The immersive sim genre is one of our favourites, and it offers a blend of gameplay that has given rise to some of the standout games of the last two decades. When done properly, the results can be magnificent, but it's a risky proposition to make something that's built around so many moving parts. We saw late last year just how hard it is to make good action-stealth when Underworld Ascendant fluffed its lines, and there was heavyweight talent behind that particular endeavour. The next studio to attempt something similar is UK-based outfit White Paper Games, and the studio's sophomore title is, if nothing else, extremely ambitious.
We don't normally open our reviews with so much context, but it's also worth noting that this a studio that makes interesting games. The team's first, Ether One, explored some hard-hitting issues surrounding mental health, and when we first encountered them before their debut even launched, it was clear that this up and coming studio was one to watch. Years later, when we first caught sight of The Occupation, we were instantly drawn in by the premise, which transports us back in time to the '80s into a bureaucratic building in the north of England that's full of intriguing narrative strands just waiting for the player to pull at and unravel.
The Occupation, like its predecessor, doesn't shy away from dealing with hard-hitting issues, and it doesn't take long for the situation to come into focus. The year is 1987 and you're a journalist investigating the events surrounding a terrorist attack that resulted in multiple deaths, and where everything isn't as it seems and nothing is black and white. The company that you're investigating, which deploys some high-tech security to protect its secrets, is involved in a government bill called The Union Act, a piece of legislation that would erode individual freedoms and make it easier to deport foreign nationals. Given the real-world political climate in the UK over the past few years, the game's message couldn't be clearer.
We opened by mentioning that The Occupation is an immersive sim, but apart from the realism evoked by the alternate late-80s setting, what really sets it apart from games like Dishonored is the absence of violence. You're an investigative journalist and not the star of a gritty action-thriller, although that's not to say that there aren't thrilling moments to be had while you conduct your business in between the meetings you have scheduled with the key people involved in the story. Instead of taking aim with your rifle, you'll find yourself rifling through boxes of files looking for an all-important clue. Rather than aiming down your iron sights, you'll be peaking through the blinds to make sure a nearby security guard doesn't stumble upon your illegal act.
While you do jump between the perspectives of two different characters, for the majority of the time you play as Harvey Miller, a journalist looking into a story that simply doesn't add up. The game is made up of a series of chapters that play out in real-time, where you're collecting clues ahead of an interview with someone who works at the company you're investigating. You keep time by the watch on your left wrist, and your colleague at the paper sends messages to you via the pager which you keep in your right-hand pocket. Finally, any evidence you grab during your investigation is stashed in your briefcase and you keep your notes in a folder which you can whip out at a moment's notice. A lot of effort has been made to keep you engaged with the environment and absorbed in the moment, including (and perhaps most importantly) the genre-defining lean out of cover that allows you to check for danger.
There's an ambitious range of interlocking mechanics at work here, but sadly they don't always work as cohesively as they should have done. One thing that we thought undermined some of the good environmental design is the conveniently arranged ventilation system, which often represents the most friction-free way to proceed and removed the need to explore the world around you more deeply. The guards can also be killjoys, and their various alertness states didn't always feel perfectly balanced. We regularly got cornered by a security patrol who took an age to go away, resulting in us getting nabbed when we thought the coast was clear.
The guards themselves are an oppressive yet strangely cheery presence in the game, and they both have plenty of personality, which is more than you can say about most of the things that hunt you in games like this. Yet despite the characterful way they try to smother you as you move around the various buildings of the facility, their interference does have the potential to hamper the overall flow of the experience. Being discovered while snooping around staff-only areas means a time penalty and being sent to the naughty step in the security office, which is fine in theory but getting repeatedly discovered - and therefore not finding out the things you were looking for during the time you have before the next interview - means you can drastically change the range of questions you'll get to ask. If you get caught enough times, you can even miss an interview altogether.
This wouldn't be such a problem if you could replay chapters individually, but you can't seem to do that, and there are no checkpoints during any given chapter either, plus they can take up to an hour to complete. You're committed to your playthrough regardless of what happens, and we had trouble with the guards and getting discovered in compromising situations which resulted in less than satisfactory conclusions even during the second pass. It's true that shutting the blinds and searching an office in the dark while a security guard patrols nearby can be genuinely thrilling, but it can be equal parts frustrating being made to wait under a table for the same annoyingly relentless guard to bog off so you can get on with things, and by the way the clock is constantly ticking and your buddy back at the office is paging you because you just missed her pre-arranged call and on top of that your interview is just a few minutes away.
An immersive sim built around a nail-biting investigation is a great idea, but White Paper Games doesn't quite nail their big concept in a couple of areas. The fact that you can miss key chunks of the narrative and still finish the game is commendable in one sense, but the structure of the game and the lack of player-controlled savepoints doesn't really lend itself to the repeat plays either. If truth be told, our inept sleuthing skills catapulted us towards a less than satisfactory ending. To its credit, the story is so enthralling that we immediately restarted the game and went again, but we'd have preferred the option of choosing individual chapters after the first run, maybe even the option to save mid-level so we could explore the full adventure in our second attempt, save scumming ourselves to a satisfactory conclusion. Frustrating moments in the second run only exacerbated our frustration with the quirky security guards and the other moments of vagueness that surface from time to time.
Our second playthrough did hammer home many of the game's finer points, though. We really enjoyed exploring the buildings and the studio's use of environmental storytelling is undoubtedly skilful. There are some brilliant little moments waiting to be discovered, and we appreciated the attention to detail that has been poured into all aspects of the world. In fact, the storytelling as a whole was very well executed, with some decent performances from the voice cast, some expertly written dialogue, and an overarching story that's delivered with plenty of punch. Overall we have to say that it's the most interesting game we've played in some time, and despite the fact that it had us exasperated more often than we'd have liked, we still couldn't put it down.
It's not a game that's defined by its visuals, but we still quite liked the painterly art style. The decision to go in a slightly stylised direction paid off and worked with the '80s setting. Even better than that was the soundtrack, with cassettes and records dotted around the place that you can listen to at certain points and that doubled as collectables. We mentioned the voice acting before, but it's worth highlighting again how much of a difference it made to the overall atmosphere, and anything less accomplished would have certainly detracted from the experience rather than enhance it. Overall, this was clearly the work of a small team, but they made good decisions in terms of when to extend themselves and when to play it safe. That said, a few technical hiccups popped up during our time with the game, including a solitary crash (we played on a PS4 Pro), some weird AI behaviours (such as a guard who at one point walked through walls as he searched for us), and the odd audio quirk.
The Occupation isn't going to go down as one of the best immersive sims ever made, there are too many imperfections for that kind of talk, but it still feels like an important game. If you're a fan of the genre, ignore the score because there are enough quality ideas here to make this an experience you'll want to have. Similarly, if the general idea of sneaking around offices in a rustic suit while you dodge torchlight and scan floppy disks from the shadows sounds like your kind of fun, we'd absolutely recommend you brave its rough edges so you can get at the good stuff. For everyone else, however, it's a harder sell because ultimately The Occupation is a flawed attempt to make something truly unique and original. Risks were taken but not all of them paid off. That kind of bravery is just one of the many things that we can applaud the game and its creators for, but it's also the reason that this is a recommendation with caveats. One thing's for sure, this a bold and fascinating game and we can't wait to see what the studio goes on to do next.
Loading next content