App Reviewed on: iPhone SE
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I’m of the opinion that more Interactive Fiction (IF) should be on mobile devices. After all, it’s a genre that is generally light on complicated controls and resource-intensive visuals. That, and it’d be nice to have some more narrative-focused games on a platform littered with time wasters. Powerless is an IF game that definitely brings an interesting story right to the palm of your hand, but there are typos and strange design decisions that keep this game from grabbing you the way it might otherwise.
What would you do?
Powerless is an interesting IF game because it acknowledges its artifice. Instead of making you feel like you’re following along with real characters in real-time, the entire game actually takes place within a simulation. You interface with an AI named MAUDE as it grants you access to personas who you then make decisions for while they’re experiencing harrowing situations.
What are these harrowing situations, you might ask? Well, Powerless simulates a world where a massive solar storm hits Earth, causing all of the planet’s electronics to fail. Your job is to inhabit several, different personas that experience this apocalypse in different ways and try to find ways for them to survive.
Choose your destiny
The personas you inhabit in Powerless come from all walks of life—a rich businessman, a lowly IT professional, a hot shot doctor, a corrections officer, and more. When picking any one persona for the first time, you start by living out their experience of the apocalypse as it happens. From a gameplay sense, this just consists of you reading about their situation and making one of two choices that appear at the bottom of the screen.
The further you get into Powerless, these decisions get harder and harder to make. Do you hide and seek shelter, or do you run to save loved ones? Do you trust random strangers, or decide to take them out before they can do the same to you? The choice is yours and your objective is simple: survive. If you do well, you clear the scenario, debrief with MAUDE, and maybe unlock a new persona. If you don’t, you die, and you can either retry or abandon that persona in favor of the other ones still available.
Quite literally powerless
The situations that Powerless cooks up for all of its personas are interesting and can lead in directions that are pretty unexpected, but the problem with Powerless is that you never really feel like you’re in control of the experience. If you play every chapter just picking your options the way you want to, you can easily end up dead, which is not ideal if you want to see more of the game. So, the alternative is to try and guess what the game wants you to do. Doing this definitely lets you see more of Powerless, but it also takes away all of your agency in a game that seemingly revolves around player choice.
In addition to the ways Powerless railroads you into picking certain choices, the game itself is also a little rough around the edges. There are typos all over the game, and some of the writing can be really unclear about what it is you’re actually trying to do. I also experienced moments in the game where I was taken to a frozen screen, which forced me to quit the app and try everything all over again. These things compound to make Powerless feel even more like a guessing game, and not a particularly great one at that.
The bottom line
If you have the patience for some trial-and-error, Powerless actually takes its characters on some pretty interesting journeys. That said, the game does a pretty bad job of making you feel like you’re in control of the experience at all. This might sound like an intentional design choice for a game entitled Powerless, but reading this game as a commentary on player agency feels like a stretch, given that this lack of choice doesn’t feel particularly rewarding or enlightening in any significant way.