I considered posting this in the mega-thread, but it’s pretty long and specific, so I’ve made my own topic here. Hope that’s okay.
After a long night playing the DLC, I think I’ve experienced most of the narrative permutations for Attikus and the Thrall Rebellion. I don’t want to review it here purely as a gameplay experience, though, but as a piece of storytelling (keeping in mind that, in a video game, gameplay mechanics still play a key role in storytelling.)
The creative team took a gamble on this one, and I for one appreciate it. The cultural touchstones - from Attikus as Philip Marlowe, to that fleeting and cheeky Blade Runner reference - aren’t going to strike a chord for everyone. So kudos for being unconventional. That’s why I play Battleborn: they take the playbook and turn it into a flipbook, and Shayne has drawn moustaches on all the illustrations.
Some of the elements in the noir pastiche work perfectly. Ambra’s turn as a flapper is a masterstroke. Attikus makes a convincing gumshoe. Deande plays it straight. I think Aria is a weak link (which I’ll talk about more soon), simply because she alone doesn’t fit the conventions - discounting Mike, because that’s the joke. Aria isn’t quite the right foil for a private dick working a case for a smoldering dame; in a classic hardboiled detective novel, she’d be the gangster’s moll (not that I like this about the genre, mind), but not the villain. She’s simply too insane to be a noir nemesis. They’re meant to be calculating, charming, impossible to pin down.
The noir elements here are strictly a veneer, however. We don’t actually crack a case; gameplay-wise, this is a typical “kill and loot” mission with noir dialogue in the intervals. My biggest issues with the mission stem from this disjointed narrative, and I’ll dive right into why.
This mission is framed, narratively, as two things: a thrall uprising led by Attikus (that’s the serious side), and a pastiche of film noir and the detective novel (that’s the humor and the literary twist.) @Jythri gave a very persuasive explanation of why the team made this choice: Attikus is an unlikely savior, and in his existential wrestling with what it means to have heroism thrust upon him, he turns to a set of fictional conventions that allow him to explore what it means to be a hero. (Which is why he scolds Mike, at one point, for ruining a classic storytelling device.)
I loved this idea when I heard it. I still love the idea. But I think the limitations of the Battleborn engine really hobbled the execution.
I’ll be blunt: this mission does not feel anything like a Thrall uprising. We are walking through a Tempest map smashing objectives and opening chests on our way to a boss. Thrall are still nothing but mindless enemies, and there’s no dialogue given to a single Thrall besides Attikus. (This was a serious omission, in my mind.) I wanted to see friendly Thrall NPCs fighting against hostile ones; I wanted objectives that required us to help Thralls, to siege locations with them; I wanted to see Attikus actually engage with his people, rather than just banter with Aria and his cast of femme fatales.
But if this mission isn’t a convincing Thrall uprising, it’s not a playable gumshoe mystery, either. Stylish though the fades to gray and the brooding jazz riffs are, they just emphasize how divorced the mission is from the storytelling device. The mission objectives (kill Ronin, hit pylons, kill bots with skills) are vanilla Battleborn - yet it didn’t need to be this way. For example, instead of planting Deadeyes on the roof and having us kill them as per usual, the mission could ask us to help Attikus survive a “hit” from some tough-talking gangster Deadeye robots. We could have been asked to gather “clues” (from the smoking remains of robots) rather than simply to smash pylons.
Instead, what we have is a mission that is doing three things and struggling against the constraints of its length and its form. It’s trying to show us a Thrall rebellion: I don’t think it succeeds here. It’s trying to tell a humorous noir pastiche that gives us deeper insight into Attikus, Ambra, Deande, and Mike: it’s very entertaining on this front, but it’s undercut by the mission, which resembles neither a chaotic rebellion nor a gritty detective mystery.
I want to talk a bit about Aria, too. I won’t spoil it for anyone, but she essentially behaves as if she’s crazed (and makes Ambra seem cuddly in comparison.) Typically, the Jennerit have been portrayed as brutal but also principled, and it remains a mystery to me why Aria - a genuine sociopath - would rise to such rank. She also has no dialogue in combat, but instead fights entirely mute, which was a real letdown. Even at a key moment when a second Silent Sister joins the fray, there’s no dialogue. All the effectiveness she has a character is entirely on loan from Ambra and Attikus: when she’s not swapping dialogue with the others, she’s just ranting and raving.
Back to brighter notes, though. Oscar Mike is very endearing in this one, and I loved seeing him as a femme fatale. Purely speaking of this as a piece of comedic writing, it’s executed with precision. It has the right cast: Mike for outright absurdity, Deande for the straight edge, Ambra for a little bite, and Attikus as an anchor for the comic riffs that run through the dialogue. I enjoyed the cheesy noir metaphors. Because of the constraints here, potential moments of greatness (like when Oscar Mike brings them all into the room together) aren’t ever really followed through. But it’s a good showing all the same.
Ultimately, the DLC drove home for me the challenge of storytelling and comedic writing in an AAA videogame. For one, you need your voice actors - this must have cut deeply and painfully into the ambitions of Jythri and the other writers. You also need to fit your basic game loop in there. The fact that our own characters don’t react to anything seriously hampers immersion (I’m playing the Teen Detectives! Why am I not helping?) But there’s also a lot to enjoy here, with tempered expectations.
Bring on the Friendship Raid. (And give us Ambra’s flapper costume as a skin!)