Desert Child Review – A Fun, Wild, and Chill Ride

    Title: Desert Child
    Developer: Oscar Brittain
    Release Date: December 11, 2018
    Reviewed On: Switch
    Publisher: Akupara Games
    Genre: Sci-Fi Racing RPG

After watching the neo-noir sci-fi western anime series Cowboy Bebop, and getting absolutely mind blown as I watched the post-apocalyptic cyberpunk anime film Akira, I thought of something. I ended up thinking how rad it would be to join Spike and Kaneda in their wild, wayward adventures. Aside from me adoring these characters and their antics, I love how both Cowboy Bebop and Akira just ooze with style on all fronts — like with Cowboy Bebop and its sweet jazz and blues soundtrack.

So, when I first caught wind of the sci-fi racing indie RPG Desert Child from Australian solo developer Oscar Brittain and publisher Akupara Games, and discovered how Cowboy Bebop and Akira were two of the many influences behind the creation of Desert Child — I felt like I found my very own treasure chest of stuff I love. What I discovered after playing Desert Child is that it almost has everything I was looking for.

In Desert Child, you take on the role of a talented, broke, and young hoverbike racer with no name, and find yourself on a ruined, red dirt-filled planet Earth. With the planet looking like it’s on the verge of collapsing at any second, you learn — via a local newspaper — that citizens are colonizing to Mars.

Desert Child wastes no time to get you going as you start by learning the game’s simple racing mechanics by racing Lady Scarlet — a red jumpsuit wearing, female character from Mars who gives you tips and recommends that you should head to Mars to be a “Racer”. After you quickly scrounge up $500 by racing a bit, you then make your way to Mars — a world you’ve never been before. With no friends or family around and only a microscopic budget, you explore this strange new world and do whatever it takes to earn $10,000 so you can enter the greatest racing event in the universe: the Grand Prix.

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The rags-to-riches premise of Desert Child is a unique one given that many games I’ve played have not had anything similar. I felt that the premise, however, was underutilized as there isn’t really a deep story told in Desert Child, and characters in the game aren’t well-developed. There is a wide range of characters you’ll find along the way, and a couple of them do offer some fun dialogue — like one of the hoverbike repair NPC’s who has southern quirks — but unfortunately, story and character development are lackluster, overall.

Basically, Desert Child is about chasing the dreams of belonging somewhere and being someone by doing whatever it takes to make those dreams a reality. While the story and character development aspects are rough, Desert Child’s vivid and imaginative world that’s bustling with fun things to do and see, along with its various gameplay elements, and chill lo-fi hip-hop soundtrack, is what makes it a true diamond in the rough indie game.

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There’s a lot that you can do in Desert Child so you never feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over again — which is exactly why the game continued to keep my interest. However, some players may feel a little lost at first as the game has you try to figure things out on your own, instead of giving you excessive tutorials and explanations. It takes a bit to find your bearings and learn how everything works, but eventually, you’ll settle into the game’s rhythm and flow. Basically though, Desert Child is split into two portions: there’s the RPG portion that focuses on exploring, managing stats, decision making, and of course, side quests — and then there’s the racing portion.

The RPG mechanics of Desert Child are enjoyable as you pretty much have the freedom to do whatever you want. Having the freedom to explore the world in Desert Child is a treat as you’ll constantly find something interesting. You can roam around the bustling city around you, and grab a big or small bowl of ramen at a tucked-away ramen shop — or for those that want to be bad-to-the-bone, there’s the option to steal parts off hoverbikes. All areas you explore are full of character and have several unique bits and pieces. For instance, you’ll find a skater practicing kickflips, and there’ll be a guy that gives you life advice (which are actually game tips). Each area looks and feels different from one another — and one neat feature is that the game’s camera angle changes depending on which area you’re in. I ended up truly enjoying just walking around and circling the city. The music as you wander about in Desert Child’s world does repeat if you don’t head to the record store to get some new tunes, so I highly suggest doing that.

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There are only some minimal limits to exploring though as other RPG mechanics, such as managing stats and decision making, play a role. You have to check on your well being like if you’re hungry or not, manage cash, and fix and maintain your bike. One example is how hunger level and damage done to your bike do affect your racing ability: The more damage there is to your bike, the fewer boost bars will be available to you during a race — while your hunger level is directly proportional to how quickly you regenerate your hoverbike’s boost. There’s a handy pull-up menu, which is your phone, that shows your hunger level, the amount of money you have, damage done to your bike, and more to help you out. These additional RPG mechanics do add to the “get rich or die trying” theme of the game and make it slightly more challenging — in a good way.

Wandering about in Desert Child is only one part of the game. As I mentioned earlier, you need to earn cash to enter the Grand Prix and to do so, you need to do a series of races and odd jobs (side quests). Earning money in Desert Child really makes it such a fun and wild ride.

Races are pretty fast-paced, side-scrolling shoot ‘em up one-on-one bouts that are simple yet fun. Every race has only one opponent, and each racetrack is filled with various TVs. There are pink dot TVs that attack you and your opponent, yellow TVs with a dollar sign that explode into collectable cash, and red dot TVs that you can destroy to replenish your boost. You can choose to fire away at TVs with your equipped weapon (which you choose at the start of the game) or you can save ammo by simply boosting into TVs — and if you boost through a red dot TV, you get a small amount of ammo refilled. Having to quickly decide whether or not dodge or use ammo or boost is where the challenge lies in Desert Child’s quick races that generally last just about a minute or so.

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While there is a challenge when it comes to having to think ahead, the opponents that I raced against weren’t very difficult to defeat as I never had to shoot them to slow them down or quickly boost to get ahead. Many of the opponents were always behind me, and hardly ever tried to get in the lead. I’m hoping that the AI can be improved thanks to a future patch. On the flip side, however, there is a 2 player multiplayer option to race against a friend (or maybe a rival of yours). All in all, though, I had a blast zipping around, and collecting secret tapes along the way to unlock new goodies was always satisfying.

Aside from races, you can take on a number of odd jobs. Some of them are honorable jobs like delivering pizzas to hungry folks, while others are more dishonorable jobs like hacking a bank to steal cash. Each job features the same racing mechanics in normal races, but how every job plays out is a bit different from one another. For example: The pizza delivery job has you riding a classic, two-wheel bike and instead of shooting bullets, you have to fire away pizza boxes to customers  you find along the way — while the bank hacking job puts you in a vaporwave aesthetic world (I’m pretty sure it was inspired by ‘MACINTOSH PLUS – FLORAL SHOPPE’) and shoot statues with cash inside them, along with old-school Windows logos. These odd jobs are unique and entertaining and help mix things up a bit in Desert Child. 

Speaking of mixing, Desert Child’s lo-fi hip-hop soundtrack perfectly matches the overall tone of the game. The soundtrack mostly consists of music created by the developer himself, local indie artists in Australia, and a few tracks from Mega Ran. It’s clear that a lot of love and care went into making Desert Child’s soundtrack, and as someone who listens to lo-fi hip-hop YouTube streams all the time, I loved listening to every single music track in the game.  Music also plays a role in races as you’ll know when a race is reaching its climax when the music starts to fade out. The only minor issue I have with the music is that I wish I could select which songs I want to listen to. Other than that, the soundtrack is superb, and it’s earned a spot in my favorite video game OSTs of all time list.

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There’s a lot that I love and appreciate about Desert Child — like its vivid, captivating world, unique gameplay elements, and it’s chill lo-fi hip-hop soundtrack. However, I wish that the game had more in-depth storytelling and character development since the world of Desert Child is outstanding, and I hope that the AI opponents in races will be improved in some way. Regardless of these slight issues, Desert Child is absolutely one fun, wild, and chill ride that’s worth boosting through again and again. I bet that Spike and Kaneda would love it.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Brad Crespo

Editor-in-Chief - On a quest to play as many new games as possible while trying to finish an endless backlog.