Robinson’s Requiem sports what has to be one of the worst titles in gaming. Oh, it makes sense once you delve into the game, but I can’t imagine too many people got past frowning at the box cover and then promptly forgetting the name. Some highly unconventional gameplay surely didn’t help its popularity, with some contemporary reviews bemoaning its “meaningless wandering.” This isn’t a fair assessment, and misses the point. Robinson’s Requiem is a very creative attempt at making an adventure with real consequence – if you’re up to the challenge and associated frustration.
You play as a “Robinson” – a galactic wildcatter in a distant fascist future, colloquially named after famed literary adventurer Smokey Robinson (no!). These Robinsons are sent to explore potentially-habitable planets, live off the land for a bit, and evaluate their prospects for colonization. It’s important work to the future government, and after putting in their strenuous and dangerous time in the service of society, they are treated to a hero’s welcome back on Earth – a Robinson’s Requiem.
Except, this is not exactly true. In the absurdly-lengthy opening cinema (hope you like watching early-CG ships and car models scoot around), you find that every Robinson’s last mission is to the planet Zarathustra, whereupon their ship loses control and crashes. After surviving your own wreck, it’s up to you to recover your gear, find the other stranded Robinsons, and answer a telepathic message that promises access to the only shuttle off the rock. Oh, and most importantly, you’ll need to survive long enough to do all this.
In terms of gameplay, Robinson’s Requiem is something like a simulation/RPG hybrid, but can most efficiently be described as a survival simulator. The Nintendo DS series Lost in Blue, or even Minecraft to some extent, really offer the only contemporary examples. Minus Minecraft’s shelter building and world deformation, many of the same concepts apply. You will need to forage for food to keep your health up. You will need to find a safe place to sleep every night. You will need to scavenge materials and combine them into helpful gear, like bows and arrows, torches, or fur clothing. And you will need to give a wide fucking berth to all the nasty native critters on the planet, all of whom are well-suited to ruining your day (and body) if you’re unprepared.
To put it simply, you will need to manage your health just as much as you manage your exploration. The game centers around a fairly detailed monitoring of your avatar’s condition. It’s easiest to just blitz you with a list here, so please forgive me – the game tracks your blood pressure, pulse, internal temperature, hydration, exhaustion, internal blood supply, external temperature, infections, hunger, the weather, and the day-to-night cycle in an accelerated 24-hour period.
All of these considerations actually matter. If you wear too much clothing in the desert, you suffer accelerated dehydration and sunstroke. If you sleep in the cold rain or a damp cave (without a campfire), you can catch the flu. If you fall, you can fracture your limbs, with appropriate movement reduction. If you take damage in combat, you get a wound that must be treated. If you don’t eat, drink, or sleep regularly, you start seeing stars and eventually pass out.
The consequences from not taking care of injuries get even crazier. You will bleed out from major wounds unless you disinfect and sew them up. If you don’t take anesthetics prior to patching up such wounds, you can go into shock from the pain and pass out. If you leave a tourniquet on too long, or don’t disinfect your makeshift surgical gear, the wound can become gangrenous. At this point, you have to saw the limb off with your survival knife or die. Crows can peck out one, or both, eyes and permanently blind you (no, the game doesn’t end). If you’re in too much pain, you can’t sleep without a tranquilizer. If you drink unboiled water or eat rotting food, you become violently ill. And if it all becomes unbearable, there’s even a handy Cyanide capsule in your medical kit. The survival aspect is serious business.
To aid you with monitoring all this, you are provided a handy diagnostic computer. At the click of a button, it displays all of the above in neat, clean windows (almost like something out of a Sharper Image catalogue), and even shows if things like your weight or blood pressure are trending up or trending down. A separate medical button lets you toggle between a surface view of your character and a detailed x-ray to spot maladies as they occur. It additionally features an automap that fills in and stores the area around you as you move around, and without either function, the game would be pretty much unplayable.
The downside, of course, is the disconnect between yourself and your avatar. You’re checking a readout for things you normally would simply feel, which edges the entire game more toward something like a flight sim. You’re basically always monitoring readouts to see if particular numbers are within tolerance levels, and correcting accordingly. Occasional audio clues (sneezing, yawning) will tip you that you should check your status, but other things – like knowing it’s too hot to wear your jacket – will require you to check the ambient temperature display and compare it to your internal temperature display, or suffer the consequences. Same situation with a fever, stomachache, or even exhaustion.
Controls are as complicated as everything else in the simulation, but nothing unfamiliar to anyone who’s played System Shock. You move around most effectively with the number pad, using 7 and 9 to turn, with some modifiers to look up and down, jump, sprint, or crouch. The mouse is always used to interact with the interface. You can click around in the viewscreen to manipulate items in the world, click on inventory items to pick them up and then deploy them, or access the various menu icons on the right of the screen. These let you combine items, consume items, use them on yourself, or discard them, with clear icons indicating the intended action.
Combat is obviously featured, but hardly ever advised. Clicking the combat tab limits the inventory to weapons only, and how effective you are depends on what you’re facing and what you’ve found. Clicking the weapon strikes with it, while you can still move with the number pad. This allows some effective stick-and-move attacks. Ranged weapons will lock you in place while selected, and let you aim with the mouse. Animals charging in a straight line present the best targets here, and some (like tigers) can really only be faced at range. However, most creatures don’t give up items useful enough to counteract the critical damage you may receive in the fight. Fighting thus becomes a real decision, and running away is usually the smarter alternative.
Once you get a feel for keeping your character in check, the rest of the game is about exploration. There are six zones on the planet, all connected by underground tunnels. New zones are effectively blocked off by equipment requirements, so you won’t be able to enter the tunnels until you find resin to make torches, or you won’t be able to survive the arctic area until you have fur clothing. Your time will be spent combing over the zones you can access for goods and materiel to make your necessary gear. Some of this relies on the survival guide included with the game (such as showing which mushrooms are edible – a form of copy protection?), with the rest needing good old trial-and-error. You’ll pick up items on the ground and have to divine their uses yourself, or collect samples with your survival knife. You’ll also need to mind your own carrying capacity though, or you’ll overburden yourself and drain energy.
The ultimate goal is to find the 19 previous Robinsons and acquire their diagnostic computers. Though there is no set time limit, there are a number of realistic blocks that cut down on your available time. There are only 20 matches on the entire planet, and when you run out, you can no longer light new torches, make campfires, or boil water. There are about 40 game days worth of battery life (including found replacements) for your computer, after which it no longer functions. And of course, your medical supplies all have limited quantities with no chance for replenishment. Even if you were able to somehow survive for months, you would be ill-equipped to continue exploring the planet and finish the game proper. So yes, on top of everything else, there are very real supply and time limits as well.
Still, despite all the torment, Robinson’s Requiem can be an interesting and unique bit of fun. It’s exciting to find yourself rushing to the nearest cave before the sun completely sets, or contemplating how hard you think you can push yourself and evaluating if the rewards are worth the risks (such as pressing on in the desert zone). Things also tend to work in a nicely logical manner and it’s fun to experiment – you can use your survival knife to collect branches from trees, fashion a fishing pole using worms for bait, and cut useful meat and hide from defeated animals. There are still only a few limited recipes coded into the game, and some points that don’t make sense (why can’t I fill my water bottle with rain?) but overall, the rules for survival are pretty clear and fair once you figure them out.
It’s the graphics that end up being Robinson’s best and worst feature. The terrain is drawn using an early voxel engine. Small blocks (rather than polygons) make up the rolling hills or enclosed caves. On the plus side, there’s an impressive draw distance and some great, natural lighting effects. On the minus, it’s a frequently-confusing illusion of 3D. Mountains shift unnaturally as you move close to them, and the surrounding terrain never quite turns with you. It’s difficult to tell if the clearing ahead is a new zone, or the one you just left. The entire area inside a cave seems to ripple when you move. Corners, or folds in the landscape at the edges of your vision, are difficult to make out and result in you getting stuck often. Land detail is also limited and a bit featureless, relying on sprites for any distinct decoration. Luckily, you can move while the minimap screen is open, which saved me countless times.
The DOS version comes in original disk and enhanced CD flavors. Gameplay is the same, minus a few patch-style tweaks on the CD version. Mostly you’ll be getting animated intro cutscenes and live-action character interactions. When you encounter your fellow Robinsons in the CD version, you’re treated to video of some bit players (the developers?) hamming it up. The only value here is in not having to read the dialogue, which isn’t much for value. Sound for both versions is limited to some ambiance and digital sounds to match specific actions on screen (tigers attacking, falling and breaking your leg, etc). It works well and adds to the experience.
It should also be noted that the game contains a few mode options that can make gameplay a bit easier. You can turn off weather changes and their assorted effects, which opens up the areas in which you can safely sleep. You can turn off illnesses, so disinfecting water, eating unspoiled meat, and monitoring flu levels are no longer issues. You’ll still need to watch out for injuries and eat food to keep your health and hydration up, but the game becomes much less restrictive. Still, it feels like a training mode, and the best experience is the full, unfiltered option. Finally, you can turn on an “arcade mode,” which starts you with a laser pistol, but also greatly increases the number of enemies. Its purpose is dubious, to the point that it might actually be a joke.
The cliched line “it’s not for everyone” certainly applies here, but I’d even take it a step further – Robinson’s Requiem is not a game for most people. The survival elements are not staggering or impossible to understand, but certainly hardcore. The exploration gameplay frustrates more often than it rewards. The voxel graphics are pretty, but confusing to make out (you may prefer one of the many ports using a polygon engine instead). But it’s also an incredibly unique game. You have a great amount of freedom with limited to no hand-holding, and those limited rewards end up feeling that much sweeter when you figure something out for yourself. Don’t expect to finish it, but it’s certainly worth checking out if it sounds intriguing.
Unique survival gameplay. You’ll need to be smart about your choices and cautious in what you do, with tangible consequences if things go wrong. Detailed health and interaction systems fascinate and make good sense.
Voxel engine has pretty lighting and a sharp day/night cycle, but distorts frequently. More of a learning cliff than a learning curve, which will turn off most. Heavy trial and error gameplay means lots of replays and lots of managed saves.