American Arcadia Review (Minor plot spoilers)
There’s nothing new under the sun. A cliché to be sure, but show me the plot or premise of any narrative and I can say with certainty it has been done before. Case in point: American Arcadia. It takes The Truman Show’s “life unwittingly lived in front of a camera” idea and literally runs with it. The Truman Show dates from 1998, and its still-relevant, life-as-reality-tv theme has inspired a genuinely fresh and engaging new game.
The Human Races
Of course, since the innocent late-90s, social media has added infinitely more layers to the problem of identity. Although the décor and art direction suggest the 1970s, American Arcadia takes place in something like the current day. After an introduction by the Walt Disney-esque founder, we learn that an immense city called Arcadia has been built and populated by thousands of unaware citizens, whose lives are broadcast on a reality TV show. There might be a few potholes in the premise, but no matter.
You play as two alternating characters. The first is a worker drone named Trevor Hills. His life is an unending succession of (literally) meaningless work, casual workplace friendships and nights in front of the tv. One day, Trevor’s co-worker wins a vacation contest courtesy of the company — oddly, without entering it — and disappears. Suddenly, Trevor seems to see odd messages directed at him on billboards and screens.
The sender of the messages is a young woman named Kovaks, a revolutionary with some startling news. Trevor learns that he and the other citizens of Arcadia are the stars of a reality tv show. Even more disturbing, those duller people with low viewer interest in their lives find themselves being “sent on vacation” and killed. Trevor’s monotonous life is not the stuff of gripping entertainment. Kovaks wants to help him escape Arcadia. You know, before he’s sent on a vacay to eternity.
Twists and Turns and Puzzles
You control Trevor in a 2.5D space and the game looks and plays like a side scrolling puzzle platformer. In contrast, you play Kovaks in first person, moving through the corporate headquarters and manipulating the technology that helps Trevor progress. For example, a very early sequence has Kovaks hijacking her boss’s computer, bypassing security cameras ands breaking into server control rooms to open doors for Trevor. Playing as Trevor, you can see Kovaks’ controls for things like elevators, window blinds and warehouse lights (to name a very few). Kovaks might provide the tools, but Trevor uses them to solve the puzzles.
As Trevor makes his escape, the narrative unfolds and the puzzles become more devious. Difficulty ramps up pretty fast. One of my few issues with American Arcadia is when the puzzles require quick shifting between Trevor and Kovak’s POV during a time sensitive sequence. Many of the more challenging puzzles aren’t that intuitive. Clever, yes. Satisfying for sure. But occasionally mechanically frustrating.
The story is genuinely surprising at turns, so no more spoilers. Like aspects of its premise, not every narrative thread is plausible, but Trevor’s arc, Kovaks’ revolutionary motivations and the corporate villain intersect with drama and dark wit.
The Running Man
When it comes to the game’s mechanics, the puzzle and platforming elements work well together, aside from the previously mentioned quick shifts between characters. In particular, the platforming seems refined, fair and consistent. I am surprisingly bad at platforming games but I was rarely frustrated by missed jumps.
One area in which American Arcadia really shines is in its art direction and visual aesthetic. It’s very stylized and I wondered if characters would be expressive enough. Despite faces being highly simplified, expression was never an issue. The colorful 70s-ish architecture and saturated palette are excellent, with a perfect balance between detail and simplicity of design. After playing a number of recent grimdark fantasy games shrouded in greys and browns, it was a treat to play a game that revels in color. The voice acting is also excellent, performed by a cast of experienced professionals. The script is very good, too. The audio design and music are ok, but maybe the least memorable or effective elements of the production.
While American Arcadia’s themes definitely feel inspired by The Truman Show, it doesn’t seem like a copy. The idea of the citizens being judged — or even condemned — by their personal appeal and melodramatic lives or lack thereof is not a fantasy in today’s social media landscape. And even if the story doesn’t work for you, the action and puzzles will hold your attention.
With an appealing visual style, timely themes and excellent puzzle platform mechanics, American Arcadia confidently checks a lot of boxes. While a few of the puzzles can be head-scratchers or frustrating to complete, the majority of my experience was extremely positive. American Arcadia is genuinely something fresh and stands out in a crowded genre.
***PC code provided by the publisher for review***
- Intriguing themes
- Excellent platforming
- Variety of puzzle types
- Effective voice acting
- Colorful art direction
- POV switching can frustrate
- Some holes in the narrative
- Sound design and music are average
- Not much replay value