Safe House review — Manage spies, manage sweet little spies

A great idea held back by its execution.

Now, I don’t have much experience being a spy (that you know of, anyway…) but I imagine it’s a bit more complicated than jetting off to a foreign country, getting drunk and seducing people before getting into a thrilling car chase.

I suspect there’s more going on behind the scenes, with people keeping the covert operatives informed and providing them a safe place to check in whilst they do their super secret things. There may still be car chases. Safe House is the result of a successful Kickstarter with the interesting idea of you managing a team of spies and their activities via their, well… safe house.  You can hire operatives, improve the facilities and gradually reach your goals over the course of the three-or-so hours of play time. Will you go unnoticed or will your activities draw the attention of your enemies?

Safe House
I love the style of the menu.

Safe House sets the scene with our boss at the CIA telling us that we are working to bring down an oppressive government in the fictional African country of Kazitaire.  We’re informed that we, as the Manager, will control the safe house’s facilities, as well as order the various operatives on missions to achieve our goals.  The story develops over time and, without spoiling much, seems to be a commentary on American foreign policy.  Whilst the twists are somewhat predictable, it’s nice that there’s a context to the missions you carrying out. It gets a bit heavy towards the conclusion and there are even multiple endings depending on decisions you make late on.

The first thing I noticed upon launching the game was how cool the introduction and menu screen were. They have this great sixties-style spy pastiche, with bright coloured backgrounds and silhouetted figures in front, accompanied by a very fitting piece of music.

Starting the game, though, leads to a very different visual style. Gone are the bright colours and mysterious figures, replaced with a drab, grid-based house, low-quality 3D models and a looping piece of music that changes only very occasionally. I was disappointed in the shift as I went from something exciting to something far more plain. I understand that the style of the main game fits more with the story, but it seems a bit odd to have these two very disparate presentation styles.

In fact, the presentation feels like something of an issue throughout. The fonts used feel very basic and don’t match the theme, text isn’t lined up with the background correctly and there are spelling and punctuation errors. Things like buttons not working unless you click on the right part of them, or some rooms activating with a single click whilst others need a double click, are all problems that really shouldn’t be there.

Safe House
I’m being told to build an interrogation room. I built one yesterday, but maybe he just hasn’t noticed…

Gameplay itself is based around three parts. Construction has you building rooms in your safe house, Assignment has you sending people out on missions, whilst Management (it doesn’t have an actual name in the game) has you dealing with activities in each room as they come up over the course of ten in-game hours.

The bulk of the game surrounds Management, where you complete tasks to earn money for use in the other two phases. The ideas here are pretty good, with a number of activities that need to be completed by the late game. You might need to check a statement from an agent against a list of codewords and give the correct response, or maybe you’ll have to create a fake ID. The variety here is good, but it doesn’t take long to become tiresome. There were only a few statements from agents before they started repeating them and the cyphers (which were initially fun to solve) only have a few solutions, which you can accurately guess after a while.

Either way, success in these tasks earns you money to construct rooms and send people on missions, whilst failure gives money to the enemy — which can lead to penalties, such as a lower income or missions having a lower success rate. There isn’t really much risk of failure, as the time limit isn’t much of an issue. You can pretty much ignore tasks as they come in, as only one appears at a time and I was never punished for leaving them standing. Some of them take a lot longer than others, but you always get the same financial reward, which seems a little odd. You’ll probably want to complete as many as you can in a day to earn enough to handle the Construction phase, though.

In this phase, you spend money to construct more rooms. These can add to the tasks you need to complete as well as progress the story. Generally, you can build one room a day, but if you’ve had a particularly successful day you may have earned enough to build or upgrade more than one. I did come across a couple of oddities, such as the game telling me I needed to build an interrogation room in spite of the fact I already had one, or the barracks showing a mission I was never allowed to select.

The barracks and spy lounge let you send people out on missions, which also earn money and progress the story. This often comes down to simply picking a couple of people to increase a success percentage and getting the results the following day. There’s little interaction here, although you can level up the characters (assuming the game allows you to) in a number of skills to give them a higher success chance in certain types of missions.

Safe House
All Black Ops missions have 10% less chance of what!? I can’t scroll this, so I guess I’ll never know.

And that’s really it. Build a room, complete the same tasks to earn money to build more rooms. Repeat until the end of the game (or forever, in Endless mode). A couple of choices that crop up let you shape the end of the story, but the gameplay itself is somewhat monotonous and quite unpolished, with all sorts of flaws popping up.

Having said that, the game did run well enough and it didn’t crash at any point.  It’s just a shame that such an interesting idea has been implemented so weakly. I’m not managing the safe house, I’m just doing the work in it. I could see something in the style of This War of Mine working quite well here. Develop the safe house and head out on infiltration missions around the country, find resources to improve your base, allowing for autonomous missions to take place, or set up a counter-spy network. There’s a lot of potential in this, but sadly it hasn’t been capitalised on here.

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