Detroit: Become Human shows Quantic Dream’s remarkable growth over the past eight years. Heavy Rain succeeded at crafting an interactive experience that took player decisions into account, but its writing and acting was all over the place. Beyond: Two Souls made major strides with its performances. Yet, it paled next to Heavy Rain due to its scattershot pacing and lack of consequence. In circumventing many of those games’ flaws, Detroit: Become Human is the studio’s most well-rounded narrative experience to date.
Welcome to Detroit: Become Human
Set in 2038, Detroit‘s narrative follows three main characters: Markus, Kara, and Connor. Connor is CyberLife’s new advanced prototype, tasked with investigating deviant cases alongside human partner, Hank Anderson. Kara is the housekeeper to a defunct family of two. Markus, on the other hand, cares for an aging painter, whose respect for Markus leads to him adopting an early understanding of the unfair relations between humans and androids. While each character begins the story with their own goals, Detroit‘s overarching message of equal rights winds up converging the initially disparate adventures at key points.
After being fixed and reset at a shop, Kara returns home to watch over Todd’s house and child, Alice. Todd’s abusive behavior takes no time to reveal itself. With little respect for his daughter’s emotions or safety, it doesn’t take long for Kara to defy her programmed instructions. After a series of events, she escapes the abusive captor’s home with Alice.
In search of a new beginning, Kara’s journey involves living day to day as she finds a new home for her and Alice. Kara’s sections, while the most mundane, bare the brunt of Detroit‘s humanity. Meanwhile Connor investigates crime scenes and Markus plans an uprising, Kara’s determination sheds light on Detroit: Become Human‘s most striking improvement over past titles. Despite centering around Androids and their fight for equality, Detroit features Quantic Dream’s most humanistic moments.
Its overarching themes may be a little heavy-handed, but the smaller moments shine. For the first time in Quantic Dream’s history, the script shows restraint. This is best illustrated by a late-game scene in which Alice witnesses an android holding onto his lover’s dying body. The brief scene, playing out with no dialogue, resonates because of its silence. Sometimes no words can say so much more than droning monologues. It’s not an isolated moment, either. Many of Detroit‘s best scenes elicit the same level of restraint, an astonishing turnaround for the studio.
Connor’s sections are the most mechanically involved of the bunch. Featuring chase sequences, investigations, and interrogations, Connor’s chapters most closely resemble Norman Jayden’s from Heavy Rain. Though, thanks to the game’s structure and pacing, they don’t overstay their welcome.
Pacing has always been one of Quantic Dream’s enemies. Heavy Rain‘s first few hours arguably dragged on while Beyond: Two Souls‘ schizophrenic chapter transitions served no narrative purpose. While a film like Memento presented scenes out of order for a legitimate reason, Beyond‘s flimsy structure had no purpose. It felt like a weak direct response to Heavy Rain‘s criticisms.
Detroit: Become Human answers to both its spiritual predecessors. Unlike Beyond, the entire narrative is presented chronologically. The story does jump around, however, it jumps from character to character in a logical flow of events. The shortest scenes last a handful of minutes whereas even the longest stretches as a single character never exceed the half-hour mark. This keeps the narrative moving briskly without compromise. Investigations, one of Connor’s core pillars are extremely simplistic and require little problem-solving. It isn’t going to test you like L.A. Noire, but it doesn’t need to. Crime scenes are short but sweet slices of world-building, providing insight into the larger deviant epidemic at large. Deviants are described as Androids that disobey humans’ instructions or ignore their programmed functions, acting autonomously.
In a not so subtle move, Connor’s human partner distrusts Androids due to past circumstances. While this type of distrustful relationship has been done to death, Detroit handles it fairly well. Hank’s attitude and sarcasm contrast brilliantly with Connor’s stern directiveness. This dichotomy leads to genuinely funny moments. Those fearing that Connor and Hank’s relationship only exists to insert comedic relief needn’t worry. The comedic bits are sprinkled sporadically throughout the roughly thirteen-hour adventure. Most shocking about Connor’s story is the emotional baggage Hank carries with him. He’s the typical emotionally distressed detective that drowns his sorrows behind the bottle, but we’re never treated to an elaborate backstory. No flashbacks. Nothing. Hank’s facial expressions and mannerisms are more indicative of his character than any words that come out of his mouth.
This is Detroit‘s most ham-fisted and uninteresting story. Markus spends his life taking care of a rich artist in his mansion as he nears his final days. Barely able to move the wheelchair on his own for even small distances, Carl relies on Markus. Such a dependency results in Carl’s appreciation for machine life forms. As such, he treats Markus like a friend, encouraging him to walk his own path. No doubt influenced by Carl’s generosity and trust, later events lead to Markus leading an Android uprising.
I always dreaded partaking in the uprising. I get it. Androids have feelings too. They want to be equal. Humans are bad. Most of the game’s themes are lumped onto Markus’ story ad nauseum. This is where players are treated to remnants of Quantic Dream’s past efforts. Unnatural optional romances, heroic speeches/monologues, etc…It’s hit or miss, though it still features interesting mechanics.
While Connor reconstructs crime scenes based on evidence, Markus reconstructs possible parkour routes. At several points in the story, Markus can scan the environment and project a route’s probability of success. Constructing the proper route was engaging enough, but once you press the button to initiate it, that’s it. The entire animation routine plays out with no further input. This leads to Detroit: Become Human‘s most startling step back and step forward.
Heavy Rain‘s complex motions and quick time events made that game what it is. Action sequences provided an unprecedented sense of thrill because of how relentless and complex button sequences were. All main characters could die and with legitimately involved quick time events, there was always the sense that the next prompt was your last chance to fuck up.
Unfortunately, Detroit: Become Human adopts Beyond: Two Souls‘ more simplified control scheme. Fewer buttons are pressed per minute in action scenes, meaning fewer chances for you to fuck up due to an overload of information. The button prompts themselves also require less dexterity. I rarely feared for my life because of the simplified control scheme. Though, the fight choreography made it exciting to watch even if active participation is less involved than Heavy Rain. In a twist, some fight scenes feature time-sensitive decisions. The action slows down for a few seconds, giving the player one of two or three choices.
Moments like these popped up infrequently enough to catch me off-guard. With such a restrictive time-limit, these scenarios are panic-inducing. One of my characters’ friends died because I freaked out and didn’t process the scene properly enough to make an informed decision. I jumped straight to the closest option out of fear that I’d run out of time. It effectively echoes the sort of split-second decisions people make in life or death situations. They were terrifying. If only the core action scenes themselves elicited the same level of tension.
Detroit: Become Human is an inconsistent visual experience. It has some incredibly detailed character models, materials, and lighting. By the same token, it’s also got the most glaring inconsistencies of any Sony exclusive title to date. At its best, Detroit trumps anything else on the system. At its worst, it appears two generations out of date. I’ll just provide screenshot evidence of some of the textures, a PS2 era character model, and the worst reflection I’ve seen in a PS4 exclusive to date. Keep in mind, the review was employed on a PlayStation 4 Pro. I’m not going to go as far as to say it looks bad because it clearly doesn’t overall, but even Heavy Rain didn’t have any textures or character models that looked as bad as the evidence I’m about to provide. How did Quantic Dream let this happen?
View full-sized images by clicking on them.
The heavily advertised flow-chart system illustrates Detroit: Become Human‘s branching paths. Some chapters, such as the demo scene on the roof, have upwards of up to six endings. Others, on the other hand, are disappointingly linear with only one final outcome. In addition to player actions influencing events, Detroit also keeps a running tally of relationships. Actions can increase your relationship level with one character while decreasing another.
Without physical meters indicating how far along players are on the relationship scale, they can’t fall back on cheesing the system. Because of the invisible meters, decisions are made organically. Maintaining relationships goes beyond the surface level “I like you” versus *grunts* in a scene. At specified points, entire paths can close or open up depending on the player’s relationship with that character. Managing each playable protagonist’s goals while accounting for how others might respond is a delicate balancing act.
The aforementioned flow-chart system left a lot to be desired. On the surface, some chapters appear mindbogglingly complex, though it ultimately just comes down to poor implementation. Rather than keeping track of events and actions that influence the story, the flow-chart takes the most insignificant of things into account. Reading a magazine, for example, would be a regular option on the flow-chart. Magazines are just optional collectibles that provide insight into the game world. It’s nothing more than a trick to make it appear more complex than it really is, though that’s not to say Detroit: Become Human doesn’t offer its fair share of branching paths. Some actions’ consequences didn’t resurface until several scenes later after I had already forgotten what I did.
An item you picked up or examined in a previous scene opens up branches later on. Not all consequences are quite so in-your-face.
Detroit: Become Human has put Quantic Dream back on the radar. After a disgusting misstep, the European-based studio returns with their magnum opus. It’s their most technically well-rounded narrative experience. It may take a minor step back with less intensive quick time events, but it makes up for it with the studio’s best writing and plot pacing to date. Featuring surprisingly plausible scenarios, Detroit: Become Human is a shockingly aware culmination of Quantic Dream’s experience over the past thirteen plus years.