REVIEW: TRON: Identity is a must-play visual novel
Light cycles ahead of the competition
As a videogame fan almost my entire life, it shouldn’t be surprising that I’m into all things TRON as well. The original TRON movie is not only about building videogames, but also exploring them in a unique way. A franchise centered on a world that exists inside of computers, and you can actually visit that world in-person?! How cool of an idea is that? The premise alone paves the way for all sorts of interesting ideas, topics and conversations, and I’ve been obsessed with it for decades now.
Sadly, the TRON franchise hasn’t seen too much love since the original film released in 1982. Fans had to wait nearly 3 decades for the follow-up film, TRON: Legacy, and outside of that, there was one short film and an even shorter-lived animated series. There’s been a smattering of TRON videogames as well, but nothing that really lived up to the IP or offered what I was looking for from a TRON title. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, comes the reveal of TRON: Identity.
Honestly, the announcement of TRON: Identity got me incredibly excited. First, I was just happy to see something new from the TRON series. Second, and much more important, the game was being developed by Bithell Games, an award-winning developer whose previous work includes Thomas Was Alone, Subsurface Circular, and other notable releases. In my opinion, there couldn’t have been a marriage more made in heaven than Bithell Games and TRON.
Bithell decided to take the visual novel approach with TRON: Identity, whereas pretty much every TRON game before it was some sort of action outing. Now don’t get me wrong, as I love the action of TRON; the light cycles, the tank battles and so on. That said, the real reason I am enamored with TRON is because of the universe itself and the endlessly-intriguing opportunities it presents. Thankfully, Bithell seemed to appreciate that element of TRON as well, and they honed in on the lore and expository potential to create what I believe is easily the best TRON game out there.
As TRON: Identity is a visual novel, the developers gave the game’s story a laser focus. At its heart, TRON: Identity is a mystery that will leave you guessing in multiple ways up to the final moments. Part of that mystery comes from the overall story that’s told, while the other part comes from the decisions you make. As you work your way through TRON: Identity, you’ll be given multiple instances where you have to make some agonizing choices. If you feel like a branching path is right around the corner, you can bet TRON: Identity is going to put you in the driver’s seat to steer the story forward.
Where you go and who you meet along the way is actually quite limited in scope, but that’s not to the game’s detriment at all. TRON: Identity takes place within a single building, and you’ll travel between different floors to talk with people of import. The cast includes seven characters overall, and speaking to each of them multiple times will present unique opportunities to grow relationships and push the narrative ahead. It’s all extremely simple as far as gameplay goes, and almost all of the mechanics aren’t anything we haven’t seen in visual novels before, but the tale and its players are what make TRON: Identity really shine.
Bithell absolutely nailed the feeling, vibe and atmosphere of TRON. There’s not a single corner or solitary character interaction that feels out of place in the world of TRON. The original TRON movie, and the sequel to a lesser extent, created a world that feels beautiful and uncomfortable at the same time. TRON: Identity zeroes in on that feeling and magnifies it to an amazing degree. The lone location you travel throughout feels cold, yet welcoming; harsh, yet alluring. The characters, for the most part, teeter on the edge of friend and foe. They always leave a little something hanging in the air that makes you slightly uneasy. Even those who seem largely genial still have elements that make you question things. Living in that space is crucial to what makes TRON TRON, and TRON: Identity finds that center with ease.
Without going into too much detail, TRON: Identity puts you in the role of a detective who’s been dispatched to find out what caused an explosion at The Repository, a building at the core of the New Grid. This building hides countless secrets, both within its many rooms and the people you’ll find throughout. As the player, it’s your job to pick apart the details of just what went down the night of the explosion, and that involves talking to everyone in the vicinity. Of course, speaking with these characters will unearth another layer of mystery that relates to the people around you and the New Grid as a whole.
The cast in TRON: Identity may not be voiced, but they absolutely come to life through their dialog. Every character here feels extremely well defined, and truly intriguing. There’s never a moment where I felt someone did or said something that felt out of character. Instead, I was constantly left in awe with how conversations were written, and how things played out based on my responses. Every conversation feels like it takes a very tiny chisel to the greater mystery, and each line slowly chips away at the core secret hiding within. Be it a character who offers warmth, help, or a setback, they all help to craft an enthralling tale.
It shouldn’t be all that surprising that Bithell Games has created a fantastic, multi-layered story here. The company has quickly become one of the go-to developers for stories that are a cut above the rest. There’s a reason why Bithell’s name keeps popping up as one of the teams to look to for interesting, thought-provoking narratives. That’s certainly impressive no matter what the project is, but to retain those elements and weave them into something special with a licensed property deserves an extra round of applause. Working within the confines of an established IP can’t be easy, but Bithell has proven they were more than worthy with TRON: Identity.
To get into the finer points of TRON: Identity’s story would rob players of the whole experience. I desperately want to talk openly about everything I came across, but it honestly wouldn’t be right. What I can say is that TRON: Identity examines all sorts of things pertaining to the human condition. There’s a tangible mystery at play here, but the greater mystery of life itself is explored just as much. Who we are, why we do what we do, how we hoard or disseminate knowledge, and so on. It’s a really beautiful narrative that is equal parts inspiring and foreboding. This tale took me places that left me lost in thought, made me feel devastated, filled me with hope, and even had me reconsidering some of my daily routines. I literally had a few instances where I sat with the controller in my hand, took a deep breath and let out a sustained sigh. It wasn’t a sigh of frustration or boredom, but instead, one of contemplation and impact.
When TRON: Identity isn’t busy making you rethink everything, it offers up a mini-game to tease your brain. This game takes TRON’s Identity Discs and makes them another core part of the journey, as you’ll have to defrag these discs to help characters restore their memories. This process is handled through a circular mini-game where you have to clear spokes with matching symbols and numbers. There are extra rules in place during each round that make the game tougher, such as clearing the same suit 5 times in a row, matching adjacent spokes, and so on. None of these are incredibly taxing by any means, but it is a surprisingly fun diversion that helps to break up the visual novel portions. Best of all, you can skip them completely if you’d like. I never did as I enjoyed the mini-game, but if you want to get straight back to the story, you can do so. Also, if you happen to really like what the mini-game provides, TRON: Identity also includes an endless version of it outside the narrative.
Completing the whole package is a visual/audio experience that nails TRON just as the story does. If you’ve seen either of the TRON movies, TRON: Identity should dovetail nicely with the look of those films. There’s lots of neon lighting that juts up against very dark backdrops, and it all oozes the franchise’s unmistakable tone. More impressive is the game’s soundtrack, which definitely had a high bar to reach. The original TRON had an orchestral, sweeping soundtrack with plenty of synth elements thrown in to match the setting and scale of the world. TRON: Legacy had an arguably better soundtrack from the unbelievable Daft Punk, and it’s one that has been in my music rotation since launch. Somehow, TRON: Identity features a soundtrack that gives TRON: Legacy a run for its money.
The music of TRON is just as important as the series’ look, and composer Dan Le Sac definitely understood that. The soundtrack for TRON: Identity can no doubt stand on its own as a moving, engaging OST, and thankfully it will via a separate release. What you’ll hear in-game is an absolute treat, as it elevates every moment and heightens each story beat. The way TRON: Identity’s soundtrack creates soundscapes and throws in specific instruments to highlight characters and conversations is stellar, and does so much to lift what is already a top-notch game. Just as with the look of TRON, the soundtrack for TRON: Identity feels like a character in its own right, and it’s a very strong one at that.
You can call it hyperbole all you want, but I truly believe TRON: Identity to be one of the best licensed games I’ve ever played. Even calling it a licensed game feels like a slight, as there are so many out there that are low-quality cash-ins. TRON: Identity is a licensed title done to perfection. The source material is greatly respected and expounded upon. The look, feel, and sound all deliver in spades. The story takes everything that is great about TRON and builds immensely upon it. People are still very wary of licensed games, and I say rightfully so. With that in mind, I believe TRON: Identity is the prime example of what can happen when a licensed property is treated with the utmost care and respect.
In my humble opinion, TRON: Identity is one of the best TRON experiences out there, and is no doubt the best TRON-related work to release since the original movie. It’s also important to note that even if you’ve never seen a single TRON movie or don’t know a thing about the franchise, TRON: Identity is still a can’t-miss title. I have very little doubt that those who appreciate visual novels in general will find a ton to love here, and the game will likely fuel a desire to see what TRON is all about.
If you love TRON, play TRON: Identity. If you love visual novels, play TRON: Identity. If you just want a really good story, play TRON: Identity. You seriously can’t go wrong with this one.