On a packed PAX Australia show floor, I’m straining to hear the finer details through a flimsy headset. As my ears parse the conflicting waves of excited crowd murmuring, distant announcer blasts, and a rich tapestry of gunfire, mud underfoot, and enemy rallying cries, I’m doing my absolute best to catch what Conscript solo developer Jordan Mochi is saying behind me about Resident Evil. In countless ways the progenitor of Conscript’s WWI survival horror experience, Mochi is locked in a reasonably passionate conversation over my right ear about which of Capcom’s babies is his favourite. Unsurprisingly, it sounds as if he’s landed on Resident Evil 4, something you could probably tell by playing just a few minutes of his own baby, due sometime in 2024.
A game like Conscript doesn’t just pop into being. Mochi hasn’t been shy about the many years it has taken him to get it right, but even before development began in earnest under Catchweight Studio, the idea was germinating. Studying history at the University of Melbourne, Mochi’s adoration for the survival horror genre is perhaps only matched by his fascination with history; a wonderfully academic collision of passions that has resulted in Conscript. Since 2017, Mochi has been poking and prodding at the edges of the game, initially to learn the basics of design but eventually evolving into its own beast. Now, some six years later, he’s just about ready to let players into his nightmarish reconstruction of World War I.
In Conscript you play as an anonymous French soldier deep in the trenches of the Battle of Verdun. Amid this infamous conflict, which Mochi describes as a meatgrinder historical event, you’re tasked with finding your missing brother.
“Verdun allowed me to have a bit more environment variety when compared to other battles,” says Mochi, “it has the iconic trenches of course, but there were also many villages and also these massive 19th century forts that were fought over…Verdun was also just known as one of the worst battles of the war, with the highest density of death per square meter.”
In the roughly 45 minutes I played, Conscript flexed its mechanical diversity, running me through frenetic action, tense stealth, and the genre staple, inventory management. With the enemy well and truly at the gate, and a litany of survival horror mainstays at your back, Conscript crafts a starkly oppressive and cinematic tone through its distinct pixel art aesthetic and tremendous sound design. There’s a grit to the game, the kind that gets under your nails and stains your skin– Conscript may have been born from Mochi’s love for heightened horror but there’s no metaphor or cheesiness to hide behind in its grimy trenches.
“The great thing about historical games is how there can be different types of interpretations of historical events” said Mochi as we discussed the impact games can have on the abstraction of history. In considering the market for historical titles he went on to say “Take for example Amnesia The Bunker which takes a totally different direction to Conscript while still having the French WW1 theme. In Amnesia the game revolves around a fictional monster whereas Conscript is more grounded, and has you fight against human soldiers. Neither is inherently better than the other, they’re just two different interpretations – and both are given equal respect which allows for a lot of creativity.”
It’s fitting then that violence in Conscript feels so raw. The soldier will have access to a variety of melee and ranged attacks, this early section dropping a knife, shovel, pistol and shotgun into my limited inventory. Using a cursor you’ll guide a small recital for either mode of attack, holding swings and stabs until an enemy is in range or lining up a shot to do the most damage possible. Guns are era-appropriate, with lengthy, manual reload times and limited shots, while the collision of the broadside of my shovel with a downed enemy produced an uncomfortable crunch. The game’s overarching sound work, which drowns you in a discordant symphony of pained cries and earth altering blows, emphasises the impact of your attacks too. No shot is haphazard, no swing unearned, Conscript wants to ground you in its violence.
Violence in Conscript feels impactful and cruel
This emphasis on the horrors of the battlefield goes both ways of course, as a later section saw the soldier stripped of his weapons and forced to slink through the mud and shadows of an enemy-occupied zone. I eventually stumbled upon a small knife, just enough of an edge to use the environment to obscure sightlines and launch deadly close-quarters attacks, but Conscript is littered with places to explicitly hide too. The soldier is appropriately squishy, having to make use of healing supplies and save rooms and just about everything else you’d imagine given the game’s roots. Enemy soldiers guard keys that can open new pathways through the game’s labyrinthian map, itself a beautifully drawn and easy to read piece that emulates Resident Evil perfectly.
It’s just one of many ways Conscript is riffing on the genre. Mochi’s sensibilities mean the game is immediately familiar in some ways and refreshingly modernised in others. To my utter delight, I found a Resident Evil 4-style merchant who could upgrade my guns and disperse one-liners about the horror around us. But despite its old-school veneer, you’ll be able to easily switch between weapons via a quick select, and aesthetics have been considered beyond the surface. “The character models are put together and animated in Blender as 3D models. Then I have a plug-in that basically takes a screenshot of the model at all the top-down angles I need, for every frame and direction and then I can export them as huge sprite sheets” Mochi explains, a labour of love that results in Conscript having an otherworldy combination of animations at times.
In talking with Mochi it’s evident how much of himself is in this project, a game born from complimentary passions that has kept pace with, if not outrun, its inspiration points to become something greater than the sum of its parts. Conscript’s war remains undecided until its launch in 2024 but it looks to be well and truly winning its battles.