What Residue leaves behind.

I don’t think I’ve ever played a game with a greater gap between concept and execution than that of Residue. I love the idea of a story-driven platform adventure based on the real-life environmental nightmare of the Aral Sea, which makes it all the more disappointing that everything about it is such an absolute mess.

You probably have at least a peripheral awareness of the Aral Sea: once one of the largest lakes in the world that was all but destroyed by Soviet-era irrigation projects. These projects diverted the Aral Sea’s source rivers, reducing it to less than ten percent of its original size and causing untold economic and environmental hardships. Some effort has been made to restore the lake in recent years, but the process is very slow, and whether it will ever return to anything even remotely resembling its original grandeur is anybody’s guess.

Residue

In the fiction of Residue, a man named Nikolai Sitvin leads a team with a more dramatic and fast-acting plan to restore the sea, but is forced to withdraw in failure by the threat of deadly chemicals leaking from an old Soviet bioweapons facility on the former Aral Sea island of Vozrozhdeniya. Some years later, with the final step of his plan finally ready to be put into action, he returns: this time accompanied by just one of his former teammates, a dedicated true believer named Elena Ostrovska. But following close behind them are Ostrovska’s son Emilio and his grandfather Jumagul Ortiqov, who are both determined to track her down – apparently she ran off to join Sitvin’s mission without leaving a note, and Ortiqov suspects the worst. It’s difficult to say too much more about the story without spoiling it, but it should come as no surprise that things don’t go at all as planned, and the whole venture is soon coming apart at the seams.

You’ll play Residue as Nikolai, Emilio and Jumagul, alternating between them as you move through the game’s 11 chapters and epilogue. Each character has a special ability: Nikolai can climb on and swing from things with his grapnel; Emilio can run, jump and dive into water; and Jumagul can open doors. Levels are designed around these abilities, so segments featuring Emilio typically have lots of water, while Nikolai has a preternatural ability to find things on which to climb. It’s generally very simple stuff, and none of the platforming action requires any particular skill or dexterity.

Residue

What it does require, sadly, is patience. Emilio, with his conventional run-and-jump controls is the easiest and least-annoying to play as; but Nikolai can be absolutely infuriating due to both the wonky, imprecise grappling hook he relies on to get from place to place, and occasional moments of hair-pulling bafflement as you try to figure out where the game wants him to go. At one point I actually thought it was broken and was on the verge of giving up before finally realizing that, despite strong hints that I should proceed down, I actually needed to go up. Jumagul, meanwhile, is easy to control because he has only one speed: slow. But while that may befit his status as an old man, it’s not much fun during extended sequences in a video game.

Residue is entirely hand-drawn and while the art style has a certain rough, rustic charm to it, the animations are just rough and ugly. Everything the characters do, from simple walking and diving, to climbing and falling over is incredibly awkward and stilted, and at times can even make controlling them an exercise in frustration. The game will quickly and automatically put you back at a checkpoint if you wander too far off the path, which, given the lack of direction, is no small blessing. But it also means that exploration of many areas, particularly those starring the young daredevil Emilio, is out. The music is nice but the voice acting is most definitely not: a problem compounded by the unnatural and sometimes borderline nonsensical dialog.

Residue

Speaking of nonsense, the story – Residue‘s big hook – starts off well with an immediate and rather grim surprise, and promises an informative and perhaps even insightful look at the Aral Sea disaster through notes and documents that can be discovered as you play. But it spins out of control in a hurry and finishes on such a mind-bogglingly bizarre note that it has to be seen to be believed. It makes absolutely no sense and it’s certainly not worth the price of admission, but it was still the highlight of the game – “highlight” in the sense that it’s so ridiculous and insane as to be a perfectly appropriate conclusion.

There are bugs, too, like an early-stage chase between Nikolai and Emilio in which Nikolai will show up in a completely incorrect location if you botch a jump as Emilio. The sad truth is that Residue is so incoherent and flat-out bad on its own merits that the presence of technical issues is almost irrelevant; nonetheless, they are present, so consider yourself warned.  In the end, nothing of value is said or learned about the Aral Sea that anyone with an interest in the topic couldn’t dig up with a quick Google search. By almost every measure, Residue is a huge miss. I still love the idea of the game, but the reality of it is a complete and comprehensive letdown.