that need to be addressed, and while the developer rabidly insists he’s only 66% finished, several of these qualms tell me he’s either overlooked them or he actually meant to type 16%. The AI in Just Death is cripplingly stupid. Walking in front of someone or altering a path with a car caused a massive pileup on both the sidewalks and the road, and the cars themselves moved about the city streets without any drivers. Robbing a civilian (by pressing the same button that makes you drop your gun, incidentally) in front of a cop resulted in absolutely zero repercussions, and enemies all had the same proximity of awareness, so avoiding and confronting gangsters soon became a matter of measuring distance. The NPC partners in the aforementioned Bank Heist mode literally crowded one another and clung to me like a wet t-shirt, and the cops were all too happy to line up single file for free shots to the cranium.
Stupid NPCs aside, the mechanics themselves proved to be unbearable. I made a joke in my Let’s Play that the game was controller compatible so long as you never had to actually use the controller, and to a certain extent this isn’t exaggeration. The first-person and cinematic views aren’t worth a used tissue, and aiming down the sights magically mapped reticle control to both analog sticks, ridding you of the ability to strafe or aim without sacrificing accuracy the same way the Mayans sacrificed virgins. The command mapping gave me the overall impression that the controls, much like the rest of the game, were basically phoned in with little care or consideration, a feeling I began to grow accustomed to the longer I played.
The game’s self-acclaimed signature feature is the procedurally generated map. According to the developer, the layout of the city is never the same across each round in every game mode. I find it hard to comment on the truth to this statement, because each grey cityscape looked exactly the same (it’s possible that the seed for each map was locked, it was hard to tell). Each building and park was unremarkable enough on its own, and mixing it all up and slapping together a different order won’t do much to fix it. The color pallettes from Miller’s Sin City and GTA IV were robbed of their gritty charm and pasted into Just Death, and the lack of inspiration grew by an order of magnitude.
Radioactive-Software plans to keep their project in Early Access for 6-12 months, and promises a laundry list of improvements, though none of them seem to address the issues mentioned here. Where it could be construed as having bit off more than it can chew, Just Death instead feels uninspired and unloved, an order to fill rather than a masterpiece to craft. I couldn’t see myself enjoying something the developer didn’t even seem to appreciate, and I can only hope that feedback from the community breathes some passion into the game. Otherwise, the servers are going to be as empty as the NPC cars.