Sagebrush Switch Review by SwitchWatch

Developer: Redact Games

Publisher: Ratalaika Games

Release Date: August 8th 2019

Price as of Article: $5.99, £4.79

Download size: 392 MB

An intriguing first person mystery game with a unique low-fi visual style, Sagebrush takes players on a whistle-stop tour of what it’s like to be a member of a religious cult.

Story

There’s no way to get around it, so I’ll be blunt: Sagebrush’s story feels like it’s ripped straight from the Waco siege that dominated news headlines around the world in 1993. The player assumes the role of an unnamed investigator who has returned to the scene of the infamous Black Sage Ranch, where – in 1993, no less – the members of the Perfect Heaven cult committed mass suicide under the tutelage of Father James. Bestowing prophet status upon himself, Father James had recruited world-weary and outcast members of society into Perfect Heaven; where he preached his own manipulated scriptures from the Bible and prepared his flock for a battle against the authorities. However, as the player discovers, there was more to Father James, and indeed the members of the flock, than anticipated.

Gameplay

Sagebrush falls somewhat reluctantly into the genre that has become known as the ‘walking simulator.’ That is, you trudge slowly from location to location within the confines of Black Sage Ranch, visiting various locations such as the community hall, chapel, farm buildings, and even a mine complex searching for clues and keys to gain access to other areas and further the narrative. 

The story is told through two distinct mechanics – by picking up and reading notes, diaries, and other written texts scattered throughout the game; and by finding and listening to tape recordings that are handily left strewn around the now deserted ranch. Unlike other titles in this genre, there is a handy run function tied to the triggers, so traversing the ranch’s many areas become a little less tiresome than it could have been (I’m looking at you, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture). 

When the game begins, you reach the ranch in late afternoon with the sun sinking over the horizon, and as you reach certain beats in the story or discover a new tape recorder or key to a previously locked area, time will shunt forward to the point where you are eventually running around an entirely dark landscape relying on your torch for light. There’s never a point where you don’t know what you should be doing or where you should be going, as the game world is fairly compact and the clues are rarely complex. The map function could have been better, as it doesn’t show you where you are in relation to your surroundings – it’s basically a Jpeg that you can zoom in on.

That said, the game is set in the early to mid 1990s so maybe it was a meta choice to have you use an authentic paper map than GPS… although, if that were the case, why go to the trouble of making everything so painfully 1990s – including the visual style – but also include a cell phone towards the end of the game? 

Picky anachronisms aside (more on those shortly!), the gameplay is relatively simple here. You move around and look with the analogue stick and you can interact with items in the world by looking at them and pressing the prompts as and when. It works well and when married to the super-simplistic item menu, there’s little to grumble about.

In a nutshell then, Sagebrush tasks you with wandering around the ranch, finding clues, and reading journals (of which there are many) with which you piece together the somewhat disturbing overarching narrative and the unnerving fate that met the members of the cult. There are some interesting sub-plots that might lead you to think that even more might be going on than is at first alluded to, but they fizzle out rather disappointingly, and to reveal their nature would stray too far into spoiler territory. Overall though, for a game of this scope and budget, the gameplay and setting are decent.

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Audio

Sagebrush shines in the audio area. The music is not intrusive, idly playing in the background to the point where you’re unlikely to even notice it until it ramps up during the discovery of a narrative important item. 

The star of the show though, is most certainly the recorded audio tapes that you find dotted around the ranch. These serve to move the story of a particular member of the cult along, and sound as if they are genuine recordings from a police interview.

Occasionally other voices will appear on the tapes, and they add extra dimension to proceedings, but the main actress is extremely convincing and should be applauded for the performance. Elsewhere, floorboards creak and doors squeak as you open them. 

Sagebrush is a game where the sound design is so well done that it really ever pokes its way into the overall experience – it just exists in the background doing what you’d expect until you find one of the audio recordings and it hits you that you’re listening to something so well done that it has no right to be in a game that costs so little and relies so heavily on a distinct lo-fi visual style.

Visuals & Performance

The visuals in Sagebrush are probably trying to invoke a feel of the early 1990s, with a heavily pixelated, low colour palette vibe. And for the most part, it works really well. As you can probably tell from the screens here in this review, it is going all-out for a sort of early polygonal/32-Bit look, all the way down to the sprite-based flora littering the ground. And while it is certainly interesting, it doesn’t really come off as wholly convincing. 

As someone who grew up playing 3D polygonal games that genuinely looked like they were about to fall apart as soon as you sneezed in the general direction of your PlayStation or Saturn, Sagebrush almost evokes the uncanny valley. Sure, it looks pixellated and low resolution, but it’s also doing things that consoles and PCs from that era wouldn’t have been able to do, such as real time shadows and lighting. It’s weirdly anachronistic, sort of a mash up of two very different eras in video games graphics technology. I’m being pedantic, I know. 

That said, giving Sagebrush this early 1990s aesthetic does add something to the overall atmosphere of the adventure. It does feel as if it is set in the recent past, and the general emptiness of the world coupled with the lo-fi graphical style lends it an air of uneasiness that wouldn’t have come across had a more modern engine been used. 

Sagebrush isn’t really pushing the Nintendo Switch hardware, so it plays perfectly well in both handheld and docked modes, although one thing that must be pointed out is that the brightness levels take a real dive in handheld. It’s often hard to work out where you’re going once the sun sets over Black Sage Ranch (even with your torch), meaning you’ll need to whack that brightness slider way up in order to see anything. 

In docked, this doesn’t seem to be an issue though, with the contrast looking way better and everything appearing a little bit brighter and crisper than on the built-in screen. Again, there’s not a lot going on in the way of on-screen enemies (there are none!) so the frame rate stays very stable whether the Switch is in your hands of stuck in the dock.

Value

Sagebrush is clearly a budget game. Not just in the visual presentation and lack of options, but in the length of the single player experience. It will take the average gamer around 2 hours to complete, and you will have seen everything the game has to offer. There is no replay value once you’ve seen the main game through to its (admittedly great) conclusion; but – and this is the clincher – the game is priced at around $6 or £5 (depending on your location). This is less than going to see a movie and Sagebrush lasts around the same length of time, so whether or not it is good value really depends on how you measure the worth of the content you consume. It’s also worth noting that other versions of Sagebrush on different formats do feature achievements that are lacking from Nintendo’s infrastructure, so if that is something that matters to you the Nintendo Switch port will likely be less appealing.

Pros

P

Interesting story

P

Relaxing and slow paced gameplay

P

Unique visual style

P

Fantastic sound

P

Solid control scheme

P

Budget price point

Cons

P

Very short

P

No replay value

P

Amount of text to read through may put some off