Shaun Munro reviews Late Shift…
Late Shift is an ambitious attempt to revitalise the oft-ridiculed FMV game genre, an interactive movie of sorts that brings with it an impressive production quality and unexpected degree of Hollywood pedigree, with Michael Robert Johnson (co-writer of Guy Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes reboot) penning the branching heist thriller narrative.
London-based Maths student Matt (Joe Sowerbutts) ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time, strong-armed into helping rob an auction house, leading to one wild night as Matt attempts to steer clear of both the authorities and ruthless gangsters…or does he? You decide.
With over 180 distinct “decision points”, seven endings and not a single moment of paused or looped footage, Late Shift is indeed quite the attractive proposition for fans of interactive drama. Shot on a budget of $1.5 million, this is an extremely sharp, well-produced effort compared to the stereotypical cheapness of most FMV games, and one of the few to date that can proudly stand tall alongside an actual, honest-to-God movie.
Easily the most impressive thing out of the gate here is the slick seamlessness of the entire undertaking; decisions must be made in real-time with just seconds to spare, passing Matt’s urgent, stressed state onto the player wholesale and resulting in a total lack of the awkward pauses these games traditionally invite. Alternatively, you can simply do nothing and the game will make its own ambiguous decisions on autopilot, while occasionally stopping to amusingly point out your own ambivalence (with one sliver of dialogue slyly warning you, “indecision has consequences”).
Compared to its genre brethren, the storytelling subtlety on display here is really quite fascinating at times; my first pass of a certain scene saw me play it with an assertive aggressiveness which only made Matt’s scene partners more standoffish, yet a more laid-back second approach resulted in a far more favourable response, all the more impressive because it felt organic and believable rather than a mere feat of cold programming logic.
That said, Late Shift is frequently steeped in its own meta-game of choice; often what seems like the right response from a game-y perspective will result in peril, and it’s clear that developers CtrlMovie have relished tripping the player up as they attempt to make it to the end in one piece (something I didn’t manage a few times). Sometimes disobeying logic is actually the most sensible response here, adding another layer of foggy intrigue to proceedings.
Plot-wise, this is a pretty standard British crime flick in all honesty, spiced with some occasionally over-the-top soap opera hokum to show it hasn’t completely left its genre DNA in the dust. The gimmick’s overall success easily trumps its less-interesting moments, with the solid acting and direction propelling it through nicely even when it begins to feel familiar.
The writing is mostly solid if not without some creaky one-liners and trying-too-hard poetic riffing on the nature of chance and choice. Some may also find it overly lacking in action, but to the same token a single run-through typically lasts just 45-70 minutes, so it’s hard to say it outstays its welcome in any way.
Technically accomplished though the game is, it’s disappointing that the actual video quality sometimes feels a little on the meager side, as though it’s being streamed in real-time, complete with easily visible pixelation during night-time scenes in particular. The sound mix is also occasionally ill-balanced, with the musical score totally overpowering the dialogue, such that subtitles are sometimes a necessity, especially with there being zero options to manually adjust the sound mix (which isn’t terribly surprising, but disappointing all the same). Weirdly, the subtitles themselves are also occasionally inaccurate, but that’s clearly more of a nitpick.
Some players might begrudge the lack of a fast-forward option, especially on later play-throughs when attempting to unlock all fourteen scenes and seven endings, especially as there are moments where a single “wrong” choice can derail an entire attempt. However, such is the spirit of the game, and one suspects CtrlMovie deliberately opted to omit this shortcut option, aggravating though it may be for completionists and trophy hunters.
In purely cinematic terms, is Late Shift a great film? No. This is basically a three-star Brit-thriller you’d expect to find crawling around the inner bowels of Netflix or your VOD platform of choice. Certain permutations of the tale also taper off rather quickly and it may simply be too low-energy for those expecting a live-wire action thriller, but it is a well-executed novelty experience for the most part, and proof that outings such as this deserve to be taken seriously rather than reduced to kitschy relic status within a few years.
If you’re at all enticed by the FMV genre or general gaming experiences outside the norm, at around the price of a cinema ticket and with plenty of incentive to play through it multiple times, this is an absolute must-play. Above all else, hopefully it’ll do well enough for CtrlMovie to release more content like it in the future, because it presents a terrific template for other stories in a similar vein.
+ Lavish production values
+ Rock solid writing, directing and acting
+ Addictive replayability & value-for-money
– Not action-packed enough for some tastes
– Minor visual and sound issues
– Lack of fast-forward may irritate some
Reviewed for PS4 (also available on PC and Xbox One)
Late Shift is available from today.
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more video game rambling.