Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

You Are Empty (PC, 2007, Ukraine): I Love This Crappy Game
August 5, 2010, 6:29 pm
Filed under: You Are Empty (PC, 2007, Ukraine)

I like “X-Play” on G4. You might not (and you might tag me as a gamer-loser for admitting so), but I think the hosts’ game reviews are usually fair..tough, but generally balanced. However, everyone slips from time to time. In this case, host Adam Sessler reviewed “You Are Empty” a few years ago by saying it was “poopy.” That was dumb…and, even more important, it’s not a review. Most people ’round the net agreed with him anyway.

I just finished “You Are Empty” recently (at this point, about 2 years after its release–I found it cheap, but new, covered in dust on a back shelf in a game store. I didn’t buy it when it was new due to Sessler’s “poopy” comment at the time, and then I subsequently forgot about it totally. Finding it again, with a price slashed in more than half, it was a no-brainer.) In the game, you wake up in a ruined hospital in 1955 Stalinist Russia surrounded by a populace that has been mutated in mind and body. With an eye on taking over the entire world (and making it Communist to boot), the Soviet government has erected an enormous psychic antenna to broadcast a reality-altering signal. This signal, in theory, will change normal citizens into Communist-spouting supermen. But wait! Oh no! The experiment goes horribly wrong, and most of the population is either killed or transformed into homicidal mutants. Your goal? Well, it is never all that clear, other than to escape a variety of situations and locales…as well as maybe find and eliminate the source of the transmission. SPOILER: Probably the neatest thing about this game is that you DO find the source, which is the now-horribly-mutated scientist who created this entire scheme; in an act of attrition, he gives you the ability to travel backwards in time–right back to the very beginning of the game–and shoot the scientist on sight before the plan was presented to Stalin and implemented, effectively stopping the entire narrative from happening. I know, it’s cliched as all hell. And I love it.

My first impression of “You Are Empty” is that the game’s environments can be absolutely breathtaking at times. The long-draw-distanced landscapes look like they were rendered by HL2’s Source Engine (give-or-take). So, it’s around that quality. There are moments late in the game when climbing around the rooftops of the unnamed mutant-infected city (or maybe it’s just Moscow), looking down on the empty cobblestone city streets or across the slate rooftops of endless abandoned buildings, where you really are completely immersed and engaged. Very nice use of colors throughout the city as well. Some of the gray concrete Brutalist-style skyscrapers stretch omniously into the sky. That says something about whoever this small dev team had drawing the locales. I was more interested in sightseeing and taking these screenshots than playing the game at times. And that’s just fine.

As others have mentioned in reviews around the interwebs, another visually enticing aspect of the game are the artsy, Photoshoppy cutscenes, which are stylish, mostly-black-and-white affairs (that also incorporate actual newsreel footage from the 50s to the present), and help to push the relatively interesting and strange, though convoluted, Sci-Fi-Communist-Russian-Experiment-Gone-Awry story forward–with a really nice twisty ending (for suckers like me), as mentioned above.

Almost in complete contrast, the enemy AI, enemy animations, and enemy concepts are….severely lacking, dated, and limited. It’s like the above-mentioned environments came from 2004/5, but the enemies fell out of a bargain-basement game circa 1995. The animations are stiff (enemies simply float over cars obstructing their way); the AI tactics involve bum-rushing you (that’s it–they come running at you, period, very old school, while you walk backwards and fire); there’s no evidence that you are shooting them (no flinching, no dodging, no evidence of damage, no change in behavior); and all similar enemies look identical to one another (which is perhaps the most unforgivable weakness in the game). The enemies fall into categories that I’m sure the game’s writers thought were clever–but they are not. When it comes to the human enemies (all of whom have been infected with a government-sponsored secret mind-control experiment that has warped them), there’s a firefighter dude (they all look the same), a steelworker dude (ditto), a silly nurse with a half-eaten face and perfect breasts (all of them look the same)…you get the picture…and you’ll be attacked in waves of these identical opponents, all tripping over their twins to get to you first. This is the aspect of the game that falls way, way flat and becomes comical (even though the game takes itself very seriously, which I paradoxically admire). And then there are the non-human enemies–giant broiler chickens (a Stalinist-insider joke), stitched-together dogs whose legs have been replaced with metal bars, etc.

Probably the two most irritating aspects of the game–advice for those brave souls looking to play:
1. Don’t use the Molotov cocktails. No matter where you put your reticle to throw, it will end up at your feet, killing you. Period. This one aspect of the game actually is broken, but it does not wreck the entire game by any means. You can easily beat the game without ever taking out a Molotov to use. No problem.
2. Your character does walk about very slowly for the most part. There is no “run” function in the game, which seems unheard of at this point in time. So everything seems to happen in slo-mo; once you become accustomed to the slower pace, it’s okay. The slow movement is not necessarily a bad thing, since the environments are generally well rendered–lots of sightseeing to do. But if you are 12 years old and need everything to zip by in a blur, move onto a different game, or get into the games’ config files and change the walking speed.

Overall, if you are one of those underdog gamers that likes spending time with lesser-known, generally undeveloped games made by small development teams–I firmly do believe (as long as you can look past the whole AI problem) this is a real gem of a game. A neat story, an interesting revisionist sci-fi historical period, cool cutscenes, an even colder and creepy atmosphere, sometimes beautiful environments–definitely worth the $9 I paid for it. But I wouldn’t pay more. (Oh, and the game is incredibly well optimized to run on a PC being powered by hamster wheel.)