Think of Apple Arcade's The Bradwell Conspiracy as the gaming equivalent of a British TV series. It feels a bit shorter than its American counterparts, and its production values seem a touch more threadbare. But it compensates with sharp writing and acting, clever concepts, bone-dry wit, and murky moral ambiguity. Not quite as game-y as its obvious inspirations, Portal and BioShock, but more interactive than the likes of Gone Home or Firewatch, The Bradwell Conspiracy takes well-worn components and reassembles them into a fun experience that feels both familiar and fresh.
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Bad Day at Big Rocks
It's the near future, and wow, did you ever pick the wrong day to visit Stonehenge. The powerful Bradwell Corporation, a beloved British electronics giant, was planning to unveil its new sponsored museum about the ancient landmark, and its charitable arm's exciting global clean water initiative. But something's gone horribly wrong, and you're trapped in the collapsing wreckage, amid Bradwell's Brutalist, midcentury subterranean headquarters.
Smoke inhalation has left you unable to speak, but a cheerfully unhelpful pair of "smart glasses" connects you to the company network. Those glasses also link you to a plucky Bradwell employee stranded elsewhere in the building, Dr. Amber Randall. She's got a plan to escape, but she needs your help.
You'll have to communicate with her by sending her photos of your surroundings as you work together to navigate Bradwell's damaged HQ and make it to the surface. But in your journey through those sterile, stylish environs, you'll both begin to uncover hints that neither Bradwell nor its clean water initiative are as benign as they appear.
A Kinder, Gentler Corporate Dystopia
Don't worry — no sassy, malevolent AI lurks in the shadows, and you won't have to clobber any gibbering genetic horrors with a pipe wrench. Though it doesn't lack for atmosphere, The Bradwell Conspiracy isn't out to scare you. It wants to make you think. Often, it also wants to make you chuckle.
You'll get your first taste of the game's sense of humor when you stumble into a training ground for its key play mechanic: a "gun" that creates various objects out of programmable matter. British comedian and chat show host Jonathan Ross pops in to narrate the chipper corporate orientation program, and his condescending disdain helps soothe the sting of all the failing you'll be doing.
That off-kilter wit permeates the game. (A careful reading of Bradwell's terms of service, so voluminous they fill several walls, reveals that employees' nondisclosure agreements last "until the heat-death of the universe.")
Amber, unflaggingly cheerful and almost aggressively American, should by rights grate on you. But she's such an exuberant nerd that her delight at tackling all these life-or-death situations, and her love of ice cream, proves infectious. Rebecca LaChance's performance here stands out among a game rich in excellent voice acting (including cameos from Kingsman screenwriter Jane Goldman and Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker).
We Apologize For the Inconvenience
The 3D printer gun is both one of The Bradwell Conspiracy's strongest ideas and its weakest link. In concept, it's magnificently clever; in execution, teeth-grindingly finicky and imprecise. Take a deep breath and trust that eventually, you'll find the right angle and position to get the thing you want to make where the game wants you to make it — even if there are countless other places where it should have worked, had the game allowed that.
Later in the story, I also encountered numerous bizarre glitches that effectively broke the game, including a vital staircase through which I kept inexplicably falling. Quitting and restarting always fixed these, which made them no less baffling. Clearly, the folks behind Bradwell rushed a few things to make their launch date.
The graphics are serviceable enough, trading photorealistic detail for a more stylized approach – perhaps to ensure the game runs smoothly on various devices. Sometimes this works really well, but other times the graphics feel more crude than deliberately retro. When you finally see Amber in person, her character model is … underwhelming to say the least, which undercuts what ought to be an emotional moment.
The very last level of the game got a bit murky for me. To figure out what you'll need to do to advance, you'll have to take your time, look around, and think carefully. Thankfully, the game doesn't throw in any ticking clocks to complicate that process.
Sympathy for the Devil
Happily, The Bradwell Conspiracy's underpinnings are strong enough to survive these stumbles. Clever level design tells a lot of the story through architecture and decoration. Without ever feeling obvious or on rails, the game steers you through its environments efficiently, and the details and set dressing you find along the way speak volumes. And "talking" to Amber by sending photos remains fun throughout the game, especially when she shares her thoughts on nonessential details that happen to catch your eye.
While few of the game's puzzles are particularly tough, nearly all of them spring from the realistic, practical challenges of your environment, rather than "fetch item X and combine it with item Y for some reason, I guess," or "if you want to proceed, solve this suspiciously elaborate puzzle box that has nothing to do with the plot."
I also applaud the game's touch controls; they still can't hold a candle to a proper gamepad, but they're the best and most functional implementation I've yet found for touch controls in a first-person, 3-D game.
Most of all, I loved the game's story, which unspools both the truth behind Bradwell's "Clean Water Initiative" and the painfully human motivation behind it at a perfectly ominous pace. You'll ultimately uncover something very, very bad – this is not, I can assure you, a conspiracy built on hugs and unicorns. But you'll come away feeling some measure of empathy for the person behind it, and uneasy traces of guilt about helping the person trying to stop it. Though there's only one way for the story to end, and (as far as I know) only one climactic action you can take, the lingering shadow of a doubt with which the game leaves you makes the experience feel far richer.
Probably Your Cup of Tea
By getting all the really important stuff right, The Bradwell Conspiracy ultimately surpasses its very real shortcomings. It's perhaps too close to its more polished, bigger-budget influences to compare favorably to them. But as its own experience – subtle, thoughtful, making the most of its available resources – it shines. I didn't regret a minute of my time with the game, and if its makers want to create a sequel, I'd head back to Stonehenge in a heartbeat.
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