In The Order: 1886, you play as Sir Galahad (not the Galahad, but one who has taken his title), a nigh-immortal Knight of the Round Table in a steampunk alternate universe version of Victorian London. It takes place in a sumptuously crafted world with some of the most technically advanced visuals to ever exist. Aside from its appearance, however, it doesn’t impress. Now, let’s get this out of the way: The Order is not a bad game because it’s short. That’s the general idea that’s been floated around in the couple of weeks since its release, but that’s reductive and, frankly, wrong. The length is fine for what it is. No, the problem with The Order is that it’s stingy.
Let’s start with the combat. This is supposedly the game’s primary gameplay conceit—get behind some cover, shoot some werewolves with cool steampunk guns—but you spend precious little time actually doing that. First off, you only fight werewolves like twice. Second, the guns themselves are pretty lackluster, typical shooter fare, machines, shotguns, varieties of pistols. The only differentiating weapons, the ones that take advantage of the fantastical steampunk setting to be creative and weird, are doled out only in brief setpieces. And the combat encounters are constantly cut up with interruptions. The cutscenes are everywhere, doled out in bits and pieces throughout the levels, dividing the action into sections and intervening any time the action begins to gain steam. I’m not one to complain about a game having too many cutscenes, but when some of them merely show your player character walking down a hallway I damn well could have walked down myself, I strain to see the point.
The game’s approach to story is stingy, too. The narrative follows Galahad (real name Gray) as he defends London from the threat of the “half-breeds”, which are, well, werewolves, but the game is far too coy and self-serious to call them that. The plot quickly gets more complicated, however, introducing a London nearly torn apart by rebellion and hinting at an ancient conspiracy threatening the very fabric of the Round Table, pushing you from grimy Dickensian slums to stately, velvet-on-velvet manors in search of the truth. There’s a lot about this plot that resonated with me. The moment-to-moment writing is usually pretty sharp, and the voice cast is terrific, imbuing even incidental characters with a strong sense of personality. None of it gets lingered on enough, though, Galahad’s more interesting companions being sidelined halfway through the game and the most compelling plot twists left undercooked. The game ends abruptly, offering little closure for the events that took place in its eight hour’s runtime, loose ends spiraling out like errant hairs in Galahad’s luxurious mustache.
What we’re left with, then, is a game made up of unanswered questions, ideas the game considers before discarding. To The Order’s credit, many of them are worth thinking about. To its non credit, they’re often more interesting than the game itself.
Questions like, how do you pace an action game? Every moment of The Order has a stiff upper lip. Even as it leaves the things you as a player are probably interested in, like satisfying fights or straightforward plot points, behind in a hurry, this is a game that takes its sweet time with the things it cares about. The first hour of the game moves forward at a pace that I’m tempted to call sluggish, spending substantial time just establishing mood. After an en media res opening, your first gameplay experience is to look out at the skyline and then walk slowly through a mostly empty house. You can watch a man carefully sweep the floor or pick a paper from the table and read the headlines. The Order is deliberate in its sense of place.
Most action games move quickly, instilling instant urgency, putting a weapon in your hands and telling you to go like you’re nothing but a targeting reticle. The Order, obstinately itself, refuses to do that. I’m inclined to call its experiment in slower pacing a failure, but not because of the pace itself. The Order offers a lot of detail early on, but none of it is motivating information, little revealing anything important about who you’re playing as or why you’d want to be him. By the time the game put a gun in my hand, I felt ready to fight, but only because the preceding hour hadn’t given me anything of intrigue enough to latch onto. It’s a pity, though. The Order wants to be a game that gives you a reason to be in its world long before it asks you to shape it. I don’t think it does that, but I want to see a game that does.
Or, how do you tell a responsible story about empire? As a member of the Order of the Round Table in the time of the British Empire, Galahad initially emerges as a vanguard of imperial power. The leader of the Order, an ancient, embittered chap with a penchant for Jeremiads, implores the knights to fight two equal and equally dangerous infections—the touch of the half breed and the touch of the rebel, one a blight on the sanctity of the body and the other a blight on the sanctity of the body politick. In keeping with the biopolitical anxiety, your first enemies aren’t even rebels, they’re escaped mental patients who have poured onto the streets and taken up weapons to defend themselves. You’re told to avoid killing them, but the game entirely ignores this directive as soon as it’s given, not merely allowing but encouraging lethal force. You pursue the “bedlamites,” as they’re called for reasons mysterious to all but the writers, into a stately hotel. As you enter, you use an air gun to incapacitate one of them and then are ordered to shoot him dead anyway. It’s easy, in these early sections of the game, to feel less like a member of a legendary tradition of heroes and more like a member of Her Majesty’s secret police.
Am I supposed to sympathize with Galahad as he mows down political threats? At first, I thought the answer was yes, but as the plot progresses it begins to morph into something with a greater remove, positioning Galahad at odds with his Order, using him as a lens to observe some of the cruelties of the system he’s been positioned to protect, the corruptions and conspiracies that make up its inner life. The game never stops being brutal, but it does wonder out loud about its brutality. Too many games are blindly fascinated by power, those in modern settings often gleefully jingoistic, and it’s refreshing to see The Order at least try to interrogate that from the remove of an alternate history. If it can’t put down the guns, at least it can ask who we should be aiming them at. The character it introduces to make these points—a bold and charismatic warrior from colonized India—is easily the most interesting part of the game, and her perspective sharpens the game’s attempts at critique, letting her function as a guide to the violence at the heart of the imperial project.
A pity, then, that you’re stuck as Galahad, whose generic brutalism hamstrings any possibility for attaining moral clarity. It’s not clear why Galahad is the chosen player character, except that focus testing insisted they needed a generic white guy to star. There are a number of more interesting characters here, including the aforementioned warrior, and two other members of the Order, Lady Igraine, a strong woman tied to the Order by blood as well as patriotism, and a young French initiate, the Marquis de Lafayette (who I think is supposed to be the Marquis de Lafayette, a century old being young for these folk), both of whom would have offered a much more interesting take on the journey to disillusionment that Galahad embarks on. As it stands, Galahad’s centrality drains all the moral questions posed of their immediacy, as, while I might care about the forces at work here, I never care much about his place in them. I mostly just want to get his dirty work over with, no matter who it’s for. And I can’t shake the feeling that, by focusing on a paranormal threat and an evil conspiracy surrounding it, using the threat of the half breeds as a window into discussing imperial politics, The Order simply trades fantastical paranoias for the real, and much more dangerous, paranoias of empire.
And, finally, the question that seems to have pricked the most ears, what does it mean for a game to be cinematic? And what parts of film are worth a game’s time to borrow? It’s an open question in the medium at large right now, as critics and developers both grapple with what influences games should or shouldn’t take from other forms of media. For my part, I think movies certainly have ideas to offer games, but The Order seems only to latch onto the wrong ones. The filmic cues that The Order borrows are mostly smaller matters of presentation. On top of all the cutscenes, which are certainly filmic by virtue of being films, the game runs in a widescreen format borrowed from the silver screen, complete with letterboxing. Additionally, there’s a noticeable and mandatory motion blur effect that makes the game’s camera look particularly, well, analog. Neither idea really seems to fit, the motion blur making the gunfights more difficult for no clear reason, and the widescreen in particular feels entirely superfluous, a dead signifier for a form of prestige that the game offers no reason for wanting to court.
That’s a good indicator for The Order: 1886 in general. It’s a game with interests in the right places but executed in the wrong way, that understands the value of certain ideas but not where their kernel of meaning is. It gets lost in filler and ephemera, sidelining its better thoughts in favor of quick-time events and long periods of wandering through dark gardens and short corridors. But it’s fascinated by these side obsessions, a game so singular in its own direction, and so confident in the story it wants to tell, that I sometimes felt unwelcome, as if indulging my interests or trying to entertain me was an inconvenience. There are hints of inspiration here, and there are places, in its dark fantasy intrigue, where I enjoyed myself, but The Order is too often lost in its own thick shadows.
Jake Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living in Austin, TX. In addition to functioning as Loser City’s Games Editor, his writing appears on The AV Club, Ovrld, and anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him by email or twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. He has very strong feelings about Kanye West.