From Dingodile to Roadhog, from Saxton Hale to the inhabitants of Pandora’s moon in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, Australian characters in videogames often lean heavily into caricature. And fair enough, too—for a culture where sarcasm is the standard way of talking, where the most severe swears are used as everyday greetings, and where laughing at oneself is so ingrained, is the such comically stereotyped depictions tend to be benign at worst and hilarious at best. Indeed, the best examples come right out of Australia itself, as local devs jump at the chance to poke fun of themselves, and few things bring as much joy to an Australian gamer as seeing a parody of themselves in a game. As much fun as those characters are, though, there’s a gap in more serious depictions of Australian life, and it’s a gap that Warp Frontier does a good job of filling.
Developed by Melbourne-based studio Brawsome, Warp Frontier is a sci-fi adventure game that, at first glance, seems to draw little from its creators’ backyard. In the year 2215, a jaded police captain investigating a hit-and-run stumbles upon a lead that sets him on a journey to unearth a covered-up war crime that lead to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. At the same time, he’s trying to manage the responsibilities of family and carrying the scars of his own time in the war.
There’s nothing inherently Australian about that premise, and yet it’s a decidedly Australian game. The script and voice acting all bring a uniquely Aussie feel to a story that has no particular geographical ties. It’s not “Strewth mate, that bloody drongo nicked off with my slab!”, but it has a certain candour and bluntness that you don’t often see, underpinned by a sarcastic streak that’s not necessarily humorous in intent but ties everything together. Backed up by some fantastic voice acting from local talents, Warp Frontier is authentic in its Australian-ness like few other games are.
That tone backs an intriguing story, gradually growing from a routine inspection on the galaxy’s outskirts to a top-secret investigation into a deadly conspiracy. It’s a riveting journey that’s full of surprises, but one that also knows when to take a breather and let its most shocking moments sink in. Through all this, Warp Frontier blends a gritty sci-fi aesthetic with noir and dystopian influences, layering thoughtful reflections on everything from body augmentation and surveillance to existential questions about identity and the nature of work in a civilisation that treats bodies as disposable. And then on top of that, it manages to squeeze in some more human drama—a grizzled police officer who struggles to balance work and home life isn’t the most original concept, but it’s one that Warp Frontier traverses with nuance and intricacy.
This all unfolds through a point-and-click adventure, with plenty of puzzles revolving around items and the information you gather. In the style of the genre’s classics, seemingly straightforward tasks (opening an apartment door) often require elaborate solutions (using garbage to lay a trap to catch a rat to send through a vent to distract the cat who’s preventing your robot companion from hacking the door controls). It never goes full moon-logic, though solutions can sometimes be obscure, and it relishes in those layered puzzles where you think you’ve finally hit on a solution, only to try enact it and find another obstacle in your way. Combining items with other items is common feature, and Warp Frontier goes a step further by occasionally using “items” to represent ideas—you’re not literally carrying a giant mining droid on your person, but an “item” representing it is an efficient way of building it into puzzles. The catch here is that your inventory can get very unwieldy, and the interface for navigating it can be a hassle on Switch.
Puzzles often have multiple solutions, too, depending on the choices you’ve made earlier in the game and what items you have on you at any given time. With this, what starts as a fairly linear game gradually opens up more and more, with the way the story unfolds being affected in turn and numerous different endings. The result is a series of intricate puzzles that are satisfying to solve, if occasionally frustrating (patience levels depending).
If you do find yourself getting frustrated, Warp Frontier has a fantastic hint system. At any time, you can pull up a hint that, at first, is deliberately vague—mostly just a reminder of what it is you should be trying to do. Should that not be enough, you can pull up a second, slightly more helpful hint, and then again and again, until eventually the game just outright tells you the solution. It’s a simple, elegant way of catering to a wide range of players, with as little or as much help available as you want in any given moment. You could just treat it like a built-in walkthrough, and skip straight to the final hint the instant you encounter a new puzzle, or try to use hints only as a last resort, or just take a case-by-case approach.
Warp Frontier is an intriguing, impressive game. It’s got all the pieces of a classic point-and-click adventure, with a few neat twists on that formula and a neat hint system in case you get stuck. Through that, it weaves a gripping science-fiction tale, blending noir and dystopian influences through an excellent, uniquely Australian script backed by equally strong voice performances. Whether you’re after a puzzle-filled adventure game or just an engrossing and thought-provoking story, Warp Frontier has you covered.
Genre: Adventure, point-and-click
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC
Release date: 28 September 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.