Of all the games to play in 2020, I didn’t see myself returning to The Order: 1886. After completing The Last of Us, I had an urge to go back and play different PlayStation 4 exclusives that I never finished. The Order: 1886 was one of the first games that I had purchased with my console. Toward the end of 2016, I played quite a bit of the game, and I remember enjoying it. I had never finished the game, however. Now, around three years later, I decided it was time to remedy that problem. I not only restarted the game and played it in its entirety, but I also spent a couple more hours gathering the collectibles needed for the platinum trophy. After doing all of this, however, I discovered that my opinion of the game had taken a drastic turn from going as far as to recommending it to a friend last year to now hoping that I will never play it again.
I will try to keep this discussion as spoiler free as possible, but there will be some story details that I will broadly cover. If you want to experience the game’s story for yourself without any spoilers, minor or major, then I suggest stopping here and playing the game for yourself or only reading the conclusion.
A video version of this discussion can be found below which features a commentary of this discussion over gameplay that coincides with what I am discussing. However, feel free to continue reading below.
On paper, The Order: 1886 sounds like a fantastic game. It is a single player, story driven game that has you playing as a knight of the Round Table. Instead of the game being set in a medieval time, however, you are playing in a steampunk version of England. You must unravel a conspiracy that may or may not exist within your order of knights. You will face down a rebel insurgent as well as mysterious enemies that you must fight with experimental weapons given to you by Nikola Tesla. These weapons range from an arc caster that shoots electricity to a thermite rifle that shoots flammable liquid that you then fire a flare into to incinerate your enemies. There are beautiful locations that you explore ranging from an airship to the streets and rooftops of London as well as a twisting narrative that you take part in. Again, on paper, the game sounds amazing. The execution of these concepts, though, is sorely underwhelming.
Let’s start with the gameplay. The idea of playing as a steampunk knight of the Round Table sounds fantastic. Brandishing an experimental electricity powered rifle rather than a sword and shield against England’s enemies should be an incredible gameplay experience. Unfortunately, the gameplay primarily plays out like a shooting gallery at a carnival. When you begin a firefight, the most you have to do is get on cover behind a wall before waiting for someone to pop their head up. I played the game on the hardest difficulty and found that, in almost every situation, all I had to do was hide behind one piece of cover and blast the enemies as they either approached me or leaned out to take shots at me. I even tried to move around the environment, but I felt that I was being punished for doing so. It was more challenging to try to move around and flank enemies then it was to wait for them to attack me. There were some enemies that were more challenging than others, such as armored shotgunners, but they were more annoying than actual threats.
Speaking of the enemies themselves, the AI are incredibly stupid. The ones brandishing firearms either pop up to shoot you from behind cover or run right at you. There is really no in between. They rarely flank you, they don’t seem to work together, and they don’t appear to have that much brain power. They feel like ducks that pop up for you to bulls eye.
You will also fight monsters which run right into your bullets. The only thing you have to do is press X at the right time to roll out of the way. This isn’t an actual action that you can do yourself, by the way. You can not simply roll in the game with the press of a button. You have to press the quick time event at the right time in order to escape the clutches of the monster as you are either aiming or walking. Outside of shooting these creatures, you will occasionally engage in melee combat in boss battles which are really just quick time events where you press the stick in the direction that it tells you and then use a light or heavy attack. Melee attacks are also quick time events rather than simply pressing the melee button when you are ready to attack. I failed several stealth attacks because I could not simply press a button to attack them like I can in most games. I had to wait for a triangle to fill up to a certain point before I was allowed to press it. This made the combat feel less fluid and more like a guided experience-a recurring theme that this game harps on.
The gunplay itself felt fine. There are odd moments where you shoot someone in the face with a certain shotgun, and the enemy just kind of stumbles for a moment before continuing to shoot you. Being able to swap shoulders in a third person game is important to me, but I did not see the option to do so. I also still do not know the difference between certain pistols or the two different grenades because they look so similar to each other. Grabbing weapons off of the ground would also feel weird because you have to hold the triangle button for ammo rather than simply tapping it, and weapons would cluster together which made it hard to grab a specific item. Also, the cover system felt like it needed more refinement. These mechanics felt more like they belonged on the PlayStation 3 than on the 4.
The game relies heavily on cutscenes. I can recall one sequence that was around 13 minutes long. There are also plenty of moments where you only walk around and listen to people talking. Some gameplay sections are entirely replaced with guided cutscenes. In order for the scene to continue, you have to press X to get your character to jump over something or move forward. After doing so, the characters continue to walk and talk. The game feels more like a movie that keeps pausing itself, forcing you to reach for the remote to hit play again every minute or so.
It felt to me that more than half of the game was either comprised of cutscenes or walking simulator moments. The problem is that none of these moments are that intriguing. Some games can handle guided experiences quite well. But, a majority of these moments in The Order: 1886 are boring sections where you are just walking around or discussing basic things that have no major impact on the story. And, on top of this, when I went back to gather the missing collectibles for the platinum trophy, you do not have the option to skip the cutscenes. I wrote a page and a half of notes for this discussion as I waited for the cinematic moments to end.
There are some quick time events where you only have to press one button, and you have plenty of time to do so. Others can be more frustrating though as it has you move the right stick then press a button on the right side of the controller. Rather than have you move the left stick and have your right hand free to hit a button, it assigned multiple actions to one hand while your other was doing nothing. This seemed to be an obviously bad design choice, but this mechanic shows up multiple times throughout the entire game.
Traversing the world is also bland. The game will let you walk or sprint in certain areas for a limited amount of time before reaching an area that either triggers a cutscene which yanks control away from you or forces you to walk or crouch. The game feels like it is playing itself as you have no authority over what your character can and can not do.
There are multiple sections where you have to either climb or push a cart. This doesn’t sound that bad, but these sections can last anywhere from fifteen to thirty seconds of you just pushing the left thumb stick forward and watching your character grunt as the cart moves along.
The world can be beautiful at times, but the areas are very linear and focus you on a specific, narrow path toward your objective. The visuals of the game are interesting in the fact that the game goes for a cinematic look more akin to a movie than a video game. Black bars obscure the top and bottom of your screen, there is a simulated film grain, and there appears to be a simulated bokeh on the game which makes objects in the distance appear to be blurry while focusing on objects closer to the screen. Instead of this making the game look more cinematic and feel different from other titles, it just makes everything look out of focus. Areas that would have looked fantastic in normal games looked bland in The Order: 1886 because of this stylistic choice. Everything has a grainy and under saturated look to it which makes the environments feel like they are missing necessary color. When you go to inspect newspapers, the black bars obscure certain parts which makes it feel like you are holding the paper an inch away from your face. The black bars also make the climbing sections and other vertical moments feel confusing.
Outside of newspapers, there are other collectibles that you can find throughout the world. For instance, there are documents that you inspect which are written in cursive. I, personally, can read and write in cursive, but the way that it is stylized in the game is incredibly hard to read especially with the added visual effects. There is no way to simply see the text that is written on the page in a pop up menu. You can also find audio files, but you have to listen to them in a menu and can not walk around the world while you listen to them. Again, as I will continue to say, the idea sounds fantastic, but the execution is anything but.
And, let’s wrap up the discussion of the game by talking about the story. The thing that should have been one of the primary focuses of the game feels like an afterthought at times. The game seemed more focused on visuals and style rather than the story or characters having depth or substance.
Trying to describe what happens in the story is challenging-which is never a good sign when discussing the story of any piece of media. You are part of The Knights of the Round Table, as I mentioned, and are fighting against rebels in England. But, you are also fighting werewolves and other creatures which appear to be part of the rebels (or maybe they aren’t). Your mentor is trying to uncover some sort of plot that you end up trying to uncover alongside him. You end up getting framed for something that you didn’t do. This leads you trying to resolve the problem. That’s the best that I can do to explain the almost 10 hour long campaign.
The story did not click for me. Being a steampunk knight in 1800's England sounds like an opportune story telling setting. But, the game starts off on the wrong foot by doing what should rarely be attempted in storytelling: the game begins near the end. For masters of storytelling, such as Quentin Tarantino, this can work. Reservoir Dogs and other movies feature out of order timelines. Uncharted 2 comes to mind as a game that begins near the middle before jumping into the official start of the game. It worked for Uncharted 2 because it left you with more questions than answers. This can work, but it takes a special touch to make it be a nice addition to the story rather than a harmful gimmick, in my opinion. The Order: 1886 does not handle its out of order timeline well.
Your character is in prison for some reason and everyone is against you as the game begins. There is even a scene which shows off every character that you come to know, minus one, aiming their guns at you. After about ten minutes of the prologue, the game picks up with the actual beginning of the game-the official Chapter I. This takes place a month or so earlier where you are still buddies with everyone. Because of this narrative choice, you know who is alive and who is dead by the end of the game. There is no sense of stress when a team member’s life is at risk for a majority of the game because you already saw the end of the game in the prologue. The twisting plot felt so disjointed that I couldn’t possibly tell what was going to happen because I barely knew what was going on. I finished the game and am still confused as to what exactly happened in the story.
The story also feels jumbled during certain events, or characters behave a certain way simply because it needs to happen to progress the story along. There were multiple times where I wondered why a character decided to do something as it seemed to go against their personality traits or seemed to go against common sense. Then, it ended up being that they did a certain thing because they needed to get from point A to point B, and that was how the writer or writers decided to have the character get there. The motivations of the characters seemed to be pushed forward by where they needed to be rather than their own personalities and traits. Your character seemingly pushes one of his best friends away at random because the story requires them to be separated and distant. You then start regarding another character as a brother because the story needs that character to be with you during a certain story moment.
Moments that should feel weighty or heartfelt or dramatic fall flat or even feel comedic with the way that they are presented. There were several moments where I laughed out loud when characters were in agony over the loss of a friend or going through a terrible moment. Not because I am a psychopath (I hope), but because the timing of the scenes mirrored that of a comedy rather than a drama. Moments where, if handled better, I would have felt similar emotions to the character and felt compassion toward them. However, the way that the story presented this information never resonated with me emotionally and fell so flat that it seemed that a laugh track was supposed to be present.
I felt that the acting was very good, but there were some odd choices of pacing and dialogue. An odd thing that I noticed as well was two different scenes when the female character Iggy is walking around. In these moments, she just walks around looking at things for about twenty or more seconds. What is odd is that they recorded the audio of her breathing through her nose and have the audio levels fairly high for this. At first, I thought it was supposed to be the sound of someone sleeping because of the way that it sounded, but I realized that it was actually her. There are also other bizarre moments of long shots of characters just walking down a basic flight of stairs or from a door to a table. You would think that they were doing some grand action or trying to give you some insight into the character, but it ends up being the most basic moment that has more screen time than it needs with no major reason for being there. It seemed to be that these moments were included as filler content to make the game time longer.
I don’t want to end this topic with me just repeatedly dunking on the game. I am listing all of the issues mainly because I feel that there is great potential for the possible series. Toward the end of my time with the game, I was ready to be finished, but I also could see what this game could have offered. It was right below the surface the entire time, but was mishandled all the way from the beginning to the end of the experience and in multiple different ways. Not only was the visual style lacking, but so was the story, the gameplay, the cutscenes, the audio design, and pretty much every area of the game. Games are composed of multiple parts, and it feels that almost every part is lackluster in some way.
The developer Ready at Dawn has not released another console game since (other than a title called Deformers which I have never heard of). Honestly, I would love to see them make a sequel to The Order: 1886. As much as I have to complain about this game, I think that there is still so much untapped potential. As I said earlier, the setting, the story, the characters, the gameplay, and everything else about the game could have offered a game of the year experience. But, I feel that it was mishandled. If the developers could learn from the mistakes made with this game, I feel that a potential The Order: 1887 could be a great game. Again, the concept is fantastic; it is the execution that needs to be refined.