American Arcadia Review
Escaping the disco
After the 2D adventure game genre had its resurgence in the 2000s and 2010s, many independent developers tried to join in on that success. Some emulated the leaders of the genre, such as Limbo, by creating moody, muted adventures with little explicit storytelling or dialogue. But others tried something totally different, often with good results, at least for the novelty factor. The relatively new developers Out of the Blue Games have opted for something interesting with their sophomore title – a combination of two different gameplay perspectives in a puzzle/adventure game with American Arcadia.
American Arcadia follows Trevor, a young man in his late 20s who works a safe but mundane office job. It's the 1970s, and a utopia where everyone is calm and happy; Trevor has a routine that he sticks to, and generally feels content. One day, though, his cubicle friend goes missing having apparently won a free vacation. Trevor is suspicious of this, and also begins to hear music and someone speaking to him through various electronic devices. He tries to keep calm and collected, but it's not long before he himself wins the vacation prize, and gets called up to the management office. His walk is interrupted by a voice that urges him to run instead, and as he sees strange security guards waiting ahead, he takes that advice.
As he attempts to escape the building where he's worked for nearly a decade, he ventures into hidden areas and finds lots of strange equipment and camera gear. The voice on the ear piece reveals the truth – Trevor has been part of American Arcadia, a city of over 20k people that live in a special isolation stuck in the '70s, while their lives are live-streamed to the rest of the modern 2023 world. The reason that Trevor and his friend have been chosen for a vacation – i.e. elimination – is because their viewership ratings are so low. While shocked at this news, he pushes on and tries to make his way through the city and various checkpoints to escape the bubble.
The voice guiding him is Angela, one of the engineers at the Walton Corp who runs the show and city. She is personally against this whole social experiment and the entertainment that it produces. Over the course of the game, the pair will work together, both synchronously as well as via flashbacks, in order to help Trevor escape and maybe bring down the corporation's public image, or more, with the help of a shadow rebel group.
American Arcadia certainly weaves an interesting tale, with plenty of concepts to delve into. It's sort of like The Truman Show except taken to the scale of an entire city. It touches on the subjects of modern entertainment, human rights, capitalism, and so on. The topics are mostly explored at a surface level, but are still engaging to think about, and there are no gray areas given to Walton Corp who are pretty much the merciless capitalists throughout. Some of the fine details are also a bit questionable – such as offering tourism for outsiders into Arcadia. Sure, there are signs to leave all modern items behind, but that's still just asking for trouble. There are also psychedelic trips, conspiracies, and conflicting viewpoints to unpack. Overall, it's quite an engaging and multifaceted narrative – perhaps unsurprising, with the developers' previous effort Call of the Sea also offering a strong story.
The adventure moves along at a brisk pace, supported by good writing and voice acting. Trevor does an excellent job of being a believable everyman who finds himself in an extraordinary situation. His dialogue and delivery are on point and really help immerse players into the adventure. His partner in crime Angela is a bit worse off though – while her delivery is fine, the dialogue is laced with modern slang, attitude, and cursing, which doesn't feel like it fits the setting and isn't as enjoyable to sit through. They have good chemistry, and bring the story to a close within a brisk 4 to 5 hours.
The two main protagonists diverge not only through their writing, but also their experiences and gameplay. While playing as Trevor, American Arcadia is a third person 2.5D puzzle-platformer where you can only walk left or right. You'll do all the usual things, such as running from enemies, climbing onto things, pushing boxes around to create higher ledges, and so on. From Trevor's perspective, given his limited playing space and abilities, the gameplay is very straightforward.
When the story passes control to Angela, who is working at the corporate head office, the perspective shifts to a first-person 3D adventure. While she does most of her work to help Trevor from her desk monitor, she'll still need to walk around the office tower, get into restricted rooms, chat with colleagues and jam security cameras. Through flashbacks, Angela will also visit other locations outside the office. Her gameplay is much more puzzle focused, as you will need to interact with the environment in interesting ways, find numbers and passwords, hack number sequences and so on.
The challenges that Angela faces are not particularly difficult, but certainly require a lot more thinking and exploration. And when the pair are working together, it is still Angela who is pulling the strings. Players can switch from Trevor's standard view to the CCTV camera view, thus assuming control by Angela, who often has to open doors for Trevor, interact with conveyer belts, and even just turn the lights on and off. This player-controlled switching of perspectives helps give the game an extra layer of interactivity depth – and may remind you of Watch Dogs. It works well, though sometimes can get tedious when you know the solution and have to navigate the cursor to the correct interactivity button. In some cases, you may even need to be rather quick, such as when Trevor needs to escape and Angela needs to coordinate his route. It's not QTE-level actions, but it may take a couple of attempts. Failure is instant, just by an enemy touching Trevor or him failing stealth – though checkpoints are usually not too far back. It is also a little bit odd, when Angela does something in her world, Trevor just presumably stands around and waits, removing the sense of urgency from the adventure.
With an engaging story and mostly satisfactory gameplay, American Arcadia also shines in its presentation. While the character models use a smooth low-polygon style, the environments and backgrounds are very well realized. The '70s setting within the city is well executed thanks to old tech, bright orange and red color schemes, and a believable atmosphere - slightly reminiscent of Headlander. Some of the locations that Trevor visits later in the game continue to be very well designed and look wonderful, without being overbearing like some games tend to do when choosing a nostalgic visual style. Angela's levels are a bit more mundane and modern, though still believably presented. The game supports keyboard and mouse, but a controller seems more comfortable and is recommended, especially given the perspective changes in gameplay between the characters.
American Arcadia is an intriguing game in many aspects, from its well realized '70s setting, to the wonderful art style and engaging puzzles, and the philosophical questions that it surfaces. Trevor and his character arc is a relatable and believable, while Angela is helpful but not as well-written. Both the 2D platforming and 3D puzzles and exploration are meshed together well, and the relatively brief running time keeps the adventure at a good pace. There's not much optional interactivity, no collectibles, and the whole story is linear, thus offering no reason to replay; but given the low $20 asking price, American Arcadia is well worth visiting for fans of cinematic puzzle and adventure games with a good story.