The American Scream

HIGH A vivid, novel, angry depiction of dystopian America…

LOW …that might be a bit too silly to get the message across. Maybe.

WTF Wizards at Mount Rushmore?

Stories about journeys are about as universal as it gets, but there’s something particularly American about the road trip. It’s rooted in the country’s unique geography — it lets storytellers promise the diversity and variation found in trekking across a continent while still keeping it tied together in the notion of a single country and culture. It feeds the American mythos, and Panic Barn taps that — and more — in Not Tonight 2, the sequel to 2020’s Not Tonight.

Whereas Not Tonight tackled the dystopian near-future U.K. ushered in by Brexit, Not Tonight 2 crosses the pond to the United States, only it’s not quite so united anymore as a series of cascading crises has ripped the country apart and brought it to its knees. Two factions rule the collapsing remains: The Alliance, a sclerotic rump state that was once the federal government, and the Martyrs, a psychotic, bigoted far-right fever swamp. Meanwhile, individual cities and territories are left to fend for themselves in the face of the things that broke the union. Los Angeles is a smog-choked ruin, rising sea levels have turned New York into a canal city, and the Midwest creaks under rotating surges of deadly plague.

Players take control of three young people off on a trip from their home in Portland to help a friend who’s been bundled into a black van and renditioned to the Martyr-held “Miami Gulag” for deportation. The party must cross the territory ahead of them in time to bring their kidnapped buddy a set of documents and proof of identity that’ll help them stay in. To do so they’ll travel, taking odd jobs and helping strangers while trying to survive the ravages of a slowly dying nation.

So, yes, Not Tonight 2 isn’t exactly subtle in its leanings.

In fact, it makes the previous game (which posited a future where Brexit had turned non-British residents into little more than serfs) look positively grounded. Panic Barn took advantage of the color and variation to be found in American tourist spots, and added a heavy dose of satirical exaggeration. The results are much, much more colorful, both philosophically and literally.

The pixel art graphics look fantastic, with rich detail and many interesting backgrounds and environments to trundle through on the way from coast to coast. Some clever use of 3D Voxel-based assets also lends more animation to the travel sequences.

Mechanically, players work as bouncers at various locales along their journey, and the game’s core structure takes more than a few pages from Lucas Pope’s classic Papers, Please. As a bouncer, players will check peoples’ IDs while matching them to an escalating number of requirements needed to let customers in while filtering riff-raff out. At first the criteria are simple, like making sure punters are of legal age or not holding a fake ID, but each location adds a little one-off gimmick. In one area, players can filter guests by their compliance with masking requirements. In another, guests need to succeed at a Dungeons & Dragons-style dice roll against assigned stats to get in. Players will check for contraband, offer a choice of sauces, help convert aspirants to a local cult, and so on.

Between locations, players will come across semi-random vignettes that mimic the Choose Your Own Adventure-style “cutscenes” of games like FTL or similar roguelikes. These have an impact on the party’s health and morale, and letting either of those meters zero out means a game over. The logistics of cross-country travel are actually an under-considered part of road trip stories, but these segments are rough patch in Not Tonight 2 as they have a number of unfairly punitive “wrong” options that can leave a run dead in the water.

The gimmicks at each venue and the random choices keep the otherwise repetitive ‘job sim’-style gameplay fresh, and avoid the kind of grinding tedium that made Papers, Please and even the first Not Tonight feel heavy. Unfortunately, that might actually be a problem. That heaviness and boring, workaday routine, is part of what made the tone of those titles stick.

For example, in Papers, Please, players were hapless border control officers making tough, compromised choices to survive. In Not Tonight, players worked the queues, scrambling to assemble enough money to stay ahead of a shady immigration officer. Not Tonight 2 trades that sense of place and time for a straightforward questing structure that often comes across as more wacky than weary. That’s a valid choice, of course, but one that’s buried the messaging in its shift from a dark, tense satire to a mocking parody.

Sacrificing tone on the altar of entertainment has made Not Tonight 2 somewhat less of a “bold, politically charged dark comedy” that publisher No More Robots bills it as, but despite that it remains a beautifully-realized, genuinely enjoyable adventure.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Panic Barn and published by No More Robots. It is currently available for PC. This copy of the game is based on a retail build provided by the publisher and reviewed on PC. Approximately 13 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode. There is no multiplayer mode. The game was completed.

Parents: This game is not rated by the ESRB, but if it were, it would likely rate T, with content descriptors for Drug and Alcohol Reference, Language, Violence, Suggestive Themes, and Use of Tobacco. If I wrote it, a description might read something like “This is an adventure game with job simulation elements. Players take control of a person traveling across the dystopian USA to help a friend who has been unjustly detained. Players work as bouncers, checking the documents of visitors to various locations. They will interact with their friends directly and via text message. There is no combat in the game, though violent behavior is sometimes seen or implied. Characters curse, threaten each other, and use bigoted language.

Colorblind Modes: The game has no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All voiced dialogue is accompanied by subtitles. (See examples above.) There are no text size or presentation options. Some audio cues do not have a visual indicator and can occur behind the player, but these are not essential for gameplay. This title is not fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: This game’s button controls are not remappable.

Josh Tolentino
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