Review: The Order 1886
Warning: mild spoilers ahead.
First off, though 'The Order: 1886' was widely despised after release, I thought it was a pretty decent effort. I would not have enjoyed paying the launch price of £45/$60 but these days you can pick it up for around £10 . Which is good value for what you get, that being a lush steampunk extravaganza that sees an ancient order of Arthurian Knights battling a plague of werewolves in Victorian London. I mean, what’s not to enjoy about a premise that juicy?
There are many good things about this game. The art direction and music are incredible, and the voice acting is first rate. The action is also fun and sometimes very challenging, even if a few of the shooting segments make you feel like you’re knocking down tin ducks at a funfair sideshow.
The main problem, as far as I'm concerned, is an overstuffed plot that is so unwieldy and complex that it makes the story a bloated mess. It's full of material that, at the end of the day, just doesn't matter.
A big issue for me was the fact that the Knights of the Order have access to a tonic (called Blackwater) that makes them immortal. Blackwater appears to be derived from the Holy Grail, an artefact the Order unearthed centuries ago, but you would think that the discovery of an immortality potion back in the Middle Ages would have had some dramatic effects on world history. Except, no, it doesn't. The story is set in a version of Victorian London that would have been recognisable to Charles Dickens. It just doesn’t make sense. A discovery of that magnitude would have had enormous political and social ramifications, and we see none of it. Was Blackwater kept a secret? It didn’t seem to be.
Equally annoying is the fact that immortality makes no difference to the story at all. You can still get killed as a Knight, you just don’t die of old age. The Blackwater will rapidly cure you if you're injured and it can act as a stimulant in a fight, and that’s all Blackwater needs to be - a quick pick-me-up. The immortality gimmick is just pointless padding.
There’s also Jack the Ripper. The ongoing crimes of Jack are discussed early on in the story, leading us to think this might be an important part of the plot. But even though it’s touched on a couple of times, and we do eventually discover Jack’s identity (no detective work required - he voluntarily confesses with no prompting), there’s no point to it. You could cut out this entire sub-plot and it would make no difference to the main story whatsoever.
Not forgetting the Bedlamites. A gang of escaped lunatics who appear at the start of the story, create mayhem, and are never seen again. Which is ludicrous, because the Bedlamites are presented as a ‘thing’, an organisation or movement, or at least something important. But they’re not. They appear and go, and their brief existence makes no difference to the story at all. Their mayfly role could easily have been filled by the rebel gang we meet later on.
And we should also mention the vampires. Halfway through the story we’re told that vampires exist and that their werewolf allies are using a fleet of airships to freight their wizened, toothy carcasses around the world. Why? We discover that vampires can assume convincing human forms and survive in daylight, so what’s the point in smuggling them? Why not buy them a first-class ticket? And if you’re going to introduce vampires at all, do it nearer the beginning of the tale so we know where we stand.
The problem with introducing all these pointless characters and sub-plots is that you begin to stop caring about the main story. You become disinclined to treat any plot development seriously as you know there’s a significant chance it will turn out to be a meaningless sidetrack.
I think this issue is summed up best by one of the story mechanics - scattered round the game are various items you can pick up and look at: photographs, a silver hip-flask, various phonograph recording etc. At first, you do pick them up and look at them carefully, trying to find clues and determine their significance. Until you realise that finding these things is just ‘busy work’ that accomplishes nothing. There are some newspapers and flyers that impart a little background information, but aside from these items, most are a pointless distraction, and you soon learn to stop investing any time in them.
These various story elements read like a check-list of Victorian and Gothic horror cliches that the writer has determined will somehow be shoehorned into the story no matter what. But these tropes only serve to weigh down the plot, both in themselves and in the often long and tedious exposition that’s needed to explain them to the player. The upshot is, that when this overstuffed game actually ends, it takes you completely by surprise. There are so many loose ends and unanswered questions you think they can’t possibly leave it there, but they do. At the time of the game's ending I honestly thought we were still only around a third of the way through.
How did a game with such a bloated, convoluted storyline ever get made? When the end credits suddenly arrive, they go on for 18 minutes. So many people were involved in this production, and so much money, time and effort went into it, you would have thought they would have made sure they had a decent story nailed down from the start.
Still. All that said. I did have fun playing. And for around £10 it's hard to complain too much.