The Great Fusion is a quirky, spunky, independent game and it won’t let you forget it, not for one moment. Even supposing its design were marvelous, I bet you wouldn’t be able to marvel at it nearly as much as the game itself does. It laughs at its own jokes, delights in its own cleverness, and revels in its satiric future setting. Somewhere along the way it tries to tell a story and present some puzzles—you know, the hallmarks of the genre—and that’s where the trouble begins. The Great Fusion is a promising game, but I can only recommend it to the most detached student of the industry, the kind of gamer with a morbid interest in untangling mishmashes of misused themes and inexpert ideas, and in sifting through the wreckage for signs of what might have been.
You play as Max, a former software engineer who by the year 2022 has fallen on hard times. Along with him, most of the world is in dire straits, and a sharp schism has emerged between the ruthless plutocrats at the top of society and the huddled masses beneath them. The world has just suffered through its greatest economic depression yet, in response to which nations across the globe have joined in the Great Fusion, a monolithic world-state with terrifying police powers. The new police state enforces order especially through overreach of copyright law in order to stamp out any troublesome cultural vitality. But some citizens remember the way the world used to be, and they’re beginning to chafe under the new regime.
These would prove fruitful themes for an adventure game in the hands of a writer like Cory Doctorow, who’s rather well known for sounding the horn about copyright abuses and extrapolating toward a grim future for creative hacker types. In the hands of the developers at Loading Home, though, they fall flat. The game trades constantly between grim, dystopian sci-fi and light-hearted, absurdist satire. That sort of interleaving needs to be done carefully, but here the streams are all crossed to the point that I can’t help but view the game, not as dystopian sci-fi with satiric overtones, but as an unintentional satire of sci-fi dystopian fiction, which is a different thing altogether. The premise of economic collapse and future dystopia is always rich with possibility, but the game’s treatment of these themes is so slipshod that it seems to be satirizing them. This undercuts any possible force for the setting. Who wants to sit through an unintentional parody of a dystopia?
For example, in one scene Max and his buddy discover a contraband old-tech CD-RW, which they decide to examine secretly on Max’s computer. The disc holds a copy of the old arcade game Pong, which fact plunges them into an immediate panic because Pong is copyrighted, and the penalty for having copyrighted software is death. But wait—I thought the Great Fusion used copyright as a means to control the populace! How can a police state both depend upon and simultaneously outlaw copyright? The only way to make sense of this is to suppose that the game is making fun of its own dire premise, but I very much doubt that’s what’s going on. Maybe the game meant to suggest that by using the CD, Max and his pal were violating the stringent copyright laws of the future, and this crucial detail was lost in translation.
I’d find that easy enough to believe. The Great Fusion was originally written in Spanish, and the English translation is just awful. Typos and grammatical errors abound; one character is even named “Jhonny.” The lines that are technically error-free sound like they got rammed through Google Translate for all the vigor they present, and every character seems to speak with the same, indistinguishable voice. The dialogue is riddled with curse words, but they don’t ring true as genuine profanities; instead they come off as the game’s writers trying very hard to present a sharp edge. Come on, Loading Home, couldn’t you guys have hired a desperate English-native grad student to proofread? I have it on good authority that they’ll work for peanuts.
For a game that’s supposed to be a throwback to earlier, Lucasarts-style adventure games, The Great Fusion curiously skips over some basic mechanics that those classic titles embraced. In The Secret of Monkey Island, when you talk to a character, you’re presented with a series of dialogue options. As you explore the dialogue tree, the initial options disappear until all you’re left with is a faint, “See ya,” and until something in the gameworld changes that character won’t have anything more to say to you. In The Great Fusion by contrast, all the old dialogue options remain. I found this a frustrating quirk, since I was never sure whether to re-explore an old dialogue branch in the hope of finding a new option.
Worse still, the puzzles in this game commit sins that no classic adventure title did. The first major puzzle involves Max’s escaping his apartment building without attracting the attention of his monstrous landlady. She’s blocking the corridor that leads to the door, so how will Max bypass her? He decides to call her and tell her a fib designed to lure her away from her desk. But what will he say to her? The game offers a few options, and only one is right: Max has to convince her she’s won a prize on a radio call-in show. Then he has to pick a prize, but which one? The sumptuous vacation package? The bundle of money? No, she’ll only be distracted if you offer her pizza. And each time you offer the wrong enticement, she hangs up and you have to call her all over again. There’s only one right course through this labyrinth of dialogue choices, and the game doesn’t provide any clues as to which is right. Adventure games are supposed to reward insight and exploration, not trial and error.
The Great Fusion’s art is all skillfully hand-drawn and animated, and its few music tracks are initially appealing. The tunes soon grow repetitive, though, and their upbeat, comical tone doesn’t always suit the story, which vacillates between bleak and silly. You’ll have to endure the mismatch, though: there’s no voice acting and the sound effects are few and far between. After half an hour, the game’s soundscape seems shallow and lifeless.
I’m disappointed that a game should delve into such rich, contemporary material as worldwide economic depression, police-state excess, working-class futility, and excessive enforcement of copyright, and yet for the result to be so wan and lacking. Let’s hope that such deserving topics receive more considered attention than this.