I find myself torn in an unlikely dilemma. On the one hand, Lifeline has everything I love about mobile games – it’s an interactive story, it’s sci-fi, it’s survival on an alien planet, and it’s minimalist in design. It is beautifully written by Dave Justus famous for the Fables: The Wolf Among Us. It’s $1.99, premium, no ads, no IAPs. I mean it has all my favorite things in it, and if you have read my reviews of the similar games in the genre, such as Heavy Metal Thunder, Sol Invictus and Hyper Rift, you’d bet Lifeline would get all the possible praise from me. And I so want to like it. On the other hand, I just force myself through it for the sake of just getting to know it. Emotions aside, let us take a look at its strong and weak points.
Lifeline is mostly a monologue. Your handheld device takes on the role of an intergalactic communication station capable of receiving incoming messages and sending out very simplistic feedback. The game starts when you receive the first messages from a spaceship wreckage survivor – Taylor.
We do not know who Taylor is – a woman, a man? A humanics, maybe? I suppose the author leaves the gender indefinite on purpose, so that each player can relate to Taylor and empathize with him or her faster. I thought it was a young dude; my girlfriend was sure it was a woman – she even has a theory about the female verbiage, which makes sense when you think about it. The bottom line – Taylor is who you want Taylor to be.
Taylor briefs you about the events that led him or her to the point in life where the space suit, a basic survival kit and a broken radio that can connect to you and you alone is all there is between Taylor and death. And so, you assume the role of Halle Berry in The Call – a sort of intergalactic 911 operator.
Mind though that the instructions you can give to Taylor are either A or B. No third option, no ways to ask questions, no alternatives.
This limited choice, as well as the minimalism in the design amplify the deprivation you are supposed to feel when dealing with a lone, desperate survivor on the brink of demise. And at first, Lifeline got me hooked, especially when the eerie soundtrack filled me with the anticipation of some terrible Prometheus-like outcome, when some alien life form just lays eggs in Taylor’s chest.
Alas, having hooked me with its gorgeous intros, Lifeline lost me somewhere along the way. You see, the realism of the game is achieved partly through the timers. To keep you suspended and involved, the game takes liberally more or less realistic hours keeping you on hold.
Taylor Is Busy
Taylor needs to sleep. Taylor is digging. Taylor is trying to unlock a jammed door. Taylor makes his or her way to the peak of a mountain. As Lifeline puts it in green – Taylor is busy. The normal folks keep checking their notifications for the news from Taylor when they play, which is good – they show some empathy, and the story is intriguing.
I do not belong with this group, however. I am a binge reader, player, spectator. I don’t watch Game of Thrones when it airs on HBO. I wait till all the episodes are available on Netflix and watch them overnight. Well, in two or three overnights actually. I do not read The Da Vinci Code during my summer vacation. I read Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, Deception Point and Digital Fortress in huge gulps in two or three weeks and then I don’t read for eight months (game descriptions aside). You get the idea. There is an instant gratification monkey in my head that wants to read the final pages before it decides whether a book is worth reading. It’s a terrible approach, I know it, but that is just how my brain likes to tick.
And Lifeline makes you wait, and check and double-check the notifications. Oh, and if you are like me, and have a separate device for mobile gaming only, which is not tied into your productivity and connectivity, the game loses the momentum altogether.
During the first play-through, that is until Taylor survives or dies, there is no way to skip the timers. Later on, when you have replayed a few times, two or three maybe, you will be able to skip the timers and restart a game from a particular point in the game. You just have to scroll back to the point, from which you’d like to take a different turn and continue from there. The first few replays, however, you wait once, and then you wait twice in the same spot. It’s disheartening, if not off-putting because as I said – I want to like Lifeline.
The level of interactivity is minimal. You make the choices for Taylor – sleep in the wreckage or near the reactor, bury the deceased or look for food. You know, choices of morale and survival, but as well of logic and sustainability. During the first game, I was willing to make the most reasonable choices that would increase Taylor’s chances of survival.
The game takes roughly about three to four days to complete, depending on how much time you have on your hands.
After the first death, alas, I was more willing to explore every possible option and branch with little consideration to Taylor’s survival. It did not make Taylor happy and at times he/she would get whiny, which did not increase my empathy levels. Overall, the replay value is questionable, and the game loses momentum before its culmination due to the waiting timers.
Besides, the timers did not help me enhance the atmosphere of realism because I can play when I can play, not when the game sends me notifications. Can Taylor wait for 5 hours till I get to the game of Lifeline? Certainly not. He/she would have dies so many times waiting for me. So, what realism are we trying to achieve here?
Little can be said about the most minimalist of the spartan choose your own adventure gamebooks on mobile. If anything, the soundtrack is awesome, but gets annoying over time while the font is way too small on my tablet, and I see no options to make it bigger. The writing is superb, there is no denying that, and if you like or hate Taylor it’s because Dave Justus is that good.
Yet, the story loses its intensity in an unfortunate waiting game. If I pay $2 for a short game with a fading replay value, I want to be able to play it on my terms, at my pace from the beginning without having to wait for that second or third replay to skip past timers because I would have lost the addiction by then.
There are no IAPs or ads, but in my humble opinion the game is fairly overpriced. In terms of performance, it froze on me once. I could not make any choices – the buttons went unresponsive. There were no updates from Taylor, and force closing the game did not help, so I had to clear the game data altogether and start fresh. Ouch. I mention this because I have found a couple of other users reporting the same bug. It’s not a game changer, but it certainly may add to the impatience side of the weigh.
- Intense, intriguing sci-fi story
- Great atmosphere of deprivation and solitude, desperate survival
- Excellent, empathy-inducing writing
- Apple Watch support
- Minimalist design
- Minimalist choices
- Minimum options
- After a few replays, the game unlocks an option to skip the waiting and restart the game from a particular fork of choices
- The waiting is poison for the binge readers and those who are after the instant gratification in gaming
- After the first death, or happy ending, the replay is hindered by a fading empathy, when you no longer care that much for Taylor’s fate, but to explore the rest of the branches
- An occasional, unfortunate bug that may freeze the game
- What was just mentioned in the Pros as the unlockable skip timers option is also a Con because it’s not available by default, and it should be
Lifeline is undoubtedly a great sci-fi suspense full of intrigue and desperate fight for survival. It is wonderful as it is, but not for everyone. Those of you who like to deep-dive into reading will not appreciate the first play and the waiting timers while those who are after a more interactive storytelling with images and cut-scenes will feel too much like they’re reading an ebook. In other words, Lifeline is a good read if its pace goes well with your own.