I was surprised when I learned that The Desolate Hope was made by Scott Cawthon, developer of Five Nights at Freddy’s. I’ve never played a Five Nights game, and to me, The Desolate Hope was always just a bizarre gem I’d stumbled upon via Steam. Comparing the two visually, I see obvious artistic similarities. However, the gameplay and themes of The Desolate Hope ranges far and wide from the direction Cawthon took with Five Nights at Freddy’s.
The Desolate Hope features large machine constructs, called Derelicts, who have been blasted into space. The Derelicts, were given a purpose – simulate what it would take for humanity to colonize a celestial body other than Earth. They received updates from Earth in the form of science capsules and information, and then suddenly, it all stopped. They still received junk from time to time, little odds and ends, but they heard nothing else from their human creators.
With their goal left in a null-state, suspended in the confusion of abandonment, the Derelicts were left to their own devices. Some of them stuck to the original plan, and others let their minds wander as they explored their isolation. Soon, their station, Lun Infinus, became a dark and empty place, lonely and discarded.
Each of the Derelicts is dreaming. On their abandoned station, with only themselves and the ghosts of each other to keep them company, they build their own minds into worlds of synthetic life – attempts at creation based on a limited knowledge, and a framework that they must flesh out for themselves.
The only caretaker remaining on the station is a robotic coffee pot. It does its best to keep the Derelicts up and running, but the station is losing power, and the Derelicts’ resources are being drained by a virus. Coffee takes one of the remaining active programs on the station’s computers, a CPU dedicated to games, and transforms it into an antivirus program with the goal of saving the Derelicts.
Together, the CPU and Coffee struggle to understand the worlds created by these machines, and the minds behind their creation. Each has been warped to some degree by its isolation. Aspects of their original goals have been inflated, taking on great importance to each individual Derelict, and leaving Coffee and the CPU with a bevy of surreal simulations to investigate.
The Derelict Malenz, for example, has given up on his original goal. At first, he simulated an entire world from the ground up. He started by mining requisite ores and minerals and filling his realm with robotic makers and movers, each working to create the ultimate world for human habitation. Thirty years later, with no human contact, Malenz has retreated to a brightly colored bubble inside his otherwise industrial simulation, wherein cuckoo clock automatons drift across landscapes rendered in painted wood. Malenz sees himself as a toymaker, and would rather not be bothered with the original goals of his simulation. Malenz posits that in the end, dissolution will catch up with us all.
As time passes the Derelicts seem to grow more distant and out of touch with reality. Even as you purge viruses from their systems, their mental and spiritual deterioration hastens. You’re soon left wondering if perhaps the virus isn’t the problem in the first place.
The Desolate Hope renders loneliness into swathes of bright, byzantine landscapes populated by paper-thin constructs, the offshoots of each Derelict’s personality struggling to fill the empty space in Lun Infinus.
A combination of fever dreams and smoky visions, the level design in The Desolate Hope is spectacular. While the actual levels are straightforward in terms of platforming, they offer visual feasts. They’re haunting representations of lonely minds left to run in circles upon themselves, and their distinct aesthetics exhibit obsessions brought to the extreme.
They are at their core empty places, two-dimensional not just in play, but in spirit. This is a loneliness created by non-humans, for humans. It is the product of beings created with a single goal struggling to figure out what will become of them – and what they can possibly accomplish – once they realize the goal might not exist anymore.
These unique platforming levels are only one of the three styles of gameplay The Desolate Hope weaves together. Each simulation contains a boss virus that the player must find and then confront several times. This confrontation will take the player from the simulation into a turn based JRPG style fight, where the four Derelicts work in concert to eliminate the virus.
In this battle mode, the Derelicts’ actions are controlled by the player. Their active time bar fills up, and the player chooses an ability or effect. Each Derelict has a unique set of skills, but in order to activate them they must reach a certain level of charge, achieved by taking the “Charge” action on their turn.
Boss battles are neon storms of flashing lights, heralding fast-paced and dangerous attacks from both sides, and require quick thinking and strategy. Even if the fight takes a while to finish, it typically never feels like it’s dragging on. Between the funky music and the fascinating visual assault, the fights are always engaging – and they’re not easy either.
The clutter and mystery of the simulations extends itself to the boss fights. There are so many numbers and bars to keep track of – combo bars, health bars, charge bars, boss hp by number, stat boosts, charged and stored heals, revives, or seconds of invulnerability. The fights demand rapid visual gymnastics of the player, transitioning to a mindset distinct from the platformer. I enjoyed this transition – it forced me to become immediately more engaged with the game.
The boss fights also feel like some of the least lonely parts of the game. They provide the only opportunity for the Derelicts to work side-by-side, instead of holing themselves up in their isolationist simulations, brooding, creating, and preparing for death.
Bosses range in visual design from metallic dragons to doll-faced spiders, seemingly based on some aspect of what each Derelict focuses on the most. They wield psychedelic attacks with names like “Digi Toaster,” “Intense Intensity,” and “Cosmic Sponge,” each with an accompanying animation.
These challenging confrontations can be made easier in a number of ways, each depending on one of the other two game modes. When in platforming mode, players can collect currency in the form of “bits,” which can be spent at various vendors hidden throughout the levels to boost their Derelicts, or to unlock new skills or items. While the vendors have a little bit of personality to each of them, they remain, like everything else in the simulations, shallow representations of actual personalities or people.
Alongside these vendors, players will also find a variety of enemies making their home in each simulation. Killed enemies will drop colorful eggs, each of which corresponds to an in-battle stat, such as defense or speed. Collecting these eggs will provide a boost for each Derelict.
Inside of each simulation the player can also access hidden databases. These databases phase the player into the third gameplay element – an overhead 8-bit arcade game. The objective within these databases is to eliminate viral breaches, which will allow the player to “access more resources” in the form of special combos for their Derelicts called conditionals.
A bulky vendor named Boxcar provides these combo settings for free, granting the Derelicts special effects that may occur when certain conditions are met during each boss fight. A player might choose “on player turn,” and then select the effect, “stun the enemy.” Unlocking these conditionals can be a key part of winning boss fights. They allow players to set up and execute gratifying strategies.
Each of these modes of gameplay is tied together almost effortlessly. I never found myself thinking that any of the three felt out of place with the other, and instead I felt as if the platforming simulations and the databases gave me exciting new ways to interact with boss battles, which felt like the truly challenging part of the game.
The entirety of the game is pulled together by the overworld in Lun Infinus. The player doesn’t interact with it very often, and it’s rather small, featuring only a control room, a hallway, and a room for each derelict. However, at night time, players can head out into the wastes of the planet to scavenge for various trinkets beloved by the Derelicts. Alphus, for example, adores snow globes. Giving a trinket to a Derelict levels them up, and they promise to dedicate more of their time to your efforts. There’s also a secret out in the wastes, something related to the now defunct fifth Derelict, but I’ll leave that up to you to find.
The Desolate Hope is an excellent game. The loneliness pervasive throughout the station doesn’t smack the player in the face. Neither do the feelings of the Derelicts themselves. Though they’re straightforward and direct with their thoughts and feelings, it doesn’t feel forced or ham-fisted. The game prefers to build its thematic elements through clever use of music, visuals, and lighting.
The Desolate Hope clocks in at about ten hours, and can be found for free on Steam here. Go meet up with Coffee, and get ready to explore some bizarre new worlds.