Desert Child is pretty special. Stylistically, it’s a magical experience, its ‘90s adventure game art style mixing well with an absolutely fantastic soundtrack. Set on Olympia, a city on a fully-colonised Mars, in a not-to-distant future, its world is an intoxicating mix of cultures, from Aussie beach bums to Middle Eastern markets.
But for all the fun that you can have in Desert Child roaming its beautiful pixelated environments as a chilled soundtrack plods along, it’s still a racing game at heart. Though these races seem chaotic at first, with obstacles and explosions filling the screen as you try to dodge them while still beating your opponent to the finish line, you soon get the hang of it.
This is all thanks to its simple controls. Since you’re already moving automatically, all you have to focus on is moving up and down to dodge obstacles. Holding X activates boost, while pressing R2 shoots you weapon. As well as using this to slow down your opponent, you can also fire on TVs littered around the track in order to get a speed boost, as well as taking down hazards along the way. Ammo is limited, but every time you run out a handy truck appears at the bottom of the screen, which you can boost to to resupply.
This simple formula soon gets infectiously fun. It’s often hard to balance between dodging obstacles and trying to gain speed while at the same time firing on your opponent, but that’s the fun of Desert Child’s races – they’re chaos. The different landscapes and racers look amazing as you blaze past them, plus the soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal at times. It’s hard to think of a game this year that has more style than Desert Child at its best.
And the actual races are only half of the fun. Desert Child’s main story may be earning enough money to enter the Grand Prix on Mars, but by roaming the Red Planet you can find jobs ranging from pizza deliveries to hacking the Mars Bank to taking down criminals. All of these jobs have their own styles and soundtracks, which only adds to the character of the in-game world.
Despite the game’s lack of any real narrative – your main character is silent and there’s only one recognisable side character who rarely pops up – there’s still a lot that’s engaging about walking around Olympia. There’s the bean seller, whose beans can either help or hinder your next race. There are the array of mechanics who help fix your bike up. There are restaurants, vendors, people selling food on the street. There’s even a man sitting in a field dealing out life advice for $3.45 a pop. Olympia feels alive, even if it’s annoying to be retracing the same path every time you finish a race.
As well as keeping track of the state of your bike, you also have a hunger rating that affects how long your bike’s boost takes to recharge, as well as being able to upgrade your bike using parts stolen from other vehicles on the street. While all of these mechanics make Desert Child quite a deep game, there’s still a lack of challenge. After completing a few races you’ll most likely be so rich that buying food, repairs, or parts will no longer be an issue.
There’s also the issue of Desert Child’s length – it’s way too short. Though its world is small and the game certainly doesn’t become less fun over the course of its two-hour run time, it ends when it feels like everything is just getting started.
The story is divided into three stages – make $600 so you can travel to Mars, make $10,000 so you can enter the Grand Prix, then win the Grand Prix. With the Grand Prix only consisting of three races – and with no punishment for losing, as you’ll be rich enough to enter again – it feels like a massive anti-climax, as fantastic as its tense final race is.
There are different difficulty settings that certain make Desert Child replayable, dealt with in a clever way. Instead of just choosing a difficulty level, how hard the game is depends on what gun you choose at the start of the game. It certainly adds an incentive to replay Desert Child, but knowing that the game finishes so quickly and so abruptly leaves a bad taste.
At the end of the day, it feels like there’s a lot more to explore in Desert Child outside of its Grand Prix. Its seedy criminal underbelly, kangaroo-herding minigames, and in-game world are too interesting to only have a two-hour game dedicated to them. It’s always good to leave your player wanting more, but Desert Child really could’ve done with being longer.
Desert Child is stylistically fantastic and has some of the more exciting racing gameplay we've seen this year, but it really suffers from its short length. There's an interesting, colourful world to explore in Olympia, but unfortunately things ends when it feels like Desert Child is just getting started. Still, it's an admirable effort from a talented one-man team.