This is going to be less a review than a murder, but know that Lifeline deserves every bit of it. Designed as a quirky little choose-your-own-adventure game, it popped up on mobile devices and was gobbled up by game reviewers whose train of thought went something along the lines of “this is something different, therefore 10/10.” Never mind that the game’s big innovation—stretching a 10-20 minute game out to where it lasts 3 days by forcing you to wait for hours whenever you make a decision—accomplishes nothing but guaranteeing that the game’s pace resembles a freemium game that you’re given access to piecemeal. Even that might not be fair; freemium games have the good sense to try and give you enough gameplay to hook you before making you wait. Lifeline, on the other hand, provides little more than a few sentences that wouldn’t be out of place on Twitter (and that are completely out of place given the in-game circumstances) before giving you a meaningless decision and leaving you hanging for an hour or longer. Yes, the game playing out at the main character’s pace is a novel inclusion, but it’s embarrassing that I’m the first person to point out that it’s not actually fun. This is just one problem on top of many others that ensure that Lifeline is undeserving of your time in addition to being a complete and utter waste of money.
The worst character in the entire world
Lifeline’s hook isn’t unlike those in The Experiment or even Omikron: The Nomad Soul—you the player are contacted by someone in the game world and asked to help them. In Lifeline’s case, that person is Taylor, a researcher of intentionally indeterminate gender whose ship crashed somewhere in space. Since you’re the only person he or she has managed to contact, it only makes sense to guide them along their way and attempt to get them to safety. Of course, you would be entirely justified in asking why you can’t just alert someone familiar with the vessel, its general whereabouts, and/or pretty much anything else about space to Taylor’s plight. As far as I could tell, the answer is “shhh, don’t think about it.”
That’s a reoccurring theme you’ll probably notice by the end of this, but for now let’s focus on Taylor and why they’re a terrible character. The shortest answer would be “because of the writing,” which is nothing short of amateurish. Taylor’s tone is just wrong for most of the game, with them sending you quirky messages not unlike those you may have seen from game developers on Twitter whose obsequious followers don’t bother letting them know that they’re not anywhere near as funny as they think. The attempts at humor and cutesy dialogue are not only forced beyond belief, but they make no sense whatsoever given the events that surround them. Early in the game, despite having just found almost everyone they knew and cared about dead, Taylor goes out of their way to mention that they did a “generator dance” when they found a generator. This is not how believable characters act, and this bizarrely bouncy tone pervades the entire game.
The writing is even worse than Taylor
Lifeline revolves around the waiting-for-Taylor gimmick, and the writing is every bit as phoned-in as you’d expect given that focus. The most obvious example of this would be the lack of internal consistency; in one scene, Taylor wakes up with a start and asks you if you said anything because they heard a noise, clearly indicating that you’re communicating via audio, while later they mention that sarcasm doesn’t communicate well over print, implying the opposite. These aren’t the only examples of Lifeline flip-flopping on which type of communication you’re actually engaged in, either, and the whole thing comes off as unbelievably sloppy. I mean, this is a game that’s 100% text, and there’s not even a lot of it. Surely someone could have put the effort in to ensure that what little is there is consistent.
But wait! There’s more! You can make certain decisions that injure Taylor’s shoulder and ankle, and these not only make zero difference to anything in the game, but avoiding those decisions and managing to keep them uninjured will still lead to dialogue about how their shoulder and ankle are killing them. This leads to the next ugly truth about Lifeline that other reviewers glossed over:
Almost nothing you do matters
There’s one decision you can make early in the game that actually has a noticeable effect on how things play out, and even that is mostly meaningless, accomplishing little more than granting you an extra line or two toward the end of the game. Then there are the 3-4 ways you can get Taylor killed or otherwise so broken that they cut off communication with you. These are technically game overs, though the screen you get is pretty much identical to the one you get when you actually “win” the game and get Taylor rescued. Still, it takes some seriously poor decision-making to actually kill them off, so there’s really only one path through the game. This can be frustrating when the smartest course isn’t even given to you as an option and you end up railroaded into a far less intelligent plan.
This happened to me on my first playthrough (and yes, I played through this game several times, making every possible decision to see what changes despite loathing the writing on a biblical level) where I needed the first generator Taylor found for something other than the distress beacon, only to stumble onto another working generator elsewhere on the planet. The smartest course would be to trek back to the crash site and hook up the second generator to the beacon. This isn’t an option. No matter what, the game will force Taylor to visit “the peak,” the end-game location and dumbest possible place to travel to. Even if you tell Taylor to turn around on the way there, they’ll criticize your decision and then ignore you. Once they actually reach the peak, Taylor can ignore up to two more of your instructions, yet again railroading you into a very specific set of events.
When the game isn’t ignoring what you want to do, it’s actively ignoring what you did in favor of what it thinks you did. For example, when I found a way to actually hook up the first generator to the distress beacon, Taylor later lamented that a stash of stuff they found didn’t have a distress beacon. Never mind that I had already managed to get one hooked up—the game simply doesn’t support the idea that you’re smart enough to figure out how to do this. Even when you do, it makes no difference: if you fail to hook up a beacon before heading to the peak, Taylor will find a beacon they can use there and it leads to the exact same result. Hooking it up earlier and not needing to do so at the peak is more of a reaction than you’ll ever get if you instead use the first generator to power the defensive turrets, though. That, along with several other decisions throughout the game, affects nothing. These things exist solely to make it look like there are choices that can be made, but nothing ever comes of them, with the game completely ignoring their existence later on. You don’t even get altered dialogue. Even when Taylor muses that he or she could use a gun, the hooked-up turrets might as well not exist.
There are only two options at a time
Think about how absurd it is to create a text-only game with no graphic costs, music costs (it’s just two notes looped over and over and over), or miscellaneous big-budget expenses, only for that game to only ever offer you two decisions at a time, neither of which make any difference beyond getting generic response A or generic response B. It makes no sense to me. How can a game constantly give people two options and have both of them lead to identical outcomes? This is a game less reactive and more linear than pretty much any other you could name off, and there’s no logical explanation for why this is the case.
Kill Taylor, unlock fast mode
The first time I killed/injured Taylor to the point of a game over, it was after insisting that they try to climb an area they claimed wasn’t climbable. I knew this would most likely kill them. This is why I chose it. By this point, I was sick of waiting for hours on end to play the game, so I figured I’d kill them off and move on to something else (and not review it since I wouldn’t have made it to the end and thus wouldn’t be able to judge it fairly). Then something magical happened: my game over unlocked something called “fast mode,” which removed the long waiting times. Some text popped up to tell me that this isn’t the intended way of playing the game, but it’s definitely the only way of playing that kept me from wanting to throw my phone against a brick wall over wait time-related frustration.
Bugs and annoyances
Beyond the annoyance of the wait times—and I can’t stress enough how tedious and gimmicky they are—there are some fairly serious issues with the game. For one, playing in fast mode caused the game to constantly bug out like it does at the end of the above video, with all the text becoming garbled beyond recognition. Seriously, this isn’t a complicated enough game to justify having such ridiculous bugs, and it’s just another thing that speaks to the laziness of Lifeline’s design. Then there are the miscellaneous quirks that annoyed me. For example, as Taylor went to sleep on the second night, they asked if they should hook up a nearby alarm. Whether you do or not, it’ll go off in the middle of the night. How does an alarm that hasn’t been hooked up go off? Like so many other things, the answer again seems to be “shhh, don’t think about it.” Not annoying enough for you yet? How about the fact that there are times where you’re presented with two choices that lead to identical outcomes, but one of which leads to a “Taylor is busy” wait time while the other powers through without any penalty? Which is which? Guess!
There are no graphics, there is no music
Apart from the little cel astronaut that I’m using as a header for this review, there’s not a lick of art in the entire game. As I mentioned earlier, the music is equally bare, with there being only a single song in the entire game that consists of little more than two alternating notes. Oh, and there’s a sound effect that you get when you get a game over. That’s it. That’s the entirety of the music and graphics in this game.