At first, we assumed that Beautiful Desolation was some kind of lost late-nineties PC game. Its isometric perspective and visually spectacular pre-rendered scenes immediately called the likes of the original Fallout and Planescape: Torment to mind, and this comparison was cemented with the user interface, voice acting and cutscenes. Unfortunately Beautiful Desolation hasn't seen fit to bring over the world-class storytelling or gameplay from its forebears, opting instead for a confusing and somewhat frustrating mess of a port.
You see, in its original PC incarnation, Beautiful Desolation was a point-and-click adventure with pre-rendered backgrounds, rather akin to 1999 classic The Longest Journey. Here, though, on Switch, it has switched over to direct control of the protagonist. And, to be completely forthright, it doesn't work. At all. Your character changes speed and direction depending on their original pathfinding, which made sense when getting around was a simpler matter of clicking on where you want to go and watching the character move there, but not here. The correct path is often somewhat obtuse when presented in this way,
This leaves you brute-forcing your way around environments that simply weren’t designed to be navigated in this way, rubbing up against invisible walls in an attempt to determine the precise path that the game will allow you to take. If this sounds unenjoyable, you’re quite right! And this is constant, seeing you wrestle with this control system throughout the entirety of this 15-20 hour game – and it would probably be closer to 10 hours if the flipping controls worked.
We can’t overstate the impact of this decision on our experience with the game – if we weren’t reviewing it, we’d have checked out almost immediately upon realising just what a slog even the simplest ambulation was going to be. It’s the puzzles and challenges that are supposed to be taxing, not just getting across a screen!
And it’s such a shame, because in basically every other respect Beautiful Desolation is, at worst, interesting. The story, seeing you thrusted into the far future in a world that’s both beautiful and – yes – desolate, is enjoyably wild. It’s certainly far from perfect, with some fairly off-kilter and unnatural dialogue, but that feeds into the quite delightful strangeness of the proceedings, that otherworldly tinge you only get from decent sci-fi.
Indeed, the lore here is well thought-out and a great deal of love has gone into crafting the world. Here, "The Penrose", a bizarre and alien structure, appeared in South Africa ten years ago and accelerated the advancement of science by many, many times. Your player character, Mark, remains suspicious of the artifact and charters a helicopter with his brother to check it out. They meddle, there's an accident, and they end up leaping forward in time to a post-apocalyptic South Africa and left to explore barren but beautiful locales performing what ultimately amount to a series of fetch quests. There are mini-games but very little combat, and what there is in the way of pugilism can be completely avoided.
The potential of the point and click genre - despite this not being a true point and click due to the aforementioned controls nonsense - doesn't seem particularly well realised here as you amble around vainly searching for a viable way forward. It's the spectacle of the visuals that'll keep you playing, as the "puzzles" are rather anaemic and the story is told in such a distant way that we found it very difficult to get drawn in. Personality seems to get a focus above plot coherence, and said personality didn't really amount to much for us - a little too committed to being quirky over being likeable. The ambiguity and general oddness of the conversations and scenarios aren't really reward enough for persevering.
It's a shame that the game is so replete with issues, because there is a germ of something cool here. It's not at all well-suited to the Switch, though, even aside from the enormous pathfinding issue. Visually it's not bad on either handheld or docked modes, but it stutters in both - and quite badly. Granted, this isn't the kind of game that needs twitch reflexes, but you'll find yourself gazing with a profound sense of longing at the 60fps PC version with its control scheme that actually works, and doesn't wrench you out of any atmosphere or narrative fascination by cutting to fairly lengthy loading screens far too frequently. Perhaps this is a game that can shine on the right platform, but it doesn't fit very well with the Switch hardware.
We were, as you can tell from the body of this review, consistently frustrated with Beautiful Desolation, another ambitious and lovely-looking game whose Switch incarnation just wasn't an acceptable way to experience it - shades of Genesis Noir's port (though that was better). It's especially unfortunate because this is exactly the sort of different that the Switch needs, but it needs to run better than what's on offer here. If you can muscle past the problematic controls, excessive loading and weak performance, you may be able to get into Beautiful Desolation. There is a lot to like in its worldbuilding, gorgeous backgrounds and interesting premise. But we felt like it just asked us to overlook way, way too many problems for the privilege.