Breathedge isn’t for everyone. I’d argue it’s not for most, come to think of it. One part survival-sim set in the far reaches of unforgiving space, one part fourth-wall shattering parody of the very genre it belongs to, Breathedge will live or die based on your tolerance for its comedy. Personally, I found it about as suffocating an experience as being ejected out of an airlock, and nowhere near as brisk. Over the course of its runtime, you’ll be put through just about every trope and mechanical rigamarole known to the genre, only this time you’ll have an incessant voice in your ear making quips about how funny it all is. This isn’t inherently an issue – the idea of a game relishing in industry-standard poor design choices while keeping you in on the joke sounds kind of marvellous –but Breathedge is neither funny or clever enough to maintain this tension beyond the first hour.
Breathedge opens with arguably its best gag – two Fallout-lite robots with pixelated faces on retro screens are interrogating you about a recent catastrophic accident aboard a freighter. You can smack talk ‘em a little, give the right amount of lip to the pigs as it were, but soon enough you’ll be recounting the events of the incident from your limited point of view. You play the role of an unnamed gentleman tasked with accompanying his grandfather’s casket back home when an explosion rips apart your transport, creating massive debris fields in which you’ll need to scavenge to survive. As far as setups go, I’ve seen worse. While my preference is still for the minimalist approach as seen in games like Stranded Deep, there is merit to imbuing the genre with some genuine character
Breathedge’s narrative framing is actually pretty cute
As you watch dear old Pa slip away into the vacuum of space, you’re left with naught but your family’s indestructible chicken and a small shuttle’s worth of basic survival gear. That first thing is a pretty good indicator of whether this game’s brand of irreverent humour will land with you, and it’s only ratcheted up from there with the inclusion of your in-suit AI. A fast-talking, non-stop quip machine, this AI is the game’s constant companion and is easily the make-or-break component of its design. No matter what you do, big or small, the AI will inevitably have something to chirp at you with. The voice acting is serviceable, though the sheer amount of dialogue that passes through this narrative device is likely too much for any talented actor to manage.
Typical sardonic observations about the correct procedure in a crisis, the callousness of capitalism and a decent dose of just straight-up toilet humour are deployed liberally here. In more considered doses this style of humour might have been enjoyable, used to relieve the tension of surviving in such an unforgiving space or move the game’s surprisingly present narrative forward. Instead, Breathedge almost never leaves you alone with your own thoughts, with a barrage of lazy wisecracks and decade-old winking and nudging about the pitfalls of corporate bureaucracy. It’s so profoundly old hat and, worse still, not remotely funny.
One of the countless walls of text the game throws at you
The interplay between this writing and the game’s mechanics makes for a fascinating study in both successful marriage of concepts and a wholly unengaging end product. Games are at their best when both narrative (or theme) and gameplay are working in unison and Breathedge manages this spectacularly well. However, in doing so it thoroughly dismantles player investment, going so deep on the bit that every aspect of the game thereon out feels like, well, a joke. You’ll often be prompted to collect materials and craft items that are entirely useless – my least favourite being early in the game as you’re prompted to craft ‘Some Crap Imposed by the Developers’, which is of course a dick-shaped piece of scrap metal. This happens far too frequently given the tedious nature of material farming and the additional, actual survival game you’re still expected to play on top of the gags.
Alongside the standard hunger, thirst, and health meters, you’ll be trawling through crash wreckage and space debris to find an assortment of metals, plastics, components and so on. Like the humour, it’s all quite old hat but there is a reason these loops are so present in the genre. That inherent fun can be found in Breathedge too, and there were stretches of time where I would enjoy roaming these relatively expansive areas and uncovering pockets of useful goodies. Even this basic loop is hampered by unforced errors though. Breathedge makes a lot of noise about its self-awareness but manages to fall into the same genre-wide issues it is ostensibly dunking on. Glacial base movements speed, woefully low durability on tools, aesthetically pleasant but useless crafting and base building all collide to make for a generally dull gameplay experience. And when you find that the last half hour of dreary material hunting was in service of yet another flat joke, you begin to feel as though Breathedge is laughing at you, not with.
You’ve used one of these before, but at least it looks cool
Breathedge at least looks the part, an interesting collage of 1970s retro-futuristic Russian aesthetics and gorgeous starry vistas. It’s not the freshest art direction in gaming, nestling somewhere between Fallout and the Prey reboot, but it is undeniably crisp and vibrant. Colours are saturated, technology is boxy and garish, and the general character design is charming. Paired with some genuinely spectacular skyboxes and environmental design, Breathedge always gave me a visually pleasing sandbox in which to bully me. It’s a shame that the backend of the game ditches the free-roaming survival sim stuff for a surprisingly linear, corridor-based experience. It’s as awkward a transition between genres and mechanics as it sounds, dropping the parts of the game that worked in favour of distilled versions of its issues.
There’s a very interesting game floating somewhere in Breathedge’s debris field. A comedy-focused, tightly constructed version of what you get here could have stood shoulder to shoulder with the likes of The Stanley Parable even, letting the player in on the joke and using that to elevate a stable but stagnant genre of survival sim. Unfortunately, Breathedge runs amok with its premise, tripping over itself to make cringey jokes and press the player into unengaging systems. You might get a good laugh out of Breathedge but I’m going to become the Joker if I have to think about it again.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- RedRuins Softworks
- RedRuins Softworks, HypeTrain Digital
- PS5/PS4/Xbox Series X|S/Xbox One/PC
- February 25, 2022