Disjunction is a stealth-action RPG developed by Ape Tribe Games, a studio made up of three brothers. I’m always impressed when such a small team creates a game. As a reviewer, it’s also an important factor to remember when scoring and critiquing a smaller game.
Maybe you’ve peeked ahead, and you saw the score. You may think, “This guy doesn’t seem very understanding.” Hear me out. I don’t hate Disjunction, I just don’t think it’s a particularly good game. My time with it was marred by frustration, performance issues, and when I finished the campaign I was relieved.
Now, unfortunately, this review is probably going to sound more harsh than it needs to be. I wanted to like Disjunction. The first I heard of it was the PlayStation Blog post earlier in January. What caught my attention was the fact that this is touted as a stealth-action RPG. You as the player can choose how you want to play, according to the developer.
Personally, when given the option, I prefer taking a stealthy approach in a game built with that in mind. I’ve been a fan of stealth since Splinter Cell first crept onto the scene. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to compare a retro-inspired, pixel art, top-down indie game to one of the greatest stealth franchises of all time. Well, not directly.
The important thing to note about stealth games, at least in my experience, is that it’s not about it being linear or open. It’s about learning enemy patterns and figuring out how to get past them. It’s about having options when deciding how to get past the enemies and obstacles. Any good stealth game has these options. Disjunction has the framework there. But the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
Disjunction does a good job of laying out your tools for you. You have the lethal and non-lethal options; however, lethal is the action-based guns blazing approach. There are a mix of abilities and tools for you to choose from. This would be great, except the game funnels you into stealth, by punishing you any time that you try to go the action route. The player is always squishy, enemies are always super aggressive, and weapons and abilities are never fast enough to take on groups at a time. It would have been okay to leave the “action” out of stealth-action, for better expectations.
And I found this to be the case across the board. Disjunction has three protagonists with interwoven stories. Frank is the private investigator with robot eyes, Joe is the brawler with a metal arm and jaw, and Spider is the hacker with a buzz cut and an electric glove. Each has different strengths, weaknesses, abilities, and tools in their arsenal.
And when it comes to how this story plays out, there are no surprises. The story suits the cyberpunk-dystopian setting, down to the expected tropes in such a story. New York City in 2048 is harsh and corrupt, and the game spells this out to you, so that when certain story beats are revealed, you’ve seen it coming from a mile off. This isn’t bad, and I think the story and dialogue are completely fine backdrops to the gameplay itself.
Yet, this highlighted another issue I had with the game, the lack of a mission select option, or even a new game plus option when completing it. The game is sold as an RPG, because it has dialogue options and it has upgrade paths, however I think the “deep character progression” element was oversold. And what RPG doesn’t have a NG+ mode when you finish it these days? Especially one with multiple endings?
You have two paths of character progression, Upgrades and Talents. One you earn from picking up upgrade modules during missions, and the other works off of XP for completing objectives that include picking up the upgrade points. Optional mission objectives were never varied, by the way, they only ever include picking up your “optional” upgrade point, without which you can’t build and enhance your character as effectively.
Upgrades and talents add features, perks, and abilities to the individual characters that help with your playstyle. Whether you choose stealth with a side of stealth, or just a bit of stealth with sneakiness, you always have the option to avoid the full-on action that will get you instantly killed and sent back to a checkpoint you unlocked 30 minutes and three rooms full of enemies ago.
The upgrades and talents feel less like choosing a build for your RPG character, and more like selecting a loadout before a stealth-enforced mission. You’re never locked into an upgrade or talent path for future missions, only for the one you start moments after choosing your loadout. During gameplay there are no options to respec, and there is no option to go back to the upgrade and talent screen from before a mission and choose a different build.
This is one of the reasons I’m disappointed that there is no mission select or even a new game plus. There are mostly hidden options that you see briefly, and you never have the autonomy to spend time on your character build outside of the pre-mission screens that you can’t ever return to. The story and dialogue also feature branching narratives, which, frankly, affected nothing outside of the text screens that counted as exposition.
The gameplay frustrations I had were wrapped up in the fact that your character is squishy, and checkpoints are rare. One single-use checkpoint per floor within levels with usually two floors means that you can lose a lot of progress when dying, and dying is easy. When you get spotted, enemies are incredibly aggressive, incredibly fast, and often kill you in seconds. Sometimes an ability can rescue you from such situations, more often than not you don’t even have the option to run before you get the death screen.
Yes, stealth games are often like this. Failure to sneak around properly is punished, but remember that this game has “action” advertised on the box. Fighting back only ever resulted in death for me and, depending on the preceding moments, the loss of a lot of progress.
The next section comes with a caveat: I played this game on the pre-release version. There is a patch coming around launch for PC and PS4, with Xbox One and Switch following “as close to launch as possible”. I played on PS4, and the performance of the game was abysmal. Keeping in mind that this is a three-man development team and that this is pre-release, I wanted to factor in that this is not necessarily the end result everyone else will experience.
However, the patch has not dropped by the time of writing, and therefore I can only comment on and score what I have experienced. My below score factors in my overall experience with the game. Unfortunately the performance issues (incredible frame drops and the occasional crash) flavored my already frustrating time with the game. Hopefully the patch sorts out the performance issues, but the shortcomings in terms of mechanics and level design will stay baked-in.
It’s difficult to reach this point of the review and think that I have any positive feelings toward Disjunction, other than the relief I felt when I finally rolled credits. However, I think that this is a good first project for a three-man studio. It’s obviously far from perfect, not completely broken, and I had some fleeting moments of fun with the game. However, my overall impression after playing it for a week solid is frustration.
Hopefully Ape Tribe Games address the performance issues sooner rather than later. If you had your heart on a good indie game for the end of January, you might find yourself disappointed with this one. With some more spit and polish and extra features, this game could be a gem.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.