The Long Reach is a good example of the amazing amount of depth you can draw from 16-bit graphics and zero voice acting. Designed and crafted by Merge Games and Painted Black Games (from Ukraine and Russia, respectively), The Long Reach is a 2D adventure-thriller that tugs at your nerves with remarkable persistence for something so simple. “You don’t play in a post-apocalyptic world,” the press release intones, “or a fairy-filled fantasy world. You’re in the thick of it, just around the corner from where you buy your groceries.” Ah, groceries. Historically terrifying.
Simon’s Corner. Here, you are Calvin, and sane.
Most of the gameplay centers around collecting seemingly useless objects, scattered throughout the murky laboratory corridors where you’ll spend most of your time. The Long Reach challenges the player to think laterally, offering the most basic of objects – a coffee mug, or a rubber dog bone – and demanding that they find unusual uses for them in order to progress. These basic interactions comprise almost the entirety of The Long Reach‘s gameplay mechanics; you’ll also be having plenty of conversations with the various wacky individuals roaming the lab corridors with you, but if they’re not driving the plot these tend to serve the same function as those mundane objects.
As is always the way with puzzle games of this sort, frustration is never far from your thoughts. Fortunately, the limited size and scope of the environment means that no item is ever hidden for long, and the sense of satisfaction released upon understanding the point of the given item far outweighs the pain of the process. I’d make an argument for repetitiveness, particularly at one point where you will literally be required to repeat yourself, but a compelling narrative paired with the occasional unexpected passage of gameplay mostly counters this. The puzzles are challenging, and the logic, warped. But that, folks, is entirely the point.
Rubber dog bones. Great for… erm?
The Long Reach begins with a bang, in a grocery store in New Hampshire. We’re in media res, watching horrified as something awful unfolds and seemingly ends our story where it begins. Then we jump backwards in time to the ominous laboratory basement where the majority of the game takes place. We’re in control of a different character, but still not in control of the situation; something has gone horrifically wrong, and the lab hallways have fallen silent. It’s our job to work out what the heck happened and, ultimately, to get the heck out of Dodge. There’s only one catch – nothing is quite as it seems.
The gameplay elements and narrative design here intertwine in spectacular fashion, egging each other on in a bid to confuse and disorient. That coffee mug I mentioned? It won’t be holding coffee. The rubber dog bone? Dropped by something that used to be a colleague. The Long Reach is a game that hopes to explore the complexities of insanity, and though its efforts are occasionally misguided the sense of spiraling chaos is unparalleled.
We’re exploring the definition of insane, but our points of reference are from the outset blurry and indistinct; you’ll often notice small details, changes in the world that signal another step down the sanity ladder for our protagonist. To give an example: the voice-activated elevators that are crucial to your movement begin to improvise their lines a little, straying from the usual “please state a floor” toward something altogether more euphemistic. Often the entire environment will shift nauseatingly, particularly when our protagonist is faced with unimpeded darkness; unable to maintain the balance of rationality and forced to think irrationally to succeed, our grip on sanity soon dwindles.
You’d expect a 16-bit pixel art design to hinder The Long Reach in telling such a dark story. And sure, some of the more gruesome scenes become more caricature than horrific. But pixel art is always gorgeous to behold (check out Kingdom if you don’t believe me) and the ever-changing design piles on the apprehension as you scour the pixelated hallways for tiny details and useful objects. The use of lighting is particularly effective, as are the exceptional transitions that mark our varying degree of sanity. I’ve never been scared to enter a pitch-black, pixel-art room before.
If I’m being fussy, I’d say that perhaps the audio effects and background music occasionally detract from the immersion. Get stuck in an area, and the music soon becomes a repetitive clanging of eerie bells that’ll drive you as insane as your character (huh. In hindsight… perhaps that was intentional). That said, the music is often perfectly timed to cause a minor jump scare, and is usually an ethereal blend of synth and piano.
If you look carefully, you’ll see evidence of things that occurred without your actual presence; you’ll also spot some subtle changes – like the sexually aggressive elevators – that indicate your return from madness. These I particularly enjoyed. Often, what drives the insanity appears so ludicrous in the light of day that you can’t help but breath a sigh of relief. Your character will often be able to cut through the murk, as it were, and identify with reassuring clarity the world around him. A 3D printer, a coffee mug full of paint: these are the all-too-infrequent points of reference created by the environment in the hope of keeping the player disorientated.
Not bad at all.
The Long Reach is designed to unnerve, unseat, and unravel, and the very walls around you are constantly looking to alter your perception of what you thought was normal. Occasional cracks in the ambitious plot can be forgiven simply because the game is so damn enthralling; the question of sanity is posed resoundingly from start to finish, more than once in scenarios that make you wonder whether you ever actually left the metaphorical asylum. Like a blocky Shutter Island, the teasingly questionable nature of the protagonist’s own grip on his world makes for an unusual and refreshing gaming experience. My only real complaint is that it was over so quickly, though I suspect multiple playthroughs yield hidden results. There are also minor issues that need ironing out – one particularly annoying glitch that prevents the player from moving immediately after interacting with something – but I’m sure these things to be updated away in time.
Oh, and the word emphatic/ally was used accidentally in place of the word empathetic/ally a couple of times. But again, maybe that was intentional.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
The Long Reach (PS4)
Gameplay - 8/10
Plot - 8.5/10
Design - 9/10
A pixelated trip down the rabbit hole
The Long Reach is brutally efficient and painlessly simple. You'll spend every minute second-guessing the world you perceive, caught unawares by the ever-changing pixel environment as it constructs and deconstructs the very markers that tell you you're sane. By the time the light of day seeps through, you'll be as exhausted and triumphant as your tortured protagonist.