Budget Cuts, a first-person stealth VR game, has been eagerly awaited since Stockholm-based indie studio Neat Corporation first released a free demo in 2016. The demo, which quickly became a breakout success in the early days of consumer VR, demonstrated a unique portal-teleportation mechanic, that, when married with the ability to throw knives at robot guards, spelled an instant hit—at least from a basic gameplay perspective. Two years later, the full release of Budget Cuts lands this Thursday, May 31st, and it’s definitely been worth the wait.
Cubicles, fluorescent lighting, copy machines that don’t work: offices can be a depressing place, but what’s even more depressing is when you find yourself in a boring, cookie-cutter job that’s slowly being automated away. But like Neo’s impetus to escape The Matrix, you soon find yourself receiving a strange phone call telling you to get the hell out of there, lest you wish to meet the same fate as your other human colleagues: reported to Human Resources to never be seen, or heard from again.
The Morpheus to your Matrix is Winta, a helpful voice on the other end of the fax machine who sends you instructions, clues, and guides you along your way as you uncover the truth behind the megalomaniac Texan owner ‘Rex’ and his obsession with squeezing the most out of his business. Humans, I learn, simply aren’t apart of the equation anymore, as an army of docile drones fill the workplace with canned banter like “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps!” and “Don’t you just hate Mondays?”
Image courtesy Neat Corp
These aren’t the droids you’re worried about (or looking for), because in Rex’s palpable paranoia, which is constantly broadcasted over the office-wide loudspeaker, he’s peppered the office with military-grade security bots that tote revolvers, along with a keen sense of awareness when you’re in their line of sight.
Thankfully, Winta has provided you with a number of “letter openers” (read: sharp throwing knives) and a translocator gun that lets you teleport around the sprawling office space like Nightcrawler, popping in and out of existence as you navigate the giant building’s many corridors and ventilation shafts. A preview portal lets you check if the coast is clear before committing to the jump, but the portal can be seen by anyone who looks your way.
Other tools at your disposal: two gripping devices that take the place of your hands, and a magnifying glass-shaped viewer that lets you read the most essential bits of Winta’s messages, a nice touch to simplify the hand-written faxes, but not vital to the task at hand.
A quick pause before I get into the meat of the review. I have to say this: I loved the original Budget Cuts demo, and only wanted more of it, narrative be damned. But even then, Neat Corp has proven that it has storytelling chops too. I found myself exploring the facility, rifling through notes and learning about my colleagues that have disappeared before me, and laughing at the whole game’s quirky humor and tactful voiceovers. I didn’t need a fun and engaging story to enjoy ganking bots with my less-than-expert knife throws, but after playing, I can say this: expect more of Budget Cuts down the line, because there’s a big story to be told here, and I think I only scratched the surface in my nine hours of total gameplay. Now, back to the meaty bits:
I’m not ashamed to admit that in the beginning I had some trouble getting used to the way you change tools and access inventory, which hold five items of your choosing. While it took a little time to gain the muscle-button memory, Budget Cuts makes it clear that this isn’t a fast-paced, run-and-gun attack. You aren’t given an overly easy way to move and dispatch enemies because Budget Cuts is hard—and satisfyingly so.
If you find yourself wishing for a silenced pistol, then you’re not playing the game right. There are no power-ups, no health boosts, no shields, and a single shot from a robot will send you back to your automatic save point. After multiple fails on a single level, it became clear to me that patience is more than virtue in Budget Cuts, it’s a necessity.
The game takes every violent situation, and makes it into a big moving puzzle; robots have standard patrol paths, and they usually stand between you and your objective; get a key card, door code, collect an item important to the narrative. Once you figure out the patrol path, you can swoop in and administer your three inches of steel, or you can challenge yourself by playing all the way through as a pacifist. That’s right, from head-to-toe, you can enforce your own Hindu code on Budget Cuts and complete the game without ever decommissioning a single robot. Ventilation shafts are plentiful, and only the quickest and most proficient teleporters can make it out alive.
The preview portal, which lets you look around corners before actually teleporting, presents its own dangers, as robots can see and shoot you through it. It’s an essential tool for figuring out where to go, and where your enemies are.
Image courtesy Neat Corp
Level design is typically multilayered, offering a number of ways to complete an objective, be it a through the three foot-tall ventilation shafts, or by ducking for cover behind the many cubicles. Neat Corp has also made it near impossible to cheat by limiting your view when you either teleport, or pop your head through doors or walls. The anti-cheat system forces you to adapt to the game’s environment, making you duck in ventilation shafts, and bend down to peer through grates. I’ll cover more of that in the Immersion section, but suffice it to say that I loved how the game forces you to be present, and not take the easy way out.
Core game mechanics aside, what remains is really more than the sum of its parts. Adrenaline rushes of a missed knife throw (causing the target to spin around and point a gun in your direction), the act of sneaking around and planning your next move, following breadcrumb trails to a missing key—it all works so well together, making Budget Cuts one of the smartest VR games to date.
Image courtesy Neat Corp
That said, I did experience some frustration with a few puzzles. If you have a hard time listening to instructions, Winta can’t help you, and she isn’t piped into your ear at all times—a good thing in my opinion.
Sometimes learning a new game mechanic, like unscrewing a grate with a screwdriver, can leave some logical gaps that may drive you crazy looking for the right solution. Fine attention to detail is a must with Budget Cuts, because once the office is splattered with robot blood and you’re still looking for that final key code, only your wits will save you.