That stealth puzzler Volume should be released so close to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is surely no coincidence, such is the long shadow that Kojima’s blockbuster casts on the indie title. Volume is the second game from Mike Bithell, the British developer behind the surprise 2012 indie puzzle platformer hit Thomas Was Alone. TWA, while charming, was criticised in some quarters as being a triumph of style over substance, a clever and heartfelt narrative disguising fundamentally simplistic platform mechanics.
Volume, on the other hand, is a game that revels in its clearly-defined stealth mechanics, encouraging the player to test them to their limits. Each of the game’s levels – and there are scores of them – is a standalone puzzle to be unpicked through trial, error and experimentation. You guide protagonist Robert Loxley through labyrinthine pseudo-military environments from a top-down perspective, aiming to collect all the gems in each level in order to open the exit while evading guards, turrets and other enemies.
Detection usually means certain death and what few weapons Loxley gets hold of all fall into the non-lethal category. Each level becomes an exercise in not being spotted while probing the holes in enemy movement patterns. A very generous checkpoint system encourages experimentation and even if the worst occurs, you’re usually back where you left off within a matter of seconds. The first twenty or so levels are fairly linear tutorials that gradually grow in complexity before the game opens up with levels that have multiple solutions and that force the player to think creatively about how to solve each puzzle.
The influence of Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid games can be felt throughout Volume, both on an aesthetic and a design level. The game’s utilitarian visual style, which makes heavy use of large blocks of neon colour, owes much to the VR training missions that shipped as an add-on to the first 3D entry in the series and later formed the key meta-narrative to 2001 sequel Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Even the game’s angular fonts are unerringly similar to those used in the Konami title.
In gameplay terms, Volume shares the core stealth mechanics of the older Metal Gear Solid games, right down to guards’ clearly illustrated vision cones and even some of Kojima’s trademark oddball humour; flushing one of the game’s many toilets will bring nearby enemies running to investigate. Where Volume distinguishes itself is in the range of gadgets that allow the player to creatively tackle the game’s clearly defined ruleset. These include the oddity, which can be thrown on to surfaces to lure enemies while you sneak by. The mute, meanwhile, dampens footsteps and increases movement speed, often inadvertently encouraging the player to take more risks.
While the core gameplay is robust and satisfying, there is, unfortunately, a bit too much of it. The main story features around a hundred missions and with new levels being released on a weekly basis and a level editor included, the game is simply drowning in content. Pacing is such that the game throws level after level at you without respite and with leaderboards for fastest completion times put front and centre on post-mission screens, it can all feel a bit overwhelming. Unlike the short, sweet Thomas Was Alone, Volume is a game that outstays its welcome.
It’s not helped by a story that is too wrapped up in its own attempts to be witty and clever to deliver a satisfying narrative. The self-referential nature of the writing can arguably be seen as yet another nod of the head to Metal Gear Solid 2’s post-modernism but instead it comes off as aloof and try-hard and ultimately falls flat. By halfway through the game, this reviewer had given up on trying to follow the game’s story and instead gritted his teeth and pushed on through the remaining missions.
At Volume’s core is a clever and satisfying stealth game with robust, highly-tuned mechanics. Unfortunately though, there’s an unshakeable feeling that it has been artificially padded out and elongated, turning a game that would have felt tight and punchy at four hours long into one that feels turgid and pretentious at nearly twice that length. Fans of stealth games will definitely find plenty to enjoy here but others may find themselves left cold by a game that seemingly refuses to acknowledge that less can be more.