Today, Beholder is finally getting a release on PS4 and Xbox One. Originally developed for Steam in 2016, development team Warm Lamp Games has partnered with Curve Digital for the console release, which perked my ears because I’ve enjoyed previous titles like the visually stunning Hue and the charming puzzler Thomas Was Alone. I found in Beholder a starkly bleak dystopian narrative that was sometimes muddled by its presentation and execution.
Beholder is best described as a management simulator, set in a harsh, alternate reality in the appropriate year of 1984. The story takes place in a four-story tenant building in a city under the bootheel of totalitarian rule. You play as Carl, a rookie “Beholder,” a Draconian term for a landlord who spies and collects information on tenants at the behest of the authoritarian Ministry of Allocation. It is your job to repair and fill apartments with tenants, while the Ministry will periodically call to task you to surveil the people living under your roof. Beholder often presents moral dilemmas to the player in these scenarios: you can install security cameras or peer through peepholes to collect dirt on tenants, to either blackmail them or report them to the Ministry for cash and increased reputation. In other instances, you are afforded opportunities to hide their crime or help them escape. Your actions don’t always yield the expected consequence, meaning that every decision is tense and fraught with uncertainty.
The strongest aspect of Beholder is the game’s ambiance. The dismal mood is effectively established by a gloomy musical score and grim chalk style visuals draped in shadow. The backstory of the mysterious regime in power is told in dialogue with tenants, but also in the Daily News headlines that discourage readers from reading philosophy books and heeds them not to panic about the explosions heard at a nearby storage facility. A slew of government directives are consistently sent to the player, instilling odd statues for citizens such as the banning of foreign music, fish, light bulbs, and blue neckties. With unfortunately familiar themes related to surveillance and nationalism, Beholder is a timely narrative that asks players what they would do with the power of being a gatekeeper in a dictatorial regime.
Your family, occupying the basement of the building, is represented both as a beacon of hope in this stringent world and as a reason to sink to nefarious lows. While I tell myself I would never be beholden to the wishes of such an oppressive society, I found myself willingly carrying out some shady procedures to make money for the health and security of my family. Your spouse frets over fines and fees being forced on citizens, while your son dissents against the oppressive state. Meanwhile, your daughter begs for you to play with her as you pass by, but there is no time for play when you are on the Ministry’s clock. Though the text exchanges between characters is brief, you develop a connection that propels your decisions further.
My biggest pet peeve with Beholder is the text on the screen is often very difficult to read. While some may see this as a tiny gripe, I wish game developers would appreciate that reliance on using tiny text means their story is simply not accessible to some gamers. There are also several times that the story text is stylized as faded newsprint, but it is so faded that I had to squint for a minute to understand the narrative (after a while I just started skipping that part of the story). In addition to legibility, it wasn’t always clear what I was supposed to be doing in Beholder. One time I was given the prompt “When the tenant is doing something unique, the action icon turns red if the action is disabled and green when it opens information about the tenants,” and I swear I read that sentence ten times before I figured out what it meant and wanted me to do.
Another shortcoming is that the pacing of Beholder seems to oscillate between too quick and too slow. Early on in the game I suddenly became overwhelmed with tasks, with six different timers counting down on the screen as I rushed around clicking “X.” In the rush I failed to raise the outlandish amount of money needed to complete everything, and as a result my daughter died and my son was banished to work in the mines. After my failure, the game returned to a snail pace, and I drolly walked around repairing furniture and hanging up propaganda fliers. It is unfortunate that the gameplay isn’t as well paced as the narrative because it gave me the impression that this good game could have been great.
Despite its flaws, Beholder is an engaging title that presents an intriguing scenario for gamers concerned about the state of the world. If you enjoy games like Prison Architect or Don’t Starve, then this dystopian indie title may be a good game to behold.
Beholder is available today for PS4 and for Xbox One on January 19. This review is based on a PS4 copy provided for that purpose.