Robot Monster Productions claims that This is Not a Test: A Post-Apocalyptic Prequel (out now, $0.99) is “an interactive comic book that challenges you to survive the end of the world as we know it.” Well – and I hate to open a review by saying this – but the game will certainly challenge you to survive something, which would chiefly be the poor design choices that will endlessly test your patience. Which is a pity as many aspects of the game could have added up to something, but not in light of the unholy amount of repetition you will be doing for more or less the entire adventure (more on this later).
After opening up with a title screen that is an obvious homage to comic book covers from the early 1980s, you will be thrust into a world of pure black and white comic art – multiple choices – and very sparse text. However – before you can start this journey – you must select three specific skills that your character will excel at from a possible six: logic, technology, driving, brawling, sharpshooting, survival. Which specializations you take both will, and sometimes frustratingly won’t, affect what actions are available to you at any given point in time (but more on this hang up later as well).
From this point on you are in the actual interactive comic proper, exploring the story of a world under assault by a mysterious toxic gas – and the societal collapse it has led to – one ‘page’ at a time. Your options on each of these ‘interactive comic pages’ will include a chance to listen to people and radios – which otherwise doesn’t change anything – to take an object from an area, or to take an action that actually will effect the course of events. Thankfully, the color of the boxes surrounding each text based action clearly states which are purely fluff – which collect an object (without advancing the plot) – and which actions will cause something you can’t necessarily take back to occur.
The text that comes with each of This is Not a Test’s pages is rather sparse, trying to convey broadly sweeping ideas in the absolute fewest words ever conceivably imaginable. While I’ve seen the extremely short worded approach work profoundly well for some games before, such as the critically acclaimed Bastion, here it just leaves everything feeling like a shallow bullet point synopsis of a greater story. While this might not have been the worst of sins if you were only seeing each of these pages a single time, the fact of the matter is that you’re going to be seeing many of these pages far too many times in a row.
The second you make a single poor choice you will meet an unavoidably brutal death that instantly brings an end to your journey, and the actions that lead to such demises aren’t always obvious. What really makes these deaths suck is that there is no sort of save function whatsoever in This is Not a Test, so each time something goes wrong you will find yourself going back to the absolute beginning of the outbreak. You’ll also be going back to the beginning of the adventure if ever the game should happen to crash, and I did find certain actions that have a 100% chance of crashing the title whenever selected.
To make matters worse, the game is actually randomized and – even with the exact same skill set and inventory on hand – taking the same actions will sometimes lead to entirely different results than what previously occured. This will cause the gear you find – and the solutions you are capable of executing – to be different each and every time you play through This is Not a Test, which I’m sure would be a novel feature in a different gameplay genre entirely. But here it just means that changing up your character build – or taking different actions – based on what transpired the previous run will generally not help you to survive, making your various deaths all the more frustrating.
Perhaps the worst offender in This is Not a Test are the moments of extreme illogic that will get you killed anyways, even if you did previously take the right random action for the given moment. There was a point where I came to a section of gas covered wasteland where a man holed up in a house with a rifle was shooting at everyone that got too close, but my decision to talk to a injured person nearby lead to me learning of a way to sneak safely around. Unfortunately this option to sneak around most bizarrely disappeared when I shared a bottle of water with the man next, leaving me forced with no options left but to march straight up to the house and get shot. While there are other successful choices you can take at this particular scene, the game had seen fit to not give me any of the equipment required to enact those alternatives during that particular play through.
One would at least hope that with such issues of quantum causality, in what is essentially a digital choose your own adventure book, that perhaps the artwork in This is Not a Test would be really nice. While the artist who worked on the game is obviously very talented, the pure black and white nature of the images – sans any form of shading – will often unfortunately devolve into an unintelligible mess during the more visually busy scenes. Worse yet, the few times it does feature color – for the icons you click on to select who you’re speaking with – the shading featured on the faces of females make them all look as if they’re sporting Adolf Hitler moustaches.
In the end you are left with an adventure of randomized outcomes – bland dialogue – and sometimes very confusing artwork, all of which you will see over and over again to the point of extreme frustration.
iFanzine Verdict: It’s possible that with the ability to save, or at least non-randomized outcomes – that This is a Not a Test might have been an interesting title, but that is not what happened. Instead you have a game where you are going to fail a lot until you learn of every possible contingency plan for each situation based on your current skills and what items they either did or didn’t give you. Unfortunately, the game’s extremely bland writing – and sometimes confusing artwork – wasn’t really built to stand up against the extreme scrutiny it goes through when viewed with this kind of forced repetition.