Labs Games promises a marriage between Papers, Please, Sim Tower, and the adventures of James Bond in Safe House. It sounds like a fascinating concept to take a bit of the bureaucratic paper shuffling puzzles and themes from Papers, Please and put those within a building management simulation. That idea grabbed me when I first read about it. It could be very interesting to play the part of a CIA safe house manager in the fictional city of Kazataire.
From midnight each in-game night until ten in the morning I had to decide who to let in the front door of the “book store,” which deliveries to let in around back, who gets interrogated, and what missions my spies and soldiers would take. The side-on cutout view of the building looks like Fallout Shelter’s vault and the base of operations in XCom.
If you complete your management tasks correctly, and if your soldiers and spies complete theirs, you’ll earn cash to upgrade the safe house with different rooms that give you new tasks. Those new rooms can also be upgraded over time. Slowly transforming your safe house from an empty office building into a busy money-generating operation for the CIA.
The description for the game calls the tasks in each room puzzles, and they end up being the bulk of what you’re doing with your time in Safe House, so it’s important that they’re interesting to complete. Unfortunately, while there are a variety of those tasks to do, they lack the fun and polish other games apply to make those types of puzzles interesting. Sure, it sounds different to assemble the ingredients for an improvised explosive device in your safe house’s bomb making room, but the actual experience is just reading a list of random components and then clicking on each one in the correct order until you’ve assembled three bombs. The challenge here is that some of the ingredients have similar-sounding names so it can take a few moments to tell Trolite from Tritolone and Tritolite.
In the infirmary a patient will materialize out of thin air. Here you would consult the instructions that tell you how to infuse the patient with the correct type of blood and a type of medicine to treat whatever problem they have. Each patient has three ingredients they’re allergic to, so you have another list to read with similar-sounding names until you find just the right one. If you give the agents that show up in the infirmary correctly typed blood, and the right medications, they disappear from the room the same way that patients you’ve failed will pass on.
The only difference between success and failure with any of these tasks is the dollar amount that appears briefly on-screen. The game never tells you what you did wrong with the tasks you fail, it just deducts the cash that you would have gotten from your safe house’s bank balance. The bombs you make don’t get used in the game. The patients you treat aren’t your agents that were harmed on missions, they’re just random nobodies.
When you deal with the spies that come in the front door, and you correctly identify the ones to let in, they don’t actually go into your safe house. They just depart with the same animation that spies you misidentify or kick out use to leave. Strangely, they disappear a few steps out of the door. That’s the most animation you’ll see in a typical night of managing your safe house.
There could be some way to make theses tasks less repetitive and more rewarding, but every job in the game is just as tedious. I want to see the results of the actions in the game. If I let the wrong person in the front door it’d be interesting to have them run through your safe house and steal a document or let a prisoner go, or mess with your dossier so that you can’t see some key piece of information for that day. Cascading failures make games like this interesting. In Fallout Shelter when something goes wrong it’s up to your survivors to fend off attacks or repair broken systems that your vault needs to function. The spies and soldiers you hire in Safe House move about in their room or barracks a little but they don’t ever walk around outside it or have any interaction with the other rooms.
There aren’t enough consequences to your actions in Safe House. Sure a monetary penalty is bad, but it’s not bad enough, and the experience of Safe House is playing these same droll mini-games over and over again until the night is over and you move on to the next day where you have the option to make new rooms or upgrade old ones and recruit or send agents and soldiers on missions.
There’s a stereotypical 1960’s look and sound to games about spies that this game feels like it is leaning towards but doesn’t quite make it there. The audio is complete with the smoothest muzak from an elevator and a few audio brief notes to alert you to your success or failure and when it is time to see which one of the safe house’s rooms needs your attention for the next task.
From a small development team, I didn’t expect much in terms of graphical prowess, but the faces on the polygonal characters in your safe house just don’t make sense. The person that works at the loading dock has a permanent joker grin that looks straight out of the Batman animated series. When you get a barracks for soldiers or spy lounge you’ll see 2D character portraits for those characters that look a little bit like they’re from Penny Arcade before that comic turned into an unreadable mess thanks to PA’s creators being complete shitheads, but that style doesn’t really match the style of Safe House. The upgrades to the different rooms change each one a little bit, but that’s the only change you’ll see over time once each room in the building is occupied.
There are all sorts of software bugs within Safe House that get in the way of completing the campaign. Sometimes creating identification in the forgery room would fail for no apparent reason. The mission success reports often misspell words like “scientists,” “carriage,” and “comfortable.” I found about a dozen or so other issues I had with the game, none of these reset my progress but they all added up to a general sense that this game could use a lot more attention from the developer before it shipped.
The most disappointing part of Safe House is that it has an inkling of a story inside it about colonialism and American interventions on the behalf of business interests, with multiple endings, but it never earns the dramatic turns it takes. One time when Safe House turns in this direction your interrogation room that you thought was just for interviews is revealed to be a torture facility once it is fully upgraded. Your in-game avatar is shocked, other characters reveal who they actually are, and things change in the game. It could have been a very interesting turn of events if the game had an engrossing story from the start, but it never made me care about those characters.
Safe House has multiple endings, but after going through hours of repetitive tasks I didn’t want to play through the tutorial at the start of the game, and then 5 more hours of the gameplay Safe House had to offer, just to see each ending.
The premise of operating a CIA safe house is fascinating, there was clearly some thought put into style and sound design, but Safe House lacks the depth of other games that specialize in building a city or a tower, managing people, or old spy movies. The lack of polish is entirely excusable from a one-person developer, but the gameplay couldn’t live up to the concept. Papers, Please, Sim Tower, and James Bond are three ideas that probably can’t work together, but I really wish they had.
1 out of 5 Panic Rooms for Safe House. It’s $10 on Steam for Windows.