Riot: Civil Unrest Review

It’s a Riot, not a riot.

Riot: Civil Unrest, like most things in life, is decidedly political, although it does its level best to be equitable about it. As the name suggests, this is literally a civil riot simulator and, as such, probably has an incredibly limited audience. The game is hitting PC, Xbox, PS4, and Switch, and its decidedly retro, yet detailed pixel art gives it a distinct appeal.

Essentially a very unusual real-time strategy game, Riot: Civil Unrest offers 30 scenarios across four campaigns. Each scenario lets you pick the side of either the protestors or the police forces trying to maintain order – by any means necessary. Each side has very different (timed) objectives, tools, and methods. How you decide to achieve the specific mission goals plays an important role in your overall success for a given campaign.

An important distinction between Riot and other games that take on this theme (like Anarcute and even the wonderfully offbeat De Blob games) is each level is based on an actual real-world event. From the Oakland, California riots to Caracas, Egypt, Greece, Italy, and other places, the game covers the globe allowing players to get up close and personal with an aspect of our history that is seldom covered in depth.

Levels aren’t simply about succeeding and moving on. Riot’s developers sincerely tried to realistically portray an important real-world issue that has unpredictable, wide-ranging consequences. To represent the idea that your actions have consequences, Riot uses the concept of public support to dictate how successful you’ll be across the campaign.

If you can manage to achieve success without hurting anyone or resorting to violence (or force in general), the public will be more inclined to take your side. Conversely, while violent means might lead to an easy scenario “win” (especially from the police side of the equation), the longer-term repercussions can be dire. Without public support, you ultimately can’t achieve the goal of peace – or whatever passes for it.

How the game is actually played, however, is somewhat hit and miss. The scenarios divide all the participants into smaller groups that can be moved independently. However, every character is treated in some capacity as a unique AI. This means that even within a specific group, each member has a chance to behave differently than the others. Where this really comes into play is how any given individual will react to fear and violence. If the police get too aggressive or morale gets too low, the protestors are more likely to become afraid and run, and vice versa.

Playing the game on the Switch, the right analogue stick switches between the smaller groups, while the buttons each relate to a different action. This can include bolstering morale by rallying others, forming a human wall (either standing or kneeling), using social media to call reinforcements, or even engaging in more aggressive tactics. The left stick directly moves the selected group for more exacting placement.

Similar tactics can be used on the police force side, such as forming a blockade, but they can also push forward, arrest protestors, and have more options for use of force (either deadly or not, neither of which will help your public rating). Doing all the scenarios from both sides does illustrate the very different dynamics at work in civil riots, even if the play mechanics are consistent. Since the scenarios are timed to achieve the objective within a few minutes, the pace is brisk, which helps keep the action frantic.

There are several set levels of zoom, but the camera isn’t directly controllable, unfortunately. While the pixel art is well animated and as detailed as this art style could be, it makes it hard to differentiate between tiny humans. This, in turn, makes the already chaotic action even more confusing to track.

Another issue, particularly on the Switch, is that the controls are a little loose. Aiming or selecting specific points on the map, such as trying to set up a barrier, is clumsy and twitchy. On a PC with mouse controls, the gameplay feels more natural and precise, but using a control pad just felt less refined. While the game hasn’t hit mobiles yet, Riot would feel right at home with touch controls. Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer the option on the Switch.

If you really want to dive into the weeds and change things up, there are other modes allowing you to take on the scenarios with very customized options. In the Story mode, for instance, you can customize equipment and the look of the characters. There’s even a versus mode for one-on-one riot conflicts.

On the PC, there’s also a scenario editor and already a hefty amount of new riots to try out, but sadly console players are left out in the rain here. No matter what the platform, there’s a lot of intriguing things going on in Riot: Civil Unrest. The crowd and individual AI are impressively realistic and, combined with the excellent animation, give Riot an eerily realistic look and feel.

The gameplay mechanics aren’t particularly complex, but there’s nothing else quite like Riot out there. The game is intellectually interesting, especially since it’s based on actual real-world events, but perhaps not outright entertaining in a traditional sense. The sandbox gameplay encourages trial and error as players try out radically different tactics. To that end, there’s a distinct puzzle aspect to the gameplay. So for players who do appreciate the volatile action, the many scenarios are worth not only getting through, but replaying just to try different tactics and sides.

Riot: Civil Unrest is strange and unique, with a strong social conscience. The material covered here is important and highly relevant to our times, lending a decidedly edutainment feel to the game as a whole. So, while the game certainly won’t appeal to everyone, its original premise and gameplay make it worth checking out.

[Reviewed on Switch]