Lifeline is a great idea. Not just a good or unusually creative one, but a truly great one. The player takes on the role of an "operator" trapped in a room on an orbiting space hotel. Aliens have invaded this hotel, and the only way to take action is by helping Rio, a waitress who survived the invasion. In front of you are a computer terminal with access to mechanical systems and a viewscreen employing countless security cameras. You are the brains. Free to roam the halls, she is the brawn. Together, you must help each other solve the mysteries of the station and escape. The kicker: You do it all by guiding her through spoken vocal commands and a USB headset. Honestly, I fell in love with this concept from the get-go.
Primarily, I was fascinated with the prospect of playing a game where my tasks weren't the "active" ones, in the sense that someone else would be performing the things required for success. It's standard procedure to step into the boots of a military commando laying waste to small countries, or to make perilous leaps as a platforming mascot. How often are gamers asked to fill in as field support? Never, in my experience such a passive concept seems to run counter to the premise behind videogames—hence why I found it so intriguing. Sadly, the great idea behind Lifeline was just that: a great idea. The finished game falls so horribly short of fulfilling its potential that Konami would have been better off leaving it on the drawing board. Did I hear someone say "Laundry List"?
The gameplay can be summed up as a textbook, no-frills survival horror quest. Find keys and items, unlock doors, kill monsters, repeat. Lifeline seems to think that by controlling the onscreen character via spoken commands no one will notice how trivial and shallow the end product is, but the conceit falls utterly flat. The game is stone-cold boring, and couldn't keep me interested once the novelty of speaking into the headset wore off.
The ultimate example of banality, exploring the station is the pits. When on the hunt, Rio can walk into any given area and the items available to interact with are highlighted. (Anything not highlighted is simply background dcor.) You can try to tell her to pick up a certain thing, but she won't touch it until you call it by its proper name. Many objects are difficult to discern, and the process causes simultaneous reactions of boredom and frustration. Boredom because the items are laid out for inspection like ducks in a row, and frustration because sometimes you can't tell what something is despite it being right in front of you. Evidently, the developers think using my voice to play "guess the noun" with Rio is supposed to be a good use of the technology. It's really not, and you're forced to go along with this "pick up what?" silliness until you provide Rio an order that's specific enough for a mossy tree sloth to follow.
In one scene, I was baffled by a greenish box on top of a table. I spent several minutes making incorrect guesses and feeling my blood pressure rise. When the answer finally revealed itself (a questionnaire, of all things) there was no sense of accomplishment; only a feeling that such a rigid, mechanical system was a miserable replication of human teamwork.
After exhausting my thesaurus examining the items available, I was disappointed to see the game repeat this scenario ad infinity, pausing only to shoot crawly things along the way. Incapable of even the most basic independent action and thought, Rio is completely helpless without you barking out her every move. If a giant, three-eyed slug was biting you with a mouthful of razorteeth, would you actually need someone to tell you to move away? Rio does.
Between her inefficiency as an investigator and her lack of common sense survival skills, she's absolutely unconvincing as a "partner." Perhaps if she had been portrayed as a robot instead of a human, her limitations and behaviors would make more sense. As it stands, she comes off like the victim of a badly botched lobotomy.
Besides Rio's failure to pass for a semi-intelligent being, Lifeline isn't consistent or believable in the way you interact with her via the station's systems. For example, part of the idea is that you're seeing what's around the sharpshooting waitress by using views from available security cameras. However, the angles you get are wildly illogical. Sometimes they're directly overhead, while other times you're at eye level looking right into her face. Sometimes they appear to be mounted on the floor, looking up. There are so many dramatic angles used, I was constantly wondering how I could possibly reconcile the premise with what was onscreen.
On top of that, the USB headset isn't even used properly. Instead of piping Rio's voice directly into your ear to increase the quality of the simulation, it's broadcast through the TV's speakers. Why? She's wearing a headset, and I've obviously got one on while playing the game. Such a glaring, obvious oversight blew apart any immersion I had, and only underscored the fact that Lifeline doesn't try to be at all convincing. If the obvious details needed to flesh out the scenario are going to be ignored, I wonder why the developers bothered with the pretense in the first place.
Forgive the clich, but last and certainly not least the technical achievement of using voice isn't remotely as good as you'd expect from a disc based on it, and even the briefest playtime will reveal Lifeline's recognition software to be disappointing. The game's software works around sixty to seventy percent of the time, sometimes a little better if you take extra care to speak slowly and enunciate (as I was doing.) Regardless of my extra effort at clear speech, Rio still misheard me and executed the wrong orders far more often than was tolerable. For example, I would say something like "Check the wig," only to hear Rio reply "Okay, I'll go outside." Another time I told her, "Pick up wire" and she somehow came back with "That's an ordinary nightstand." It's bad when you're in quiet rooms picking through clues, but it goes from annoying to unacceptable during battle. Often struggling against multiple enemies, it's a good thing the developers included a save point in every room (literally). You'll need them.
To recap: imagine playing the most uninspired, atmosphere-free Resident Evil clone that could exist. (I haven't even mentioned the graphics so basic they look like they'd almost be possible on the original PlayStation, and a cheesy story that borders on ridiculously laughable at times.) Then instead of using a control pad, you must verbally tell your brain-free character exactly what to do every step of the way. This is what Lifeline is like. Rather than bringing all-new perspective to a genre that's running out of steam, Lifeline squanders its potential with unbelievably derivative content and a plodding, cumbersome interface. I still think the basic concept has merit, but it'll take more than one brilliant idea to salvage something saddled with so many bad choices.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody's looking, and his favorite game of all time is a toss-up between the first Mass Effect and The Witcher 3. You can catch his written work here at GameCritics and you can hear him weekly on the @SoVideogames Podcast. Follow Brad on Twitter and Instagram at @BradGallaway, or contact him via email:
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