Set in the late 1980’s, The Occupation sees you take on the role of Harvey Miller, an investigative journalist researching the story behind a recent act of alleged terrorism. Of course, things aren’t as they seem. It’s up to you to dig up well hidden secrets and expose the truth. Now, this plot may not be the most original concept ever devised, but White Paper Games executes it more than well enough to keep you hooked and invested. Played from the first person perspective, The Occupation has you exploring locations and searching every nook and cranny for clues relating to the investigation.
There’s a brilliant amount of detail on show here, with a lot of incidental story details scattered about the place that really helps immerse you in this mystery. In many ways, I’m reminded of the excellent Dishonored series: those that pay attention and explore fully will be rewarded with a more fully fleshed out narrative experience. And explore you will. Each location is a precursor to interviews of those involved in the situation, and naturally the truth may be harder to get out of them than simply asking. One of the main hooks here is that everything happens in real-time, so at the start of a section, you’ll be told that your interview is in one hour.
This literally means you have just one hour to search the place and see what you can dig up. Initially this may seem a lot – it is not. Once your time starts, it’s up to you to find new leads, explore current ones and attempt to find some concrete evidence that can be used to back up your questioning when the time comes. Nothing ever comes easy though. Security will patrol about the place and remove you from forbidden areas if you’re caught. Some areas will be off limits at certain times, perhaps due to the janitor cleaning in there while other NPCs will just go about their day – inevitably getting in your way as you try to loot a desk drawer. That added pressure of knowing the clock is always ticking down almost creates a horror game vibe.
A press of the left d-pad button will bring up your watch so you can keep an eye on the time, but all too often I found myself wondering just where it had all gone, my interview looming and far too many leads still unsolved. Some of those leads can get complicated too, requiring much backtracking and plenty of steps to get to the end. Files will need faxing out, as one example, but as this game takes place in the 80’s it’s not as simple as opening an app: you’ll need to save it to a floppy disk (ask your parents), take it to a location that actually has a printer (that you’ll need a token to operate) then finally find a fax machine to send it. That is if the floppy disk doesn’t get corrupted… And that’s just part of crossing off a lead.
With several equally complicated leads to investigate in each area, you soon begin to realize that an hour is really not that long at all. That last minute scramble to gather evidence can get really tense as you try to avoid the guards that navigate the well designed, but quite labyrinthine areas, via AC ducts of precariously placed scaffolding. There’s no combat here, in fact there’s not really any true danger – the NPCs will all greet you warmly when you’re in the right area, and even if you’re caught in off limit areas, you’ll mainly just get a stern word and be moved along. But if you’re to get the evidence needed for later, you’re best of avoiding any contact at all.
Once you enter somewhere that you are not meant to be, a sinister backing track begins to play – one that wouldn’t be out of place in a true horror title. Every creak of a drawer or slam of a door will potentially bring someone to investigate. I got a real sense of anxiety every time I heard a door open behind me, the person letting out an apprehensive “Hello?”. The game does a great job of keeping you on edge and reminding you that every second counts. On top of that, most rooms that related to important characters are alarmed, meaning you either need to find the code jotted down somewhere and enter it before it goes off, or locate the fuse box and shut off all power so you can enter. But no power means no access to the computers. As I said, things can get complicated.
Once the time comes for your interview, there’s no going back. Progress is only saved at the end of each chapter, which can be frustrating, but gives that precious hour even more weight when you know you can’t just rely on a quick save to undo any mistakes. In my play-through, I barely managed a couple of completed leads per section – completionists will have a hell of a time here! There’s no hand-holding either – no objective markers or signposting to speak of. When you sit down to play, the game demands 100% of your attention. Your case file book will keep track of progress made and give you some clue as to what you should be looking for, but there’s plenty for the player to keep track of on their own.
It’s refreshing to see a game trust you to figure things out on your own, even if it can feel a little overwhelming at points. Thankfully, in the actual interview any completed leads will clearly present the unlocked option. It’s here that things aren’t quite as smooth. No matter the evidence uncovered, only having one or two out of several questions unlocked sees characters one minute agreeing that you have something serious here, before the next breath has them dismissing anything else you have to say as if it didn’t exist. It can make these segments feel a little disjointed, but it’s not a complete deal breaker. The acting is generally of a decent quality and the story interesting enough to overcome this shortcoming.
It says something that, even after finishing the game, all I can think about is going back to finish more leads and see more of the tale. So, story and gameplay are generally excellent. That’s not to say it’s all roses here though. Technically, things are pretty poor. Visuals are decent enough, as you’d expect from an Unreal 4 powered game, but I ran in to a few too many bugs and odd design choices in the (roughly) 5 hour run-time. Various items can be picked up and carried for use elsewhere, but things are inconsistent regarding just what – and how many – you can take. Some items are stored without issue – others will swap out any currently held item, but it’s never really clear why.
About 30 minutes in to my initial play-through I picked up a critical story item. While investigating the surrounding area I accidentally picked up what appeared to be a completely useless item. This swapped out the critical one which was then lost to the void – I continued on for another 15 minutes wondering what I was supposed to do before having to completely restart the game in order to progress. While this particular bug didn’t repeat, it set a precedent for things to come. On a late game occasion, I attempted to use an elevator, only for my character to stay put as it rose above me. Once again, a full restart was required to get me out. Things can get a little fiddly too in terms of interacting with the environment.
Trying to pick up the tiny tokens require you to line up the reticle perfectly, which is easy said than done on a pad. Trying to climb or traverse anything other than flat ground can be a bit hit and miss too – at one point I was trying to climb back into a vent to hide, but the character kept flitting between crouching and standing, preventing me from hopping up into the space. Luckily, Steve the security guard isn’t the brightest spark, often getting stuck in a loop or a corner. One occasion saw him investigate a room that I had disabled power to – and by investigate I mean stand outside the door repeating the same “Huh, is anyone there?” line over and over. Though to be fair, it did make getting into that room nigh on impossible, so perhaps there’s a method to his madness.
There’s a well written and acted story here, nicely complimented by a solid gameplay premise that uses real world time to keep you on your toes. The sense of anticipation as you wait for an NPC to move or a file to copy is heightened by the knowledge that time is literally ticking away. Without completing all of the leads, the resulting interviews can feel a little off, but I found all this really did was make me want to play again and do better. The design and technical flaws can be overlooked for the most part, though a lack of mid-level saves makes some of the bugs worse than they otherwise would have been. Overall though, The Occupation is a game that is well worth the 5 or so hours it’ll take to get to the story’s conclusion.
The Occupation’s compelling story sits rather well with its intelligent framework. This is, for the most part, an intriguing real-time detective game that sports some solid features and robust mechanics, collectively putting forward a tense and constantly exciting affair. Indeed, there’s a few persistent technical flaws present that tend to interfere with the game’s flow, but in the face of everything that The Occupation gets right, they’re easy to overlook.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.