Paranoia: Happiness Is Mandatory - A Short Game Review
Success is mandatory. Failure is treason. Happiness is also mandatory. The dystopian universe has tones of Big Brother and mixes in the overly-optimistic billboard material seen in the Fallout franchise. Paranoia seeks to create a virtual representation of the cult classic tabletop game, but can it transfer the tension of playing against friends into playing against the AI?
Paranoia: Happiness is Mandatory is set in the same dystopian ‘world’ as the Paranoia board games created by Dan Gelber, Greg Costikyan, and Eric Goldberg. You are a citizen of Alpha Complex, a vast and sprawling facility with no access to the outside world. The complex is run by Friend Computer, an advanced AI that uses neural implants to see what you can see and uses this to record incidents that break the rules. Friend Computer has a simple set of rules for all residents: Comply with security, safety, and mandatory hygiene requirements, don’t enter any access areas above your access level. Oh, and happiness is mandatory. Failure to comply with any of these is punishable by termination, but you wouldn’t be silly enough to break any of these rules, would you?
You are a ‘Troubleshooter.’ Named as such because your job when you see trouble is to shoot it. You begin as a fresh clone that has gone through a complete brain scrub, indicating that you must have done something seriously wrong within Alpha Complex. You get a brief introduction to the controls and gameplay mechanics and are thrust into your first mission. Missions require you to report to Friend Computer so a new set of tasks can be dished out. You select three other troubleshooters from the available list to accompany you and then set out to restore order to Alpha Complex and to show Friend Computer that you can adequately complete any jobs entrusted to you.
During missions, you will come across characters who are less than complimentary about Friend Computer and the current regime in Alpha Complex. You need to decide if you want to risk letting them away with their indiscretions (maybe you agree with them), or just terminating them so Friend Computer won’t terminate you yet. We enjoyed the setting (Disclaimer: The reviewer had been reading George Orwell’s 1984 shortly before playing Paranoia), and the game universe is an interesting enough take on the big-brother-dystopia.
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Paranoia is your typical isometric RPG style game. A main character that you develop with attribute points? Check. Team of sidekicks with attributes that assist you during missions? Check. Missions based around a central questing area? Check.
The gameplay is a predictable mix of combat and dialogue. Unfortunately, the combat is cumbersome and doesn’t have much tactical capability beyond a basic cover mechanic. On the other hand, the inability to share inventory during a fight adds a cool feature where you can throw items onto the ground near other teammates to pick up. This tactic would be easier to plan and implement if the combat was turn-based, but that would change the overall feel.
The dialogue events impressed me at first, with witty self-awareness, and some interactions activating a multitude of options from which to choose. Over time the conversations became more event-driven, and often there was a single option to choose, acting more like a ‘continue’ button than anything else.
I didn’t complete the game, but I tried a few hours each over a couple of playthroughs. During the first playthrough, I was picking the options I thought would keep Friend Computer the happiest. While the second was a chance to try the other choices. Many of the options were either dead ends that returned to the original selection, ones that gave negative results then resulted in you choosing a more positive follow up option, or an option that results in the same outcome as the ‘optimal’ choice.
Another challenge to work around is that your inventory is cleared at the end of each mission. The secret storage at the base of your bed circumvents this, but space here is limited. You can hide a few items here that you want to carry over into other parts of the game. Basic things include some scrap metal used for crafting, extra ammo, and health items. But you could also try hiding weapons too if you wanted. The problem is that missions don’t always end when you expect them to, so you need to toss up about whether you want to follow a ‘save all’ or ‘save some’ approach. You risk having items taken from you sooner than anticipated or being caught short if you deposit useful items only to find another stage to the mission.
With respects to treasonous acts, there are areas of the complex where there is no connection to “The Cloud,” and this allows you to perform these acts (such as conspiring with fellow citizens) with a reduced likelihood of getting caught. However, it is impossible to be a completely law-abiding citizen because missions contain choices where all outcomes result in either a black mark against your name or compulsory termination. At first, these choices could seem like the game trying to corral you. Still, because of the context, we believe it is an intentional decision by the developers to create an environment where it is impossible to avoid creating problems. In a dystopian alternative reality, the choice to just toe the line might not be enough to keep you in good standing with the authorities.
Atmosphere (Graphics + Sound)
We need to acknowledge the fact that Paranoia is an indy game, and therefore hasn’t tried to tick the ‘realism’ box in the graphics department. This is a good thing because it gives the developers the freedom to modify the art style to fit with the sort of neon-fringed atmosphere of a futuristic dystopian complex. One which jumps from brightly lit communal areas where every action is watched closely, to dingy storerooms and basements where dark deeds unfold.
The entire soundtrack is slightly over 23 minutes long (including the credits and a couple of bonus tracks), so music repeats reasonably often. Fortunately, they loop effectively without jarring the listener between transitions. The opening music heard during launch and setup is a standout piece that sets the scene well and exemplifies the other tracks in the game. It is a thrilling piece with an alarming electronic beat and a tense background of strings, brass, and beat.
Other tracks include the electronic sounds of an ominous industrial grind reminiscent of the sort used in movies when conveying the foreboding feeling of looking at some gigantic spaceship or complex. Another has a sense of urgency akin to that of trying to hack a terminal or cut a wire before the time limit expires.
At max settings on an i7-4970k, 16 GB RAM, R9 380, the game was smooth and without issue. The same settings on a laptop with i5-7200u, 8 GB RAM, MX 150, caused character movement to feel sluggish but consistent. Turning the graphics down to medium sorted this out. Although untested, the minimum system specs suggest that the integrated HD620 or similar pre-Intel-10th-gen iGPU would struggle unless the resolution was dropped low.
The graphics and sound both have the same vibe and do a good job of conveying the dystopian atmosphere of the game.
Controls are simple to learn and easy to use, with options for keyboard/mouse or controller. Players can jump between the two control methods at will, and any tooltips or popups will adjust to show the relevant buttons based on the last input method you used.
There are a couple of key differences between the two methods. The keyboard and mouse combo uses right-click to move with auto pathing, while the controller allows you to control movement constantly. Meanwhile, the controller involves initiating menus, then scrolling to the item wanted, while the keyboard/mouse allows you to access objects directly and simplifies moving items. I preferred keyboard and mouse input. However, since Paranoia doesn’t require a gaming computer, it isn’t unreasonable to think that console gamers might pick this up on their laptop or ultrabook and prefer to use a controller.
My initial opinion of the control system being simple didn’t change over the several hours of playing, but the combat didn’t get any less cumbersome.
I enjoyed my time with Paranoia: Happiness is Mandatory. The self-aware humor is amusing, the atmosphere is pleasing, and the game isn’t too challenging. It can feel a bit repetitive, and my experience with trying more than one playthrough showed that this probably wouldn’t be a game you play again to test for new outcomes.
This is where it comes down to how you play. My impression of the game was more positive when I was only jumping in long enough to do a mission (or half a mission) and then stopping, rather than during my longer sessions where I was playing for a couple of hours at a time.
If you are a fan of the futuristic dystopian ‘Big Brother is watching’ genre and dialogue-driven lite-RPGs, then Paranoia is worth picking up. Just keep to short sessions to keep the content fresh.