You’ll pretty much know how you feel about Desert Child within the first 10 minutes. Not only because the game is so much about its style, which pervades everything even from its opening minutes, but also because not much changes after that. We recently played a preview build of Desert Child, which charmed us with its funky aesthetic and great soundtrack, but felt a little light on gameplay. For better or worse, the final version of the game is basically identical to that preview — dripping with style, but ultimately shallow.
It’s not that the game suffers from a lack of ambition. A racing game at its core, Desert Child seems to want to tell a rags to riches tale, doing a lot of work to build up the “rags” side. Your nameless character’s first goal is to save up enough prize money from hoverbike racing to get off Earth, then to earn enough to enter the Mars Grand Prix. It only takes a few hours to hit that goal, and after the big race, the game abruptly ends. On the way, though, you’ll spend most of your time walking through run-down back alleys, flipping through records at the store, and downing hundreds of cinnamon buns and bowls of ramen. From both the dingy parts of town your character hangs out in and the developer’s stated inspiration from shows like Cowboy Bebop, it’s clear that Desert Child is meant to evoke the feeling of scraping by, trying to make it big while being pulled down by the need to keep your stomach full and your bike in good repair.
At times, it gets the idea across well. For instance, there are two hoverbike mechanics on Mars. One is a beanie-wearing kid on a decent street next to an auto parts shop who slightly overcharges you for repairs. The other is a grease monkey operating out of an unmarked trailer who has fairer prices, but can never repair your machine back to full health. Making the decision to walk past the hip garage and do business with a probably unlicensed mechanic off the books, you can feel the game bumping up against some interesting ideas about how class and circumstance can limit your choices in life, but it never really digs into them.
Similarly, one of the best ways to earn money is to hit the seedier side of town and pick up a job from a fixer in the back room of a nightclub. Here, you can choose to throw a race, cause a ruckus on the track (presumably to draw attention from other lowlifes onto yourself), or rob a bank (which I could never figure out how to do successfully). But in Desert Child’s most thematically interesting races, you can also most clearly see its limits. Whether you’re running a legitimate race, pulling one of these shady jobs, or picking up other errands, the basic gameplay stays mostly the same. Each racetrack is littered with TVs, which you can blow up to boost your speed or refill your weapon’s ammo, and obstacles, which slow you down and do damage to your bike that you’ll have to dip into your winnings to fix. There are some other quirks, like when you have to test a new weapon, deliver pizzas instead of firing bullets, or carefully herd kangaroos, but all of these activities start to blend together after a while. Moreover, you just sort of stumble upon all of them. That’s fine when you’re picking up odd jobs from a bulletin board, but I would have liked to see the turn to crime have a bit more fanfare. I’m glad that Desert Child doesn’t try to moralize about what’s acceptable to do when you’re hurting for cash, but it seems strange that taking part in a bank heist is as easy as entering a legitimate race.
The racing itself is fun, especially when you’re aiming to earn as much cash as possible, which means managing your boost and ammo effectively, dodging obstacles, minding your competitor, and trashing as many TVs as you can, but it becomes repetitive when most of the game is spent grinding through race after race to earn money. There’s not much to distinguish one race from another, or to keep you busy between them. Once you’ve made the circuit around New Olympia, the game’s primary setting, a few times, the novelty wears off. While it’s a beautiful environment, full of clutter and graffiti, it does feel a little lifeless. The city lacks any real characters, and your activities between races are mostly geared toward eating or repairing your bike for the next one. That’s almost a bigger letdown than the somewhat repetitive racing. Plenty of games out there can give you the feeling of mastering a vehicle or flying through sci-fi settings at breakneck speed. Desert Child does a decent job of that, but its more intriguing proposition is the chance to explore an unglamorous Martian city, living out a romanticized dream of rising from the financial precarity that so many of us can’t seem to dig ourselves out of in real life. Unfortunately, there’s just not much to the fantasy that Desert child offers, aside from some grungy window dressing.
The coolest part of the city is no doubt its record store, where you can go to purchase new tracks that the game will cycle through when you’re not in a race. The music in the game is excellent, an eclectic mix of lo-fi hip hop tracks from developer Oscar Brittain and his friends, alongside heavy hitters like Mega Ran. But there’s no great way to enjoy the music, aside from mindlessly circling the city and letting them play out before diving into your next race. I’ve spent my time doing worse things in video games, but I kept wishing for something more to do outside of races. Desert Child’s soundtrack would prime it to be the ultimate chill-out game if only it had more to keep you occupied while you listened.
I don’t want to undersell how aesthetically impressive Desert Child is. It’s certainly an example of style over substance, but it has such a great style that I don’t even mean that as a diss. Wandering from New Olympia’s beach to its dock-side ramen joint while listening to the game’s atmospheric hip-hop soundtrack, it was easy to feel much cooler than I actually am, and I was continually picking out interesting details from its satisfyingly cluttered pixel-art streets. I wanted a reason to spend more time immersing myself in that world, it just didn’t really give me one.
At its best, Desert Child captures the feeling of working toward a big dream while struggling to even buy your next meal. Unfortunately, those moments come sandwiched between a lot of repetition as the initially fun races become a chore that you have to do over and over again. Desert Child's unique setting, filled out with great art and a killer soundtrack, is fun to explore for a while, but the game runs out of gas a little too quickly.