Early in the year 2020, the development studio RUNEHEADS advanced Robot evolution by releasing EGO, a drone capable of relaying tactical information and providing real-time combat analysis for teams of Battle Clones in the field. Such drones employed cutting-edge AI capable of developing personalities, quirks, and idiosyncrasies. Some even told jokes.
One unit, however, belonging to the CEO of a Special Agency tasked with cracking down on corruption in Sector 451 of Conglomerate city, demonstrated increasingly erratic behavior. Not content with serving an advisory role, this drone endlessly recited a litany of jokes and references, even mocking the Battle Clones for their lack of uniqueness, genitals, and salaries. The drone would also frequently become impatient, urging operators in the field to forego the gathering of resources in favor of completing their objective — regardless of whether said objective had already been completed.
This was not called torture. It was called humor.
- What is Conglomerate 451? It’s a grid-based dungeon-crawling RPG with Roguelike elements. Inspired by the likes of Darkest Dungeon and XCOM, manage your Agency and your Battle Clones in the fight against the gangs and corrupt corporations of Sector 451.
- Reviewed On: PC
- Price: $19.99
- Developer: RuneHeads
- Publisher: 1C Entertainment
- Release Date: February 20, 2020
- Website: http://www.runeheads.com/conglomerate-451/
- Multiplayer: No
See, RuneHeads? Anyone can rip off the opening text of Blade Runner. Jabs aside, Conglomerate 451 wears its influences on its sleeve. It also wears a graphic T-shirt of its influences, and waves a gigantic banner in their honor. For the end user, this is something of a mixed bag overall, but it benefits the game most in terms of aesthetics and mechanics. Conglomerate city is a convincing Cyberpunk sprawl, with holograms and Kanji lighting up the shadowy grime of the streets.
Enemies are a mix of humans, cyborgs, and androids, equipped with everything running from crude bludgeoning instruments to sleek cybernetics. The Battle Clones, despite having an awesome name, are the least visually interesting, each wearing basically the same techy jumpsuit. That said, they are clones, so it makes sense that they’d wear uniforms, and the game is played in first person, so you only see them during customization anyway.
Speaking of which, the base management mechanics feel reminiscent of Darkest Dungeon and XCOM, with your operatives acquiring various quirks and traumas as in the former, and you managing research and the equipment and robotic augmentations of your characters as in the latter. As the CEO of the Special Agency in charge of cleaning up Sector 451, your mission is to systematically dismantle the influence of the corrupt corporations and criminal organizations working together to maintain a stranglehold on their territory. You send your Battle Clones out to eliminate high value targets, gather intelligence, and wrest territory from street gangs. This creates a reasonably engaging gameplay loop, and it’s immensely satisfying to focus on a particular corporation, tear down its power structure, then deliver the killing blow by eliminating its CEO.
The dungeon-crawling missions are especially fun when you have a team that works well together. It’s absorbing to angle for synergies, or counter status effects inflicted by enemies, or experiment to put together the perfect squad. You will be rewarded for smart play, punished for subpar party composition, and thrown at the mercy of the RNG gods, and these are great fundamentals to see present in the game’s design.
Death By a Thousand References
Not so great, however, is seeing the misaligned priorities in the design process. While the basics of combat are fun, and some fights allow for creative tactics and experimentation, there are issues with difficulty balancing, encounter design, and the way procedural generation is handled. These are pretty glaring gameplay problems, so it’s mystifying to see how much effort was directed elsewhere.
One mechanic available to you is the collection and decryption of Echoes, fragments of data which — netting no gameplay advantages — illuminate some of the history of Conglomerate city. The decryption process requires the investment of Technology, meaning that new players will likely throw away their valuable resources trying to decode these things, only to discover that they’re functionally useless. Two different minigames were built around this mechanic. That wouldn’t be much of a problem, if the game didn’t struggle with repetition and monotony. Or if it felt like the game could consistently deliver exciting encounters.
Mechanics like this are wasted effort when the core gameplay structure has serious flaws to address. And everything, everything feels like wasted effort when you’re suffering the endless racket of that goddamn robot. Somewhere in the cosmos, an eldritch god is laughing. In my last review, I praised Zombie Army 4 for avoiding incessant, cringey, tongue-in-cheek dialogue. Oh, my hubris. Then along comes Ego, a robot simply bursting with poorly written, poorly delivered jokes and groan-inducing references. Clearly, an attempt was made to give the player a sassy, sarcastic robot companion, but the result was an irritating, needling, downright mean little cyber demon instead. I legitimately muted the game during missions and played the Blade Runner soundtrack instead, and even lacking weapon sounds (cruelly, you can’t selectively mute Ego itself), the experience was a considerable improvement.
To add insult to injury, there are moments where the little monster actually provides you with semi-helpful reminders, like when you’ve been neglecting hacking in combat. Unfortunately, Ego can basically only tell you to use your battery to recharge your shields or to hack more in combat, and it has nothing more to say about other gameplay systems — ones that would certainly benefit from more tutorialization. But you’d better believe it’ll tell you to go for the eyes, Boo. Excuse me while I heave a beleaguered sigh.
Zoom Out: Verdict
Base and Squad Management - 7/10
Aesthetics - 7/10
Combat and Encounter Desig - 6/10
Level Design and Procedural Generation - 5/10
Dialogue and Storytelling - 4/10
Conglomerate 451 is a decent game at heart, but without the proper attention paid to its core mechanical issues, it’s doomed to languish in mediocrity. Encounters tend to feel either too easy or seemingly impossible, with only a few rare cases of tense, engaging fights. The procedurally-generated levels are bland and samey, and your choices within them feel arbitrary most of the time.
- Solid Combat
- Engaging Gameplay Loop
- Moody Cyberpunk Aesthetics
- Repetition and Monotony
- Difficulty and Balance Issues
- Everything about Ego