I have longed for a space survival game that makes me feel the same way Subnautica does. That sense of methodical management, combined with serene isolation, is my gaming happy place, and I was so delighted to see Breathedge popping up on Game Pass this month, a game that looked like it would deliver it. Except, oh God, if only it could shut the fuck up.
Breathedge is a game about being stranded in space, surrounded by the remains of a fleet of spaceships, that were seemingly on an intergalactic trip to deliver dead bodies and table sauces. Vast space-tankers of mayonnaise are ripped in half, their contents frozen mid-explosion, while coffins float about between the wreckage and the space rocks that caused it. Which is to say, it’s not exactly subtle about its irreverence up front.
However, it quickly finds itself pulled in two utterly opposite and completely contrary directions. It is at once an extremely competent Subnautica-like (albeit with some pacing issues), a calming, gentle game about foraging for resources to craft and survive your desolation, and a game you’d be embarrassed to be caught playing in case someone you respected heard one of its incessant shitty jokes.
Let me explain my very specific demands of a calming survival game. I want to be alone, I want there to be plenty of resources, and I want death to be a result of my messing up, rather than the game’s cruel systems. Obviously the vast majority of games in the genre don’t meet these requirements, and of course very often they’re incredible games for it. The Long Dark, The Forest, Stranded Deep…I’ve sunk dozens of hours into each of them, and love that side of things too. But when what I want is calm — rather than ever-present horror and death — Subnautica is my only place to turn.
I constantly seek more. I keep returning to No Man’s Sky in the hope that it will somehow allow me to capture this feeling, even as it drifts ever further from anything of the kind. So when Breathedge appeared on Game Pass this month, after reading the description I jumped on it. And then immediately edged back a little at the message that appears the moment you load the game:
“This game is of a humorous nature and does not seek to offend anyone,” it begins, as if writing that absconds anyone from anything.
The opening titles are a series of grimly derivative attempts at jokes, something akin to the closing credits of Hot Shots! Part Deux, hilarious when you were 14, somewhat less impressive as an adult, 30 years later, and poorly delivered. “DIRECTOR: isn’t needed here at all,” doesn’t make any sense, and it even includes the woefully poorly timed gag, “From the makes of The Matrix… there’s been no news lately.” Oops.
You’re then bombarded by the voice of your spacesuit, who is best described as that one person at the party who keeps on talking over everyone else to deliver what they’ve mistakenly believed are jokes, and despite everyone’s eyes looking at the floor and no one ever laughing, just keeps on going. There seems to be some awareness how impossibly irritating this voice is, the developers having sped it up to the point of near indecipherability since the PC’s Early Access version. He interjects about everything, but rather than providing useful information, he instead blabbers on some inane drivel that is joke-shaped. But there’s never any joke.
And yet, in the rare moments when he’s not blathering, Breathedge is allowed to be a much better game. A serene, methodical experience of securing the resources you need to not only survive but thrive, all played out in miniature sorties dictated by the amount of oxygen you can carry.
At first this means very brief and frantic trips out of your starting pod. You can see the beautiful vista of wreckage and rocks, but you can’t even get close to reaching it. Instead you flurry about, gathering floating balls of metal, titanium, and ice, then harvesting what you can with your limited tools from the nearest wrecks. Perhaps some fabric from wall panels, and plastic from torn joints. There’s wire to forage for, blueprints for useful tools to discover, and perhaps some rare metals to dig out of nearby meteors. Then quickly, back to your base, where you can get crafting from your limited range of recipes, to gain the equipment to explore further, find more, and become a master of this void-like domain.
There is a hefty pacing issue near the start. Finding the first ways to expand your oxygen and propulsion speeds are based on luck, rather than the guided pathway that takes you to the tools you’ll need. It’s too long before you’re able to go further, and from the drop-off rates of the Xbox achievement percentages, it’s a slog few are persisting with. But, ignoring the other half of this lament, it’s worth it. Because now I’ve got 300 O2 (up from a starting 75), and zip about the area on my motorised vacuum cleaner five times faster than when the game began, and I’m exploring the most distant wreckage where the far more interesting challenges lie.
Except as I do it, I’m being bombarded by the game’s wearying and woeful attempts at humour, making me want to crawl out of my skin and then the window.
I don’t want this. I don’t want hackneyed misfires of “wacky” comedy. And I especially don’t understand why you begin a game imploring players to know that no offence is intended for anyone, when your main loading logo is a girl in her underwear sat on a coffin.
No, it’s hardly pornographic, and no, of course images like this are perfectly acceptable in games. But when this is what you see before you’ve played a moment, it sends a strong message about who their intended audience is. One that’s backed up incessantly throughout the game, with any number of similarly retro-styled posters showing sexy ladies sat astride rockets, which the more astute reader will note are phallic in shape.
It’s perhaps a touch more egregious when it comes to “Babe.” Babe, and yes, seriously, that’s her name, is someone who sends you text messages as you explore, highlighting points of interest in the distance. Her text message symbol is a pair of breasts in a bra. Just the tits.
I don’t get it. If I want to see some tits, there’s an entire internet available. Who is this peculiarly tawdry inclusion for? Who’s playing and going, “Woo hoo hoo! I can see some scantily clad boobies! What a day!”?
But the reason it’s so disappointing here is because it’s like someone graffitied their sub-adolescent twaddle all over a fantastic painting. It’s not quite drawing a cock on the Mona Lisa, but you get the idea. The game underneath all this crap is splendid. The last week I’ve spent hours and hours with it, staying up far too late to keep cracking on, making another sally to gather the ingredients needed to construct the explosives to blow open the doors on that distant shuttle. I’ve built my own base, complete with utterly pointless grand piano, which has started to feel like home.
I’m also down for some puerile jokes. I love a poo gag, me. And there are some in Breathedge that have made me laugh — one in particular shows the streak of shit coming out behind a dead astronaut, frozen in space, emitted as he crashed headfirst into a meteorite. There are other dead bodies ripped in two, their insides displayed in a comic fashion. I’m good with that! What I don’t need is the almost-English waffle being spouted by my suit when I get near it, making me wish there were some bloody mute button. In space, no one can hear my screaming frustration, but that doesn’t stop my hearing this terribly written garbage.
Heck, there’s one joke in here that’s so meta it involves using the game’s option menus to complete a goal, so they were clearly capable of better. There’s even a gag about anti-vaxxers that’s properly teeth-sucking good. Here: “Jokes about anti-vaxxers will never grow old. The same goes for their kids.” Seriously, that’s a great joke, and probably mostly because of how you just reacted to it.
What I’d give for a Director’s Cut of Breathedge, that just strips out all the gnawingly awful “humour”, easily done by removing the spacesuit commentary, and just gives me the Subnautica-like isolation and serenity. I want to float through space in silence, be truly alone, and perhaps occasionally smirk at an infantile poo joke. Breathedge is so, so close to the game I crave; just, not like this.