At E3, amid the booming explosions of big-budget game trailers and sterile setups for pricy gaming PCs, I stumbled upon a cute racing game called Desert Child. It looked like a western, cyberpunk racer and had some Cowboy Bebop flair, all rendered in chic pixel art, and immediately I was intrigued.
Desert Child is a hoverbike racing game, a representative from its studio would tell me, but had some elements from role-playing games, too. You can eat ramen. You can catch odd jobs, like delivering pizza. You can upgrade your bike and grab bounties. Sign me up!
Six months later, yesterday, Desert Child released for PC, Mac, Switch, PS4 and Xbox One. Sadly, it doesn’t offer much more depth than what I saw in my short time with it at E3, and, very quickly after loading it up at home, I lost interest. Desert Child has great style, but not a ton of substance, which is sad, because it was one of my E3 favorites.
The premise is very good:
“In Desert Child you are a broke, but talented, hoverbike racer who needs to find a way off Earth to get to Mars to compete in the Grand Prix, the greatest race in the universe. Explore a vibrant pixel-art solar system in this stylized racing adventure flavored with colorful sidequests, fierce hoverbike competitions, and a chill, lo-fi hip-hop soundtrack.”
Players compete in 2D races on the same screen. Between dodging obstacles, the player has to fire their weapon at televisions to earn boosts, or money icons to earn money. To refill ammo, they have to boost up to an ammo truck. And between racing, there’s a small town where the player can check out there vitals—how hungry they are, how messed up their hovercraft is. A few shops let them sell things, buy ramen or repair their hoverbike.
Racing isn’t easy to master. The controls feel good and the hoverbike, responsive. It’s tricky to dodge all the trees and cacti and things and, at the same time, get yourself enough boosts to win the race. At E3, this formula felt promising. Yet it shoots itself in the foot in some ways. For example, since you’re on the same screen as your opponent, you can’t really beguile or outsmart them—they can see what you see. Often, you have to do the same race multiple times in a row, which feels like a grind.
Despite the game’s promise of odd jobs-slash-minigames like delivering pizzas, everything is built around the hoverbike racing model. The racing is kind of the whole thing. Yes, it’s fun, but it becomes stale quickly. Breaking this up is a bare-bones role-playing games that didn’t offer me enough to do, or enough variety of things to do, as I chipped away earning my racing money.
Had I been able to customize my character, or had the role-playing game elements offered more depth, Desert Child could have lived up to my excitement for it. As it stands, it’s a very, very pretty game with an even prettier concept but isn’t something I plan to play more of.