This Alien of Mine
If science-fiction, good or bad, has taught me anything, it’s that you should never work on an Arctic research base. It’s too cold, you hate everybody, and there’s usually an alien hanging outside with a penchant for human skin.
Luckily for us, Distrust changes that perception. It’s a game where you spend your days researching snowflakes and nothing ever goes wrong. Ha ha ha, I lie. But it’s still a great game, where sleep is most definitely for the weak.
Publisher: Alawar Premium
Released: August 23, 2017
An Arctic research base, a UFO buried in the snow, the inevitable distress call. It’s not long before a rescue team is sent out, but when one of the crew drifts off, a strange anomaly attacks their helicopter, causing it to crash on site. Only a handful survive, and now their only hope lies deep within. Cold and exhausted, they quickly find that if the cold doesn’t kill them, their sleep will.
Distrust is a challenging game, even for those familiar with the roguelike/survival genre. Whereas contemporaries like FTL and Darkest Dungeon allow you to mull over your actions, Distrust expects you to act quickly and decisively. But while it can be relentless, once you master its emphasis on timing, teamwork, and rationing, Distrust manages to capture a tense atmosphere of desperation and sacrifice.
The aim of Distrust is to get through six zones, each one worse off than the last. Players have to scavenge for supplies, use tools to progress efficiently, and keep the furnaces running to stay warm. In each zone, there’s also a randomized exit puzzle to solve like moving a snowplow or making a bomb. Once you escape, the same objectives repeat, only at a perpetually faster rate and with less supplies. Despite the repetition, Distrust‘s white-knuckle pacing and varied puzzles keep it fresh after several failed attempts.
Players can choose between 15 different characters for a party of two, with a third character found mid-game. Everyone has their own unique ability – be it a cook who can make leftovers or a grizzled explorer used to the cold – along with their physical weaknesses, so it’s all about putting the right team together. That said, the more useful characters are locked behind achievements, which means you have to take a few losses with the starting lineup. Roguelike vets might find this par for the course, but it’s still padding in a genre that works better with open experimentation.
Even with a good team, Distrust will inevitably break them thanks to its key concept: sleep deprivation. When someone runs out of stamina, they gain a random madness. Some are easy to shrug off, but most will cripple a good run. The camera can warp and ruin in colour, tools and doors are broken in anger, or maybe a survivor will selfishly eat all the food.
Since Distrust is also a race against time, madness seems almost unavoidable as characters are pushed to exhaustion in order to complete a task, and even downing coffee to go that little bit longer. Though they can stack up, every ailment can be removed by resting on a couch or bunk. The brutal trade off, of course, is that the longer one sleeps, the more likely alien anomalies appear and wreck havoc across the base.
Anomalies are attracted to several things, depending on their type: survivors, electrical generators and furnaces. They can sap someone’s health, but they’re more deadly when draining the power supplies (usually leading to a slow, frostbitten death). Players can fend them off with guns, flashlights and traps, but the throwaway combat tends to be Distrust‘s weakest aspect. Ideally, it’s better to control them through sleep rotation and healthy rations. Still, even though the anomalies aren’t particularly fun to fight, it’s actually good to see something so genuinely alien for antagonists.
Distrust‘s vicious cycle of madness, rest, and aliens is perfectly formed. If a character doesn’t harm themselves, chances are the aliens will do it for them by impairing their progress. Sometimes, it’s best to keep going with a handicap if it means having a warm place for the group. And though it does get easier with better characters and muscle memory, Distrust remains relentless throughout due to the inevitability of its mechanics.
Distrust does have some imbalance issues at the moment. Though some have been addressed since our preview, it’s still at the mercy of RNG. For example, cuts and bleedouts can happen anywhere when they’re supposedly confined to frozen temperatures. Most are minor hindrances currently being patched out, but when the game is deeply reliant on timing, it brings about some needless detours and wasted supplies.
Overall, there’s a lot more to like about Distrust than to dislike. The sound design is suitably isolated, with icy winds blowing through the John Carpenter-inspired score, and as a roguelike, it doesn’t outstay its welcome (taking a good 8-10 hours to reach the best ending). It’s an addictive thriller with a neatly defined goal, even when frustrations like combat and RNG get in the way.
Distrust is a refreshingly unique take on a familiar horror setting, where both players and survivors alike are gradually worn down by a lack of respite, and victory is a hard-fought push to the finish line. Though it’s not quite The Thing as billed, Distrust manages to carve out its own fascinating niche with a devious cycle of madness and decay.
[This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.]