Too long has passed since a video game was worthy of my “Wait, there’s more?!?” custom achievement and recognition. In fact, 2009’s Wolfenstein (shamefully and inexplicably withdrawn from Steam and other digital distribution platforms) was among the last that comes to mind. Allow me to explain. Nearly two decades of gaming experience have taught me to estimate quite precisely, what to expect from a title in terms of both length and content. INFRA is a welcome exception from my unwritten rule. Even more surprising, it’s the Steam debut for developer Loiste Interactive which also acted as publishers for their first project. Calling it a labor of love, is an understatement. Initially released as a three-part story since early 2016, the past two years have seen INFRA finally releasing as a unified game.
“INFRA” is referring to “infrastructure” most likely, yet the underlying tones hint at another kind of road network. One which has nothing to do with going places, but rather opening doors which were never meant to be accessed. Enough metaphors though. The game shall feature corruption in its material form so to speak, since the fictional city of Stalburg is literally crumbling under the weight of negligence and incompetence fueled by one person’s desires to enrich himself and control as many destinies as he can. Before I’ll discuss the antagonist though, let’s focus on INFRA’s protagonist. Structural engineer Mark is tasked by his company (NCG – National Consulting Group) to survey a few key locations within Stalburg and coordinate the necessary maintenance as the situation shall demand it. Unlike Gordon Freeman, Mark’s only weapons are his keen sight (assisted by a trusty digital camera) and sharp wit. Also the obligatory flashlight, naturally. But no weapons at all. There are no enemies to harass players and you have no reason to shoot back at something.
It will not be easy at all and Mark will have to fight for his survival, yet he’ll be facing natural or man-made obstacles, not conventional foes. The main culprit in Stalburg’s current state is an industry magnate which doesn’t take “no” for an answer. Jeff Walter is a man that knows just how far you can get if you’ve got local authorities and politicians in your back pocket. He’ll not be stopped by his business rivals since he’s always managed to be one step ahead of them and even run their affairs into the ground, buying them once they’re close to bankruptcy and “finishing the job” himself. It all seems legal on the surface but the city and its inhabitants are slowly starting to react and fight back. Within this backdrop of uncertainty, poverty and acrimony, Mark must fulfill his duties and care for structures and industries whose employees have seemingly abandoned in disrepair.
Central themes for this title include: urban and industrial decay (Metro/S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series), mechanical, electrical and environmental puzzles (TARTARUS/Portal series) and a cult of personality matching Bioshock’s Andrew Ryan to INFRA’s Jeff Walter. It’s important to notice that while I could find certain stylistic similarities with the aforementioned games, INFRA is an entirely original story, with its own well-documented albeit fictional locations and characters. And there isn’t a combat section at all. How well documented? We’re literally talking about hundreds of documents and points of interest. I’m honestly surprised by the attention to detail in nearly all regards. There are so many handwritten notes alone, which must have taken quite a lot to simply plan, not to mention insert in the countless rooms Mark shall be visiting. And they make sense since they all point towards one inevitable conclusion.
Piece by piece, the evidence gathered against Walter will begin to form a clear picture for Mark and all his associates to see. Taking pictures of the damage sustained by the surveyed locations, is only half the mission since our protagonist seems licensed in investigative journalism besides his engineering degree. Makes sense though, for the firm which was hired to make repairs, to also find out how did it come to this dire situation in the first place. The answer is Stalburg’s rampant corruption on all levels. Someone has to pay and Mark will make sure of that. In his own nonviolent way, of course. That’s a big part of INFRA’s appeal to me. Just like playing Dishonored without killing anyone, for example, not all conflicts must be resolved through bloodshed and I’m glad that some video games offer this option and break from the norm.
As a die hard fan of Dear Esther and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, I knew INFRA was powered by the Source Engine within less than 5 minutes of playing it. I have to agree that while some age-related limitations are becoming obvious (such as the lack of truly large, open level implementation), Loiste Interactive are also skilled artists, not just storytellers. Very few textures might give away the graphical engine’s “ancient” age and most visual assets are an excellent match to what Unity Engine can also achieve. And both Source and Unity are guaranteeing stability to my system, even when running their projects maxed out and on 4K resolution.
Just how much did I like what I saw and played in INFRA? Enough to capture over 200 screenshots (and counting) while publishing a majority of them on my Steam profile as well. INFRA is a rare case in which you’ll appreciate both its looks and the messages it sends. So far, I’ve met no glitches, crashes or even frame rate drops in this game’s case. I really can’t complain even if I wanted to. As for sheer location variety, I’ll got further into detail in the gameplay section. Suffice to say, there’s not a dull moment in sight and most locations distance themselves from the previously visited places.
Since it’s usually sporting a more relaxed perspective than the combat-heavy titles I compared some if its themes, INFRA tends to showcase this in its soundtrack and laid-back voice acting. Mark’s a true professional and he rarely loses his composure, even after his boss sends him from one “suicide mission” to another. Stalburg’s slowly falling apart but here’s one structural engineer who’s doing his best to contain the damage and even repair what can still be recovered. Sound effects are well represented, so I also couldn’t find any apparent flaws in the audio assets. A quality title clearly proud of its production values, through and through.
It’s always the small details that I tend to notice first and appreciate. For example, a Main Menu that’s not the same old bland formula of seeing a large screen which pauses the action when pressing ESC (or whatever key binding you may choose) from in-game, is rare nowadays. INFRA has implemented this in the smartphone which Mark uses from time to time. Too bad that you can’t interact with that terminal more, such as the case would have been for GPS-assisted maps. An engineer should use all modern tools at his disposal, afterall.
There are a lot of fake brands, for obvious copyright reasons but I like seeing them resemble close enough to their real life counterparts. There are more than a few moments that will make you smile and forget the soberness of your job and constantly finding more distressing testimonies from former employees. Beer bottles are nearly everywhere. You’ll understand that once you’ve played INFRA for a bit. Finding a bit of humor, even if it’s in shades of black, is a welcome break to any topic.
The one gaming trope which is sadly found in INFRA as well, is the short lifespan of the disposable batteries used by Mark’s camera and his flashlight. Yes, they each use different types of batteries and you’ll have to keep an eye out for spares at all times. Alternatively, just be conservative in their use. It’s not that it adds an unnecessary layer of challenge, since you’ll find plenty of battery packs. I’m just tired of this gameplay mechanic that wishes to add extra tension to a game that really could have done without it. Still, it’s a minor nuisance which didn’t prevent me from exploring the surroundings at my own pace. Keep in mind that I had to take pictures in-game for Mark’s tasks while also keeping an eye out for my screenshot opportunities. With no foes breathing down my neck, I really had no reason to hurry or miss out on anything for the sake of avoiding combat encounters.
The level design has some limitations but I could still compare it to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter even if INFRA is not on a massive open world scale. It’s massive on its own scale, divided into so many level sections that I was really impressed by its length. Guess that I got used too much with contemporary adventure titles that barely run longer than feature-length motion pictures. No, INFRA is here for the long run and it will be gripping enough for players to keep pressing on, no matter the challenge. And I’m only getting to the game’s strongest point.
The puzzle variety is staggering. They rarely even repeat themselves and for a game you can play for hours on end, that’s an achievement by itself. Not only locations change, but also the technical challenges which Mark isn’t even forced to solve in order to advance the plot line. You’re not jumping proverbial hoops for your life as in Portal or its sequel. Some puzzles can be skipped even accidentally, since level exits have a few alternate routes of their own. Backtracking is rarely an issue.
From modern to decrepit, both buildings and the people which should tend to the industries housed within them, are responsibilities firmly planted onto the shoulders of one, incredibly determined individual. It’s almost hard to believe that you can’t go gun’s blazing at all, even during those huge factory levels that scream “multiplayer arenas”. No, Mark is left to his business and it just happens that his business is literally booming. Expect the unexpected, since this adventure title has quite a few surprises in store for its more persistent fans that leave few stones unturned. By having even Steam Auxiliaries (Cards and Achievements), I can’t subtract even a few points from my final rating in INFRA’s case. I consider it flawless and I do hope that you’ll enjoy it as much as I am. Good luck with the surveys. Stalburg depends on you!
All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.