wemibelle's Devotion (PC) review

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A brilliant follow up to Red Candle Games’ Detention marred by stupid controversy.

The apartment where most of Devotion takes place.
The apartment where most of Devotion takes place.

How does one write a review for a game that can’t be purchased anymore? As you may or may not know, Devotion was pulled from sale by developer Red Candle Games after a minor controversy arose around an art asset found in the game (more details on this below). As such, I’m now attempting to recommend something to those few who already own Devotion and can just play it for themselves or to those who can’t even buy it if they wanted to. This is part of the reason why it’s taken me this long, almost two and a half months, to finally write this review. But I can’t wait any longer. Devotion is an amazing game, one I want to write about before the strong impressions it made on me begin to fade with the passage of time--even despite the absurdity of trying to review a currently almost nonexistent game..

In Devotion, you play as Feng Yu, one member of a 1980s Taiwanese family comprised of himself, wife Li Fang, and daughter Mei Shin. Both Feng Yu and Li Fang were moderately famous, as a screenwriter and actress respectively, but they decided to settle down and finally have a family of their own. While they start out this new life happy, various conflicts begin to wear them down. The game chronicles the family’s troubled life over a period of years in their small apartment. It does this via little vignettes that often distort the real events that happened and instead hint at or infer their true nature, much like the natural fuzziness of memories over time. You hop back and forth through different time periods, experiencing these events and slowly piecing together what happened.

Like the developer’s previous game, Detention, Devotion tells an interesting story that feels very much rooted in Taiwanese culture, making it stand out greatly in a genre mostly filled with the same settings and ideas. The major difference between the two is in how they tell their stories. While Detention was straightforward and literal, Devotion tells its story in that cryptic “horror” way, painting real events in abstract ways and mostly hinting at what actually happened. By the end of the story, I was left wondering about the exact details of some of the story elements, especially considering the non-linear way it’s told. Too many things are inferred instead of explicitly said, a style of storytelling that I often have a harder time enjoying. While playing the game a second time might help me to fully understand every nuance, I still preferred the more relatable, rooted-in-reality style of Detention’s story over this one.

Dolls and other inanimate objects often stand in for the actual characters.
Dolls and other inanimate objects often stand in for the actual characters.

Where Devotion makes up for this is in the strength of its setpiece moments and the variety of techniques it uses to tell its story. There are a multitude of simple sequences that you barely interact with but still do an incredible job of imparting narrative to you, such as one where the daughter tries to remain calm while her parents argue loudly in the other room by clicking two marbles together. Things like the aforementioned time-hopping structure of the game and a few superb bit of retro-styled live-action footage serve to reinforce the setting of the story. The events of Devotion are also filled with a lot of horrible things, both explicit and implicit. It goes for the throat in some cases, painting an even bleaker picture than Detention despite being a bit less rooted in reality. All in all, the sheer strength of how Red Candle Games tells its story managed to overcome my issues with its ambiguous plot.

For the most part, Devotion is a fairly standard first-person horror-adventure game, tasking you with finding items or triggering events to progress the story. It does, however, sometimes utilize the non-linear, shifting geometry found in games like P.T. or Antichamber, putting you in an entirely different place without warning or moving things around as you turn corners or look back over your shoulder. Like Detention, there is a very minimal amount of dealing with actual threatening enemies. In fact, there’s really only one section that tasks you with actively escaping from an enemy; the rest of them are canned sequences meant only to build the atmosphere. If you’ve played nearly any modern horror game, you probably know what you’re getting into here.

This base gameplay in Devotion is solid: the puzzles are clever and fun to solve, the use of different time periods adds a unique element, and I appreciated the minimal amounts of antagonistic gameplay. Where it really shines, however, is during some of its more creative setpiece sections. Many of these wildly change things up, distorting the locale or even shifting to an entirely new style of gameplay. Each of them was stunning in their own way, a steady chain of amazing moments that I couldn’t believe. Despite its overall simplicity, I didn’t really mind the between-setpiece gameplay either, as it felt like a nice comedown in between those big moments, allowing them time to breathe and letting my guard to go down just long enough for the next one to shock me again.

The offending image in question.  Apparently, the Chinese characters contain the insults.
The offending image in question. Apparently, the Chinese characters contain the insults.

My only real issue with the gameplay is that it can be a bit confusing to know how to proceed at times. The somewhat non-linear nature of the game doesn’t help in this regard, as triggering an event that allows you to proceed can sometimes be unclear. The worst example of this is during one particular section where you have access to three different “time period versions” of the apartment at once and have to take items and information from one to another to progress. Despite the small size of the environments, I had to wander between the three many times as I missed key items or wasn’t able to infer where some of them needed to be used. It was a minor stumble, though, in an otherwise engaging and often surprising game.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Devotion is a game that you currently cannot purchase. This is all due to a piece of art that was found in the game a couple days after its release, an image which made reference to a meme relating Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Winnie the Pooh while also including some text with an implied insult to him. After this discovery, it quickly received heavy criticism from Chinese players online, leading to review bombing, Steam forum spam, and the complete ban and removal of discussion on Chinese social media sites like Weibo. Due to this controversy, Red Candle Games lost its partnership with its publishers. A few days later, less than a week after its release, the game was removed from Steam entirely. The developers stated that the game was pulled because they wanted to fix some technical issues while scrubbing the game for any other potential faux pas. As of now, two and half months later, Devotion is still not available for purchase. While I don’t believe the game is gone for good, it’s still pretty crazy how such a small thing led to a brand new game, especially such an impressive one, nearly vanishing for this long.

I’m immensely happy I bought Devotion when I did; I’m immensely bummed that no one else can currently buy it. It pains me to know that all the developer’s hard work over two years, taking the risk to make a bigger project in a 3D engine, was hindered by a stupid joke on a small piece of in-game art. All the lessons and refinements from Detention, an already fantastic game, led Red Candle Games to make one of the strongest modern horror games I’ve played, and no one can even give them the money I believe they rightly deserve for it as of the time of this review. They deserve praise for what they created, not vitriol and destitution. Devotion is absolutely a game worth experiencing, but all I can currently do is recommend watching a playthrough online. This may not be enough for some people. Sadly, for those people, all they can do is wait and hope that it reappears on Steam soon.

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