You have to come in to Volume with the correct expectations to appreciate it. This isn’t a tightly told story like Thomas Was Alone. It’s more of a stealth arcade game, in the vein of the Metal Gear Solid VR missions.
Compared to Metal Gear Solid, Volume is simplified. You can’t crawl or hide in narrow spaces, there are no melee attacks, and your inventory is reset between levels. In any situation there’s usually only one way to progress, in a way that feels rigid. Because of your limited abilities, the challenges never feel particularly interesting. The solutions are immediately obvious, and it’s just a matter of brute force trial and error to get past. AI and checkpoints are easily exploitable in a way that feels like a deliberate design choice, as a workaround for you not having anything to do if you’re discovered. All this leads to levels feeling disposable. Once you’ve finished them once, there’s not much more you can do with them. It’s only slightly more complex than Thomas Was Alone in that sense. Compared to something like Thief, it’s more Trackmania than Gran Turismo. Every level is a one-off, instead of something you’ll be coming back to over and over to explore alternative solutions. I came in expecting this, so I was fine with it. But if you’re a hardcore stealth fan it might not be enough. Like Trackmania, Volume has a level editor, and there are already tons of new maps out there. I haven’t looked at them, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the game comes alive through them in a way that the campaign mode doesn’t.
The story was the greatest disappointment for me, mostly because of how underwritten it feels. There’s 100 levels in the campaign, and you go several levels at a time without seeing the ghost of the story. Levels are purportedly based on machines you’re hacking, where the dirty laundry of corrupt government officials and heads of corporations are shown to the world. But during levels this isn’t evident at all. I was hoping for something like Tron 2.0, where the visual design of the levels reflected the kinds of systems you were inside, with emails exposing the internal workings of the system. But Volume isn’t like that. This isn’t a grand story arc that unfolds over the 100 levels. Instead it’s a story for a game 1/5 this size, with the majority of the levels being there because it’d be poor value for money if it was any smaller. You do read emails and documents, but they seem to have no connection whatsoever to what’s going on. This is a complete waste, because this story needed more. It has loads of characters, but with most only existing as portraits in the main menu.
The music does a better job of capturing the theme of the story than the writing. Much like the Ys games, it felt at times like I was playing it more to enjoy the music than anything else, with the story only becoming more nonsensical the further I got into it. Most character development happens off screen, and the stakes are so poorly telegraphed I had no idea what was going on when the end came. At one point the connection between the game and story breaks down completely, making it clear no effort was made to make the parts gel. It’s inelegant, and because of how thin it is, Volume ends up being both blunt and vague.
So the story is disappointing. But if you approach it with this in mind, that it’s primarily about stealth puzzle challenges, then it’s still reasonably fun. Thanks to the music it felt like a nice place to be. With every level taking 2-5 minutes to finish, it was easy to just keep playing, even if the next map probably wouldn’t add anything to the story. It’s not bad, but I am disappointed.