My last review was a horror game. I meant to continue with more horror, and you might reasonably classify Bernband as horror. But you also might not. Really, it’s a difficult game to put into any category at all. What you might call a walking simulator, except those usually have an end, or goal of some kind.
The only goal in Bernband is to explore, and soak in the ambiance. It is not so much a game as it is a place to inhabit for a while, whenever you please. That ambiance is really difficult to describe, too. It’s something like the empty, bland feeling of early 3D games like Mario 64 or Bubsy 3D. Everything being flat shaded polys or low res sprites is the probable reason.
What makes Bernband so intriguing is how much work went into fleshing out this strange little world. That’s atypical even for vastly more beautiful, advanced games. Often they leave out details like where the characters sleep, bathrooms, where they go to school, where they buy food and so on. Bernband includes absolutely every trapping of a functional city, just a very alien one.
You will visit a school. You will visit a church. You’ll visit a night club, a recital, apartments, and more. Despite the austere, plain aesthetic, it somehow also feels authentically “lived in”. For such a graphically undetailed game, it’s certainly packed with environmental details. Easter eggs may be more accurate.
I was exploring a parking structure that I felt certain was bereft of anything interesting. I pressed on anyway, reasoning that the author would’ve anticipated that I’d give up because of how repetitive, samey and tedious to explore the parking structure was, and deliberately hide something cool there. I won’t say what, but it was a delight to have my suspicions confirmed.
I caught myself slipping into the mindset of an anthropologist as I played. Trying to infer things about their culture by what I saw them doing, how their city is designed, that sort of thing. Also, trying to concoct a backstory for why I might be wandering around with no knowledge of my own home city. Amnesia? Severe intoxication?
Certainly there’s no shortage of bars in this game, if indeed that’s what they are. These creatures are evidently highly social and fond of the bottle. Some venues have live music, with bands playing alien instruments that emit irritating but convincingly alien melodies.
You might reasonably compare it to the experience of a sheltered person traveling to a radically different foreign country for the first time, having never so much as left their home town before then. The feelings of paranoia and hostility early on, I realized, were just the natural human reaction to being thrust into an unfamiliar situation. Nothing provokes fear as effectively as the unknown.
However there’s nothing to be afraid of. At least, nobody attacks you. Nobody interacts with you, period. That’s the one way in which I felt let down by Bernband. I would’ve liked some interactivity. Messing with an alien vending machine or juke box only for the establishment owner to rush over and shout at me in some incomprehensible alien language would’ve been charming.
The pixelated aesthetic doesn’t stop with the sprites. The resolution the game itself displays at is very low. A stylistic choice I’ve seen before and appreciated in games like imscared and I See You, but which doesn’t gel convincingly with the game’s comparatively modern lighting effects. I would’ve at least liked the option to bump up the resolution.
In the end, Bernband’s greatest strength is the convincingly real feeling of the environment it plops you into. It’s a good thing too, because that’s basically all there is to it. There’s a powerful contrast between the fake, crude looking graphics and the highly realistic world building Bernband engages in. I’ve never seen that particular juxtaposition in a game before.
Bernband can be downloaded for free right here. The author has since made a sequel, Bernband 2, but I doubt I’ll review it as it’s a baffling and massive step down from his first production. If you wind up trying Bernband out yourself, I’d love to hear in the comments what you thought of it!
All images courtesy of ‘Tom’, creator of Bernband