E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy by French developer Streum On Studio is an FPS/RPG heavily inspired by Deus Ex, set in a dystopian future that’s the gene-spliced vat-grown bastard offspring of Warhammer 40K, Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell and Dune, with more than a couple of strands from Doom and James Cameron’s Aliens amongst all the other eclectic junk in its DNA. A grimdark universe where humans toil under the jackboots of The Federation when they’re not getting munched by a race of demonic entities called the Metastreumonic Force, “monsters from the id” born of the collective vices and urges of the human race. The only thing standing between them and delicious human snacks are the Secreta Secretorum, a society of psychic techno-mages divided into two competing factions called the Culter Dei and the Jian Shang Di, who also secretly want to overthrow The Federation and seize total control for themselves.
It’s also a universe where you can meet pirate space Rastas living in a cave on Mars, and urban street gang members politely chide you for interrupting their hip-hop freestyling. Doors and ATMs can melt your brain if you try to hack them and fail, a trip down an urban canal can bring you face-to-foot with a giant hostile Cyberdemon lookalike, and gangs of demonic Lady GaGa clones ambush you with shotguns in toxic industrial slums while a crazy bandit king screams for a lackey to bring him his “genital electrodes.” One loading screen will show you a profound nugget of wisdom from Sun Tzu or Confucius, another a quote from Rocky Balboa, Tyler Durden or Dutch from Predator. It’s Grimdark with a massive dollop of sweet tangy Crazybonkers.
In the course of E.Y.E’s impenetrable story you go on various missions for your superiors in a variety of future dystopian locales, such as grimy neon cities, remote research facilities, ancient Martian ruins and the aforementioned industrial slum infested with Lady GaGa clones. Visually the game is a somewhat rough around the edges and its style is so blatantly derivative of its inspirations you can easily play your own game of spot-the-influence, yet this paradoxically gives E.Y.E a strange unique identity of its own that stands out from other first-person shooters. For a Source Engine game E.Y.E’s environments are absolutely immense and while they do a great job conveying an epic sense of scale, they suffer the same problem the original Deus Ex occasionally had in that they often feel empty and can be a chore to navigate. It’s a refreshing departure from the modern FPS philosophy of corridor shooting and set-pieces that also reminds you why today’s shooters are designed that way.
Even more impenetrable than E.Y.E’s plot is its user interface, a byzantine nightmare of menus and options even the most veteran PC gamer used to such things will struggle with. Instead of a proper tutorial the game tells you to press T to open a long unsorted list of videos explaining, in arse-numbing detail, the long-winded way to do something as simple as switching on your flashlight. Nearly all these videos end with some variation of “or you can just press G,” as was the case with the flashlight, but only after a minute or so spent demonstrating a convoluted process of navigating countless menu screens to assign an action to your ability hotwheel. In terms of accessibility it’s slap bang in the no-man’s land between Western games, with their lengthy hand-holding tutorials, and East European games like STALKER that expect you to figure everything out on your own.
Like Deus Ex, E.Y.E lets you mould your character to suit your particular playstyle with skill upgrades and cybernetic augmentation, though the scope and freedom of it is closer to a pure RPG like Morrowind. You can be a walking tank, techno-savvy hacker puppetmaster, stealthy sniper, psychic techno-wizard, or anything you like if there’s a skill for it. You could even be a psychic wizard hacker tank with a minigun and dual pistols who can clone himself on a whim and summon demons from a man’s brain half a mile away, although the game accommodates diverse playstyles with somewhat mixed results. In my playthrough stealth was utterly broken, with enemies spotting me from across the map, and I was forced to invest in an energy-draining cloaking ability to get any proper sneaking done.
Hacking takes the form of a mini JRPG battle simulator where you whittle down a hack target’s attack power, defense and hitpoints with buffs, debuff and attack programs, and you can hack pretty much anything, whether its enemy soldiers, turrets, ATMs, attack gunships or doors. Fail a hacking attempt however and you might get counter-hacked, resulting in having your vision obscured or, in rare cases, your brain melting inside your skull followed by a swift death. It’s particularly embarrassing – and also hilarious – when you lose one of these metaphorical battles of wits to a DOOR of all fucking things. Did I mention this game was a bit crazy-go-nuts?
The basic combat mechanics are reasonably solid overall yet the actual experience is a contradictory mix of satisfaction and frustration. From the outset you can equip the best armour available, give yourself a minigun and mow-down enemies like so many blades of grass, and the weapons only get more powerful from there. To compensate for this enemies constantly respawn on each map at a rate you can tweak in the options menu, though exactly where they spawn and how many is entirely at the whim of the game. You can gleefully kill a pair of goons charging at you down a long wide empty street only to get thoroughly whipped by a mob of slavering critters that spawn right behind you. E.Y.E’s difficulty is therefore something of a rollercoaster regardless of how you spec your character. A generous player-respawn mechanic gives you a number of “lives” per mission, so a few seconds after death you pop back up again with temporary invincibility to exact revenge on your killers or escape somewhere safer to recharge your batteries. If you die surrounded by a whole army however you can expect to lose another resurrection or two to the bastards camping your corpse.
One of E.Y.E’s neatest features, and something I considered quite unique for an FPS hybrid, is a research system reminiscent of X-Com and Syndicate Wars in which you study items looted from slain enemies to unlock skill and stat bonuses, further research opportunities or powerful special weapons. If you’re missing a necessary item or the required funds for your techno-voodoo science-witchcraft you can revisit any level you’ve played in the single player campaign, which takes about 8 hours of casual play to complete. It’ll take you longer than that to see all three endings – even longer for the rumoured fourth “true ending,” and the path to each one takes you through some areas you wouldn’t get to see otherwise. During my first playthrough I missed an entire massive Federation base camp on Mars that I only got to see when I revisited the map later for some money and experience points. Your character’s equipment, cash and abilities carry over into each subsequent new game so you can grow even more powerful if you’re determined to see all this crazy game has to offer, although you’ll never fully triumph over the game’s yo-yoing difficulty.
Your character also persists into multiplayer where up to something like 32 players can go through E.Y.E’s story together or just revisit previous maps to complete several random mission objectives and farm loot, which you can then take back into your single-player game. In multiplayer objectives that were almost Herculean to do on your own get completed in seconds and maps soon become militarised zones where nothing raises its head without getting a bullet in it, yet you not once get the feeling the game doesn’t like you doing this. In fact you can almost hear it saying “I don’t give a fuck what you do as long as you have fun doing it. Go crazy! I am and it feels GREAT!”
I came away from E.Y.E after about 10 hours having enjoyed it overall, yet feeling I somehow shouldn’t have. To say its rough around the edges is like saying sandpaper is a tad abrasive: the plot is confusing to say the least, the interface is overly-complicated and the game as a whole has flaws that, individually, would be damning in any other title. Its design is an attention-deficient mishmash of old and new gaming elements that by rights shouldn’t even fit together, let alone actually work. What E.Y.E really has going for it is ambition by the truckload, and in this it succeeds more often than it fails. If E.Y.E were a painting it would be a reproduction of an old classic with a neon pink moustache drawn on it incorporated into a bizarre modern art installation made from space shuttle debris, petrified wood, dead scorpions and holograms. You can’t understand it, you’re not sure you even like it and something about it violates your brain, but it is something you’ve never experienced before and it’s still impressive in its own weird way.
With a tighter, more-focused design as well as more time and money, E.Y.E could have been a genuine Game of the Year contender at twice the price. As it stands E.Y.E is a flawed gem that you’ll either love or hate, and it’s not an easy game to love. If you’re the type of gamer who enjoyed STALKER, can overlook some rough edges and are willing to put the time and effort into getting to know E.Y.E, you’ll be rewarded with a rich, engaging, flat-out surreal experience that grows on you the more you play it. At times it’ll confound and frustrate you almost to the point you wonder why you even bother with it, and then it’ll do something sublime – in its own demented way – that reminds you why. Right before it spawns the Lady GaGa Shotgun Clone Quartet directly behind you.