Sometimes, a spark in a dystopian cyberpunk work is all it takes to turn into something more. Passing from one mechanic vessel to the next, go on a journey through a city full of neon lights and melancholic visuals. Where 7th Sector will take you however will depend on your choices.
In order to progress through what is essentially a linear path through the game’s world, you need to solve various puzzles. Some are self-contained logic or algebra puzzles that are switches that activate paths or open doors; these are arbitrary and uninteresting for being disconnected from the setting. Other puzzles involve using information found in the level, and while these can be more interesting the mechanics involved still feel very random, without any consistency with other puzzles and new ideas that the player has to figure out without any previous context. This approach could have worked if the puzzles were integrated into the world-building so that they felt like a natural and necessary part of the game’s setting and story, but instead you get the impression that the city is just a series of linear game levels designed for a player to traverse using precisely the mechanics the player is given.
This failure to integrate gameplay into the world built up in other elements of the game (graphics, narrative, soundtrack etc) makes me feel that this is a game developed story-first, with gameplay invented to facilitate the narrative but in a way that doesn’t complement or develop the games themes at all, or even make sense in the game’s world. [Spoilers for the end of this review – I was wrong!] Why, for example, are there such a proliferation of switches in 7th Sector’s city that require the user to select numbers that add up to 220? Are they just a fact of life for the city’s inhabitants? There is a rift between gameplay and game world that makes each element feel at odds with the other.
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I always appreciate a story that trusts the reader/player to figure things out for themselves, but my biggest hang-up with the story of 7th Sector is the apparent lack of any defined motive for the player-character throughout the game. You begin as essentially a sentient spark of electricity travelling through wires, trying to do – what, exactly? When you are able to transfer yourself into a TV screen, the human shape of your consciousness becomes apparent, which is a great way of foreshadowing how the story, and especially the gameplay, changes later, but still doesn’t give the player a objective to follow. The (mostly) linear progression of the game gives you no option but to follow wherever the game wants to take you, with the result that I always felt like I was being led somewhere, not that I or the protagonist had any agency.
On the plus side, the game never explains things to you, but gives you clues that let you piece together the story of the game’s post-totalitarian world bit by bit. At certain points you can upload “Data”, showing snapshots of the development of the city and the militarised AI that runs it; and in the background while you traverse the city, you will witness small vignettes that add to the themes of AI, consciousness, and out-of-control technology. However, the details are vague enough that by the time you reach one of game’s the four endings, there isn’t much of an emotional impact or payoff. Still, I appreciated the commitment to non-verbal story-telling and world-building.
Graphics / Art Direction
The game employs great use of light and shadow, as well as fantastic contrasts between different kinds of environments. While the visuals and austere aesthetic are the part of the game most easily comparable to Inside, 7th Sector is both more varied and more realistic and detailed in its graphics. Long stretches of dark underground and neon-lit night give way to a clear, blindingly-bright morning on the streets of the city, the renewed visual life running parallel with developments in the journey of the protagonist’s consciousness.
Music / Sound Design
The minimalistic, electronic, and heavily atmospheric soundtrack by Nobody’s Nail Machine is really effective at melding together everything happening on screen throughout the game. It’s not the kind of soundtrack I would enjoy listening to by itself, but as a slow-moving, moody background to the world of 7th Sector it feels like an inseparable part of the cityscape.
Final score: 62%
I was surprised to learn that 7th Sector was originally designed as a small-scale arcade game without any story elements. Because I found the narrative, not to mention the graphics and soundtrack, far more interesting than any of the gameplay, I assumed it had to have been conceived the other way around. It would have been worth returning to the gameplay mechanics, having developed the game world, to make sure it stood as an engaging experience in its own right.
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