Review: PS4’s The Order: 1886 Has Heart But Not Enough Courage
Not quite supernatural mayhem wrapped in a David Cage shell.
For the first hour of The Order: 1886, all I could think of was, “Wow. Those are some really bad teeth.”
But realistic teeth! With incredible detail! As I stumbled around alternate-history Victorian-era London, I did little more than admire the details—the intricate patterns on the rugs, the impressive way the lighting revealed the markings and smudges on the wooden attic floor, and how faces and hair were rendered so authentically that Sir Galahad had one strand out of place over his ear, in a totally believable way.
The whole of London is believable—down to the ivy covering the sides of the buildings—even when you factor in that this is the late 19th-century and a bunch of people called Her Majesty’s Royal Knights are running around with superior weaponry like Arc Guns and automatics and hijacking commercial airships as they fight werewolves and the Rebellion.
I had a lot of time to study the details. Nearly half of the action in The Order: 1886 consists of quick-time events (QTEs), where you press the button which flashes onscreen to avoid a close call, like a fist flying at your face or a werewolf lunging for your jugular. You also sometimes hold the button that appears or rapidly tap the button to do things like turn cranks or break someone’s neck … or move the Right Stick to a small point on the screen while the action is slowed down and then you press the button that pops up, etc.
The Order: 1886 has so many QTEs that you’ll lose track of them all, but it always puts the directions on the right side of the screen in really small font so you have to squint to read them while trying to fend off a werewolf. So … immersion, right?
Let me back up. I enjoyed The Order: 1886. It’s a fantastic portrayal of London with some of the most realistic-looking characters and details I’ve ever seen in a game. It makes the most of the PlayStation 4’s hardware. But I’m not sure what kind of game it wants to be—cinematic narrative experience on the level of David Cage (Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls) or next-generation action-shooter. In trying to be both, it fails at both, but it does hit a sweet spot in between.
You play as Sir Galahad, a member of the Order—a group of gun-toting, half-breed-killing knights sworn to uphold peace in Her Majesty’s realm, which means crushing the Rebellion and eradicating the Lycan kind. Fighting alongside him is Lady Igraine, a fierce woman who could kill you with a look and won’t stand to be treated as anything less than someone who can kick your behind. (She’s awesome.) Also watching your back is Sir Perceval, your mentor and a knight whose extreme convictions make him unpopular with the council of the Order and its Lord Chancellor. And finally there’s Lafayette, a Frenchman and ladies’ man, a quality which puts him somewhat at odds with Igraine.
The story unravels layer by layer, keeping the player on a strictly need-to-know basis. Developer Ready at Dawn doesn’t indulge players by telling them the full scope of what’s happening or the history of what you’re dealing with. You’ll find yourself with a lot of questions, and you’ll have to wait for most of the answers.
It’s disappointing that The Order: 1886 only skims the surface of the story and world in the seven hours you have. But in that time, the characters are richer and more memorable than any of the graphics, for all their resolution and polish. Sir Galahad is a man of honor and righteousness who clearly loves and respects his mentor but whose loyalty puts a strain on his relationship with his closest friends. And Igraine is a woman so intent on appearing battle-hardened—the ideal knight of the Order—that she conceals much of the emotion she feels, which creates intense conflict later on. The depth of interactions between these characters makes The Order 1886 special.
What makes it less special is just about everything else—the QTEs, which feel redundant in a game that begs for high-powered action, and the third-person gunfights, which mimic cover-shooters from the last console generation down to the usual duck-and-cover and grenade-throwing.
The Order: 1886 could be so much more. It wants to tell a cinematic story, and at times the QTEs make sense, adding to the pace and emotional impact of the narrative. But in most cases, giving players full control over the action would be more powerful. The Arc Gun, which fires tendrils of electricity, and other cool weapons like the Thermite Gun, which spits out flammable clouds of thermite dust that you ignite to set enemies on fire, are both excellent additions to the standard third-person shooter. But you only get to use them for a small portion of the game.
And while you’re fighting a war against half-breeds, most combat is spent shooting regular men. Your A.I. partners do little to help you in battle. (They’ll stand around doing nothing or nothing effective, hoping you won’t notice.) When you do fight werewolves, only their transformations stand out. The big werewolf fights are almost identical, and taking on smaller werewolves consists of shooting them as they run at you, pressing X to dodge their attack, and then waiting for them to appear at the same exact spot so you can do it all over again.
Actual werewolves would not run away from you. They would attack you relentlessly. But The Order: 1886 simply isn’t designed for open spaces and toe-to-toe combat. It’s a game where you hide behind cover and do most of your shooting from safety, and then you use an ability called Blacksight when you’re overwhelmed (basically, it slows down the action so you can shoot the more difficult opponents before they demolish you).
Werewolves don’t take cover and peek out from behind objects to shoot you with guns, so it feels like Ready at Dawn had no convincing way to have you fight monsters but decided to include it anyway. And yet, the characters and the small taste you get of the story more than make up for the generic action shooting and QTEs we’ve seen a hundred times before.
Ready at Dawn seems more concerned with setting up a sequel than resolving the story it’s currently telling, but strangely, I’m OK with that. I want more from these characters. If a sequel comes along, I’d happily play it. Here’s just hoping Ready at Dawn gets less caught up in the details next time and focuses more on the bigger picture.
The Order: 1886 is available now for PlayStation 4.
Stephanie Carmichael writes about video games, comics, and books when she’s not helping teachers and students have fun together with Classcraft, an educational RPG. Find her on her blog or on Twitter.