The inspiration for this indie RPG/FPS hybrid, developed by the 10-strong team at Streum On Studio, is clearly Deus Ex. Not only does it take place in a cyberpunk setting, but it also offers a dizzying amount of player choice. Bionic implants, psychic powers, multiple approaches to every mission - Ion Storm Austin's seminal genre mashup is a comparison as obvious as it is accurate. Yet, after soaking in Divine Cybermancy's strange brew for several weeks, that's not what the game reminds me of most.
Just over 12 years ago, I worked for the publisher of a magazine about the paranormal, a subject that resulted in a particularly entertaining postbag. In amongst the credulous UFO sightings and half-baked ghost encounters there was one piece of mail that still sticks with me today.
It was an incredibly detailed diagram, drawn in felt tip pen, on the back of a dog-eared TV Times poster. The diagram, and all its footnotes and captions, covered almost the entire space. Sweeping circles of blue ink, looping around and back into themselves, divided up into tiny sub-sections, each with a date and scrawled note.
According to what we could decipher of the tiny spidery handwritten explanation, it depicted the orbit of Planet X, a heavenly body that the government had kept secret for centuries, and how its movement across the sky coincided with key moments in Earth's history. Moments such as "1978 - poison gas first introduced into prison cells (UK)". It was hilarious, and also deeply terrifying. This wasn't just random weirdness, it was a life's work. To the man who created this dense paranoid scribble, it was crystal clear.
Though I won't go so far as to accuse the developers of being paranoid lunatics, E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy reminds me, more than anything, of that diagram.
This is a game that is virtually impenetrable. Its storyline is opaque to the point of ridiculousness, while its gameplay mechanics are buried deep beneath a user interface so clumsy and unintuitive that it could take months to work out what everything does. As with the cosmic mystery of Planet X, I stare at Divine Cybermancy's inscrutable sprawl and know that, if nothing else, it at least makes perfect sense to the people who made it.
You install the game, load it up and then sit back as it vomits great lumpy chunks of exposition at your face. You're a psychic cyborg knight of some kind, and there's something called the Secreta Secretorum and E.Y.E is either a place or an organisation or possibly a person, and there are factions called Culters and Jians and Orus and a planet called XechPrimus and the Croon Incident (this was bad, I gather) and the Meta-streumonic Force which might be the bad guys, or not.
There's almost no voice acting in the game, so all of this is served up in tiny font text boxes. If dialogue doesn't sate your appetite for convoluted backstory, there's a whole library in the game full of this stuff. There's a website with even more, should you want it. And none of it makes sense. It's like you've walked in halfway through a seven-hour lecture on the intricate details of somebody's fan fiction universe and have to fill in the bits you've missed while taking on board ever larger dollops of new information at the same time.
This sense of bewilderment and confusion could be charming, if it wasn't echoed in the gameplay itself. This is a game with myriad features, almost none of which are adequately explained.
One of the first obstacles you face in the game is a high ledge. "Press T for the CyberJump Tutorial" prompts the game. Pressing T actually brings up a lengthy menu of video tutorials, none of which are called CyberJump. Eventually you'll work out that it wants you to watch the Action Menu tutorial, after which you learn to press C, then drag the icon you want into a slot, then activate the ability. Only then can you clear this fiendish high ledge and proceed.
Even the simplest things have been made slightly awkward. Collecting ammo means looking down at it and pressing the Use key. Climbing a ladder means standing in just the right spot and pressing the Use key. Simple actions that a game should automatically take care of are left for the player to handle. It's not laborious in itself, but over time it clumps together and lends the game a gluey, sluggish air.
It's a shame, because at its core, beneath all the clutter and obstructive design there's a half-decent shooter engine and some very clever ideas. There can be multiple objectives in each mission, leading to different map areas and different outcomes, so there's incentive to poke around and try things other than dashing about shooting like a loon.
Your character can also be driven insane, resulting in blurred vision and random bursts of panicked shooting. This can be cured, but to find out how you need to delve back into the wall of video tutorials (which are also blurred by your rampant paranoia), to find out which single button press will stop the madness.
There are also dozens of intriguing augmentations and auxiliary powers you can make use of, but working out what you're purchasing and equipping is yet another dark art the game asks you to master.
After about five missions, I discovered that pressing Z would summon a quartet of armoured companions who would attack any enemies in sight, or else they'd just stand around doing nothing and block doorways. This ability was never introduced or explained, and I only found it after checking the controls and then pressing every button listed to see what happened.
Similarly baffling, one of the first unlocks on offer is Cormack's Algorithm. It costs 10,500 Brouzofs. What is it? "Strange and complex algorithm which has never been enlightened of the great Professor Cormack, legendary disciple of P. Lenestour." So, yeah, thanks for that. After one mission I was told that my "note" on "Kladun's Ladder" was 2/10. Was that a really bad mission rating? Or had I accumulated two of something with eight more to find or earn? And who the f*** is Kladun and why am I on his ladder?
And this is just the first few hours with the game. For every new feature you work out, there are five more that remain shrouded in mist. For every up there's a dizzying down that leaves you scratching your head.
There can be joy in such discovery, but E.Y.E. is so relentlessly obtuse that it becomes wearying. It's rare to come across a game that leaves you so in the dark, so unsure as to whether you're at fault or the game. And what makes it so infuriating is that it's so utterly unnecessary. With some prudent editing, a better menu system and some on-screen prompts, this could be a little gem.
The weapon mechanics are solid, if a little lacking in visceral oomph, and the game also introduces a feature that I wish more shooters would offer: should you reload with bullets still in the current magazine, you throw those bullets away. There's a clever hacking game, where failure results in your target hacking you back. Along with the multitude of vaguely explained abilities to play around with, these are the small notes of ingenuity that suggest there's a fantastic game to be found in the guts of this unwieldy creation, if only the garbled surface layers would let it out.
Yet this is undermined by simplistic enemy AI and curious weapon balancing. Even when playing in a city environment, there are no civilian characters, which can't help but diminish the atmosphere. Every enemy you see will simply come jogging towards you, chipping away at your health with spookily accurate fire as they go. Until you build up your stealth abilities there's not much point trying to sneak past, and once you are all stealthed up, there's little satisfaction in evading such dimwitted drones.
With its shaggy construction and wild ambition, E.Y.E. Divine Cybermancy is as difficult to dislike as it is to recommend. If you have the patience and resolve, you might be able to squirm past the numerous needless barriers the game places in your path and enjoy the goodness that is so frustratingly locked away inside.
For most players, however, the choice between a well-intentioned but hopelessly wonky Deus Ex knock-off and the superbly polished official Deus Ex sequel now on sale will be an easy one.
5 / 10