Thursday, June 13, 2024

Get In The Van! - Caravan SandWitch Demo Microreview

Next up from the Next Fest six - Caravan SandWitch. I have a tl:dr for this one before we even begin: It's great and I have nothing bad to say about it at all.

That'd make for a short post though, wouldn't it? And I took a lot of screenshots. It'd be a pity to waste them.

Taking the demo as a demo, it's exemplary. A self-contained, finished and polished section of the game that neatly avoids the introduction, the opening and the tutorial, yet still manages to be both accessible and inviting.

The action takes place in the early game, just after all the structural necessities listed above have been dealt with. Sauge, the main character, having received a distress call from her sister, has made her way back to where she came from, the place where the game really begins, the small village on her home planet, where she grew up but which she left a couple of years ago and hasn't visited since.

Some of that background is given in a brief text note at the very start of the demo, just to catch you up; the rest becomes clear as you work your way through the three or four tasks that pop up as you play. In this way, the demo manages to be completely self-explanatory and crystal clear, while avoiding any suggestion of hand-holding or loading you down with too much information.

To sum it all up in a paragraph, the narrative has you leaving the house where you're staying during your visit, driving the big, yellow van down a dirt track into the village, catching up with all of your old pals (And apologizing for ghosting them for two whole years - or acting like it wasn't that big a deal. Your choice.), chatting to the village's resident engineering genius about how to fix the signal-jamming problem that's making it hard to travel or get supplies into town and finally setting out to find all the necessary components to make the device that's going to be bolted onto your van so you can head off into the desert and do something about it.

Okay, that was a long paragraph. And I left out the bit about getting food and drink from half the village so they can give you a welcome back party. (I did think it was amusing they'd invite me to a party in my honor and expect me to arrange the catering.). Oh, and the party itself, which you have to attend and make nice so everyone forgives you and also so they'll give you some of the parts you need to make the anti-jamming device. And let's not forget about the trip out of town, the one you need to take so you can climb a big tower to fix a transmitter so your map actually works. Plus the virtual reality simulation you have to engage with to make sure you can use the big, new scanner on the top of your van...

Is that enough for one demo? It seemed like plenty to me but there was actually more. This is a relatively open-world with no annoying timers to keep you on-message with the central narrative, so I spent a fair while just wandering about, exploring. 

That's how I found the cushion on a village rooftop that, when you sit on it, plays a long, slow pan around you, like one of the ones Guild Wars 2 uses for vistas, only slower and better. It's also how I worked out how to climb ladders, of which there are many, discovered the old Communal Pantry where my pals and I used to hang out when we were kids, talked to several giant frogs (a very unlikely local species for such an arid, desert setting - although there is also a coastline, so they may be sea-frogs, if such a thing exists.) and even visited one of their burial sites, something you might think there'd be rather more of, given the proximate cause of that unfortunate amphibian/desert interface.

It's a wonder I was able to fit all of that into fifty-three minutes. I'd have happily gone on playing for longer but, when the barrier across the road out of the village was opened for me to drive off down the dirt road into the desert beyond, the first thing I ran into was a big sign, thanking me for playing the demo and asking me if I'd like to wishlist the full game. 

I would and I have.

So much for the content. What about the look and feel? 

Graphically, Caravan SandWitch is both captivating and beautiful. The screenshots are pretty but they don't do the game justice. It looks a lot better in action, not least because the aesthetic is rigorously maintained and the art direction is on point throughout. The desert looks suitably desiccated. It feels hot, somehow, but also wind-blown. 

Deserts often look pretty good in games but the real scoring points here come from the way the village has been made to feel; tired, scruffy, lived-in and poor. There's graffiti everywhere and it looks like actual graffiti - unoriginal, messy tagging done by bored kids with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

Most of the homes are boarded up or empty. At one point Sauge comments about how people used to live in some of them, back before she left. She's only been gone a couple of years but it looks like those must have been hard years. It's no wonder people are pissed with her for bailing then ghosting them.

The game looks great and it feels great to play, too. The controls are comfortable, movement is smooth, including climbing, which plays a big part in getting around. Driving the truck is about the same as driving a vehicle in any of these games. It reminded me of the mail truck in Lake

The UI is clean and unproblematic. I didn't even think about it, which is the hallmark of good UI design.

Just about the only slight thread I can find to pull on is the translation, which isn't 100% idiomatic. The developer, Studio Plane Toast, is French and I might have been able to guess that from some of the phrasing, here and there. It absolutely isn't any kind of problem, though. If anything, it gives the narrative a slight verbal spin that only adds to the not-in-Kansas-anymore ambience.  

Other than that, the one and only thing I can find to complain about is the name of the game itself, which is odd, reads slightly uncomfortably and doesn't seem to fit all that well with what I saw in the demo. When I first came across it, I thought it was going to be a contemporary adventure, set in a recognizable version of the world we live in. Then, when I realized the second word wasn't actually "Sandwich" but "SandWitch", I assumed it would have some elements of fantasy.

In fact, it seems to be pure science fiction. The setting reminded me of Sable, another game set in a sand-strewn village on a far-distant planet but this time it feels like even more of a space opera, what with Sauge having spent her two years away on another planet, in somewhere called Space City, no less. Where the titular witch comes into the story, if at all, is something I guess we won't know until the full game arrives, which is predicted to be sometime before the end of the year.

From what I saw in the demo, that date looks very plausible. It feels like a classy, well-made game already. I'm looking forward to it.

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