I was first told about Akupara Games’ sci-fi racing title, Desert Child, at GDC 2018, and was delighted to hear that its world was inspired by anime like Cowboy Bebop — as you might be able to tell by the launch trailer —and Akira. I also found it interesting that it would contain a primarily hip hop soundtrack with a variety of artists, something I wouldn’t usually expect in an indie title. Now that I’ve finally been able to play through it in its entirety, it’s clear to see even with its shortcomings, plenty of passion went into the creation of this enjoyable yet brief adventure.
Title: Desert Child
Developer: Oscar Brittain
Publisher: Akupara Games
Platform: Nintendo Switch. PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Game Version: Final
Review Copy: Provided by Publisher
Interface: Controller or Mouse and Keyboard
Available on PlayStation Store, Microsoft Store, Nintendo Switch eShop, and Steam.
Desert Child puts you in the shoes of “Rider”, a hover bike racer trying to make enough money to afford the entry fee for the Grand Prix on Mars. When starting, you select a weapon for your bike, which are ranked by difficulty, and after this you’re taught the basics of hover bike racing. These races are one on one competitions where participants can shoot different types of drones for small speed boosts, more points, more ammo, extra money, and to reduce bike damage, all while avoiding environmental obstacles in the way. Participants can shoot each other as well, with whoever is falling behind causing their opponent to slow down. You can also use natural boosts from your bike to speed up and to refill ammo from passing trucks, but these boosts are limited and need time to recharge after use. The problem with this is that there’s no way to brake or slow down to counteract acceleration, which causes some targets to be missed. Although lack of this feature forces you to choose which types of targets you want to prioritize, it also makes it more difficult to avoid bike damaging obstacles, meaning sometimes you take more damage than you’d like to. There’s also no indication of how close you are to the finish line (until obtaining a specific part), but every race matches the play time of the music playing in the background, so becoming familiar with each music track will let you know the remaining amount of time. Once you finish a race you receive a rating, and the higher your rating is the more power cells you obtain. Even if you win you can still manage to get an F rating, but since you still gain money it makes your rating feel slightly less important than it should.
After each race, your hunger meter and your bikes damage meter will have a percentage which can be decreased by eating food and repairing your bike. The higher your hunger and damage meters are, the harder it is to race, with your bike slowing down, not being able to boost as often or recharge as fast. But quelling your hunger and repairing your bike both cost money, so you have to keep a close eye on how much money you’re spending. Luckily, there are a variety of choices for emptying your hunger meter, while there are only a few choices for how much you want your bike to be repaired. Repairing your bike and filling your hunger after each race is unnecessary, and waiting until they’re higher is more beneficial, but you have to find the right balance so that you aren’t losing races from having them to high.
In addition to the type of weapon you choose at the beginning, your bike also has open slots for the aforementioned power cells as well was additional parts with different effects that get boosted by each power cell you connect to them. These additional parts can be bought from or given to you by other characters, and even stolen from other bikes in the area. To steal parts successfully you have to correctly input a four digit numerical code on the right cue before the time limit is up and the alarm goes off. Stealing parts seems difficult at first, but once you understand the method it becomes almost effortless. Whether buying or stealing bike parts, you never know what new part you’ll receive, but it seems that you never get the same one twice. The effects of these parts range from giving you discounts on food after each race to increasing your max ammo amount and more, and help you easily gain the advantage in races with more power cells connected. When equipping multiple parts they must be connected to the main battery either directly or via power cells, but there’s no way to rotate them for a better fit, an oversight which creates a handful of awkwardly empty spaces. This can be frustrating because most parts tend to take up a large amount of space and the more parts you use, the less space you’ll have for additional parts and power cells. The lack of any kind of upgrade system means there’s no way to expand the grid either, making you pick and choose which parts will be more useful to you. While an upgrade system would have been beneficial, having too many power cells or parts equipped may have made the campaign too easy no matter which weapon you have, which is an understandable omission for better balance. While unused power cells can be sold for some extra cash, you keep all parts you’ve obtained until the end, convenient when switching things up for different situations.
Besides normal hover bike racing, there are a variety of other types of missions you can do. These missions each have to be approached differently for success, with some being more difficult than others and may require some preparation. All of these missions are manageable once you learn how to complete them properly, but you’re left to figure them out yourself, so it usually takes a few tries to learn how to finish them successfully.
In addition to the more helpful missions, there are also several types of crime missions you can commit for larger amount money. While the other missions don’t have high risks, these criminal missions will raise your notoriety level with the more crimes you commit increasing it and also increase the likelihood of being stopped by the cops when wandering around. You then have to attempt to run from the cops on your hove bike, but they catch you eventually. Once you get caught by the cops, you have to give them all the money you have on you, and your notoriety level will decrease. This can be circumvented by paying them off for a limited amount of time, but can cost a hefty fee with a higher notoriety level. This well-designed aspect makes you choose what’s more important between high risk and high reward, having you decide if it’s really worth it reach your goal faster by risking all of the money you’ve already made.
Once you get to the Grand Prix, you face a number of opponents in a bracket style, being able to quickly satisfy your hunger and repair your bike after each race as you go. If you lose any of your races during the Grand Prix, you’re sent back to the previous area. This is only a hassle when losing the first race, having to once again collect enough money for the entry fee, since each Grand Prix race won easily covers the entry fee. While the brief length of the campaign provides plenty of replayability, it’s annoying to have to do the tutorial again when you already know how everything works, and the option to skip it after finishing the campaign once would be an ideal feature. Having more additional content and difficult challenges to unlock afterwards would have been an enticing reward as well, rather than the little there actually is.
While it make sense that specific types of missions can only be accessed from certain areas in the overworld, normal races are the same way, meaning you always have to walk to that area rather than having the option to race right in front of you. The option to participate in a normal race at any time via the holopad would help players save some time when saving up for the Grand Prix.
While the pixelated visuals are a familiar sight to see among indie titles and don’t offer anything new, one of the most notable features of Desert Child is the soundtrack, featuring lo-fi hip hop music from a variety of artists. The catch is that the tracks you hear in the overworld have to be bought at a record store so you don’t have to be listening to the same song repeatedly. It gets easier once you’ve unlocked a few tracks, but as of writing it seems they just shuffle randomly and there’s no track selection function. Additionally, if you’re sick of hearing the same music or would rather save the money for other purposes, you have the option to turn the just the music off and listen to your own playlist (as with any other game) instead, which I found myself doing often before saving up to unlock more tracks.
Overall, Desert Child is a brief but fun sci-fi arcade racer for those who grew up with it’s late 90’s influences. It may have a few issues which need to be addressed, but hopefully they’ll be fixed alongside some additional content in the future. If you like futuristic racing games you can just pick up and play for a few minutes or in longer stretches with plenty of replayability, and appreciate lo-fi hip hop, then Desert Child is worth picking up.