Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months, you know that guns are a hot topic in the current social and political discourse. In the United States, the debate surrounding firearm regulation seems to have reached a boiling point, dividing the nation and prompting those in power to once again lay the lion’s share of the blame at the feet of the video games industry. With almost prophetic timing, in the same week as hundreds of thousands of students walk out of school to protest gun violence, we saw the release of The American Dream, a satirical “virtual reality trip” through a fictional 1950s-style America, where guns have become the solution to literally every engagement. It’s a bold stance from Australian indie developer Samurai Punk, and their first foray in the world of VR, but does their message hit the mark or does it feel like more of a misfire?
Baby’s first words are “Skrrrrahh, Pap, pap, ka-ka-ka”
The premise of The American Dream is fairly simple; you are strapped into a bullet-shaped rail car at a world’s fair and taken on a journey that chronicles the life of a ‘true American patriot’ from infancy to adulthood. You begin the ride as a baby and are given two semi-automatic pistols, which you will use for almost every task the game throws at you. You summon your mother by unloading a clip into the bedroom door and are subsequently fed from the tip of her nourishing, cold steel handgun. The absurdity of this scenario is carried forward throughout the entire game as you play catch with your father, flip burgers for money in the local diner and even execute perfect table manners during a romantic meal, all with a quick blast from your trusty side-arm. At particular points of the game, problems arise that require a bit more firepower and you are given the chance to wield something that packs a bit more of a punch, such as courting your crush down the barrel of a Springfield rifle, tending to your garden with a Thompson submachine gun and even taking part in a literal shotgun wedding.
Mechanically speaking, the game performs fairly well, with a lot of attention placed on making each of the guns feel unique and responsive. From the slow-motion ‘tactical reloading’ of my pistols (which never gets old), to the bolt action of the Springfield and even the over-charged flaming blast from the shotgun, The American Dream utilises the functionality of the PSVR and Move controllers to make the shooting segments quite fun, which feels a bit weird considering the overarching satirical message. There were a few times where the tracking of my headset or controllers slipped and I was forced to restart whole sections and even a few instances of hit boxes not registering, so I was unable to perform the critical interactions needed to proceed. This was incredibly frustrating but the development team seem to be on the ball with squashing these bugs and have already started rolling out patches to fix some in-game issues.
The gunpowder gives it that authentic New York bagel taste
While the shooting sections were enjoyable, the parts in between were too long and too slow. The first two-thirds of the roughly four-hour game move at a walking pace and the tongue-in-cheek commentary on American gun culture begins to wear pretty thin as you progress. This is amplified by the glitches I mentioned earlier, which maddeningly meant I often had to sit through the same tired dialogue multiple times with no option of skipping things that I’d already seen and heard. The final act of the game shakes things up and puts you in even more absurd scenarios at a faster rate, but still suffers from hand-brake moments that feel like a chore to witness. The scoring system in the game is also intentionally arbitrary, which limits the replayability of it, but there are hidden collectables in each level if you can be bothered sitting through them all again.
As with all satire, The American Dream relies on the current zeitgeist to make its point and unfortunately I think it just misses the mark. There are cute references to movies and videos games that are about war, guns and patriotism (10 points if you can spot the Captain ‘Straya poster) and wry comments about the capitalist, industrial US economy, but it fails to link the absurdity of the environment created in-game to the state of affairs in the real world. The player is given the responsibility to infer the message of the game, which is fine, but they aren’t really given the opportunity to do so while playing, just railroaded into solving more problems by shooting at them. There are also a few parts of the game that could cut too close to the bone for some people, such as gunning down a classmate in a school gymnasium and telling the player that the only way out of some situations is to shoot themselves in the head.
It’s the American version of our favourite home improvement show, ‘The Glock’
The American Dream is a reasonably fun on-rails shooter that made my PSVR and Move controllers feel relevant again. It’s fairly well priced for a VR game and although it can feel like a bit of a slog to get through, once you’ve unlocked each chapter you can even throw your headset on a friend to show them how fun shooting in virtual reality can be. Despite its flaws, I enjoyed my time with T.A.D. and Samurai Punk should be commended for their VR debut, especially considering they are only a small development team based in Melbourne. If you have the hardware needed to play it, I’d definitely recommend picking it up, even if it isn’t the scathing political commentary I expected it to be.
Reviewed on PS4 | Review code supplied by publisher