Falls short of some of its loftier ambitions, but a solid effort nonetheless.
Desert Child will probably prove a divisive game. It looks great and sounds even better, but its core gameplay is quite repetitive and prone to giving way to grindiness, and its RPG and narrative elements are a little shallow. Whilst the pod racing is frenetic and fast-paced, it does eventually suffer from a lack of variety. But for a five to six hour experience costing $11.99, Desert Child proves an enjoyable enough experience that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Desert Child puts you right into the action with a neat little tutorial which teaches you not only the basics of racing, but gives you an introduction to the world in microcosm, and familiarises you with the central resources you have to manage in the game: money, food, and bike damage level. The three are neatly sewed together: you need money to first get to Mars, where the bulk of the game is set, and ultimately to get to the Grand Prix; and bike damage and hunger will affect your race performance, thus requiring constant attention.
Once you leave Earth by procuring a $500 ticket to Mars, the world opens up a lot, and it’s a reasonably interesting little environment. Traversable only by foot (at an agonisingly slow pace, might I add), Mars shows off the game’s retro-future pixel-art aesthetic, and is where the RPG elements teased by developer Oscar Brittain are found. Whilst the game, along with its brilliant soundtrack, is colourful and funky, the characters are humorously seedy, giving Desert Child a slightly more mature feel. I’m pretty sure there was a Nathan Barley reference too, which confirmed the irreverent tone of the game.
Unfortunately, the world also feels pretty shallow. Whilst Brittain talked up its RPG elements, in truth there is very little in the way of choice, interactivity or character development. It is perhaps to be expected in a game made by a very small team, but it was disappointing given what was said pre-release. Once you’re done exploring the world of Mars – and you will be fairly quickly – you’ll almost certainly turn your attention exclusively to the pod racing and to trying to reach the Grand Prix, the endgame event which costs a princely $10,000.
Racing itself, the core of the game, is pretty fun and has some more depth to it. Whilst you might be imagining a race that involves driving forward, the action in Desert Child is in swinging left to right, shooting various televisions and buoys in order to increase your overall speed. You can also shoot your opponent to slow them down, with your ability to judiciously balance boost levels and ammo supplies adding some nuance to proceedings.
Getting $10,000 from street racing, however, is a pretty monotonous affair. Whilst racing remains high-octane and end-of-race report cards encourage you to improve your game, your opponents remain very easy right until the last one or two races of the game. And once you’ve completed four or five races, you’ve probably completed them all. I should add that you can choose your game difficulty by picking a different weapon at the start – I played through on the standard difficulty.
Racing doesn’t get you all that much money, and grinding your way up to the required amount can be tedious as a consequence. Especially when a cut of your earnings is always going on food and bike repairs, among other offerings such as in-game music available from a record shop and very pricey bike parts. On the subject of in-game music, I really can’t overstate how cool the tunes in Desert Child were, so top marks on that facet.
I imagine the slow progress is intended to instill an underdog atmosphere, and it succeeds in that, but it did come at the cost of my enjoyment after a few hours, especially because Brittain’s chosen aesthetic sees your character swagger from point to point very, very slowly.
There are other activities that can get you towards that sacred $10,000 mark, but they only present small variants on standard racing and also become repetitive after a couple of repeats.
Once you eventually get to the Grand Prix, it’s more or less game over as far as needing money is concerned, as racing pays out over $10,000 a race. This was a welcome relief after I lost the semi-final on my first attempt, and I was glad for the escalated difficulty. After a few more attempts, I was able to beat the game and reveal the sardonic ending, which was quite amusing but also a little unsatisfying.
Overall, Desert Child is a decent little game, tightly designed with some laughs along the way, as well as offering really good audio and visual design. However, it does fall down under more prolonged scrutiny, with undercooked world-building and a tendency to push you towards grinding out money by means of repetition meaning that some may lose interest before reaching the finale.
[Reviewed on PC]