Volume is a game the likes of which are rarely seen. It oozes style and simplicity from all its pores, and served as an eye-opening reminder of why I love video games and chose to write about them in the first place. It’s not perfect – nothing is – but it is an amazing experience that should absolutely not go unnoticed.

Volume comes to us from Thomas Was Alone developer Mike Bithell. Where Thomas was a puzzle-platformer, Volume is a three-dimensional stealth game that wears its Metal Gear Solid influences on its sleeves. It’s also a modern reimagining of the Robin Hood legend with a big twist – the entirety of the game is spent in virtual reality, or a Volume, as the game calls it.

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Volume opens with Locksley, the player character, being raided by armed guards in a dark warehouse. It’s an incredibly jarring start that raises a lot of questions. I’ve always been a fan of games opening with a sense of mystery and intrigue, and this one is no exception. As the game progresses, even more questions about Locksley’s actions and motivations are asked, as well as the very nature of the simulation he uses.

While I felt the game manages to answer all of the questions posed in an elegant manner, it did feel more like the end of the first chapter in a series, rather than a proper conclusion to the story arc. Hopefully there will be a follow up to let the story really meet its full potential.

Volume features a grand total of three cutscenes, and they’re used to great effect. Voice acting here is top-notch, particularly Andy Serkis as Gisborne, the game’s antagonist, and some jaw-droppingly awesome cameos that won’t be spoiled here. In fact, the sound direction for Volume as a whole is fantastic. From its moody, operatic background music to even the sounds of footsteps, Volume works very hard to establish its atmosphere and succeeds in this respect.

Once the game has begun, you’re introduced to Alan, a super-friendly AI who acts as the backbone of the Volume simulation. Alan is ever-present, acting as your support as well as the  door to the outside world. The majority of dialog is between him and Locksley, and watching their relationship and characters develop throughout the game is a delight. In fact, I’d argue that Alan is  far more interesting than Locksley himself. Whereas Locksley sees the world in black and white, Alan sees moral grey areas, yet is still forced to follow along as a subservient AI.


“From its moody, operatic background music to even the sounds of footsteps,
Volume works very hard to establish its atmosphere and succeeds in this respect”

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With the Mute, it’s easy to escape your foes even if detected.

Gameplay is pretty straightforward here as far as stealth games go – spawn in a room and make it to the end. However, exits are useless until you’ve collected all of the gems in a given level. Thankfully, these gems are very easy to find – not so easy to get. In order to acquire gems and sneak past their guardians, you must often rely on your wits and the few tools you’ll have.

Environments often contain objects you can exploit, like lockers and false floorboards, but it’s hard to tell which are useful and which will get you killed. The result of this was that I often ignored them entirely, save for a couple of sequences where they’re necessary, and so felt like I maybe lost a bit of the depth the game was trying to offer me. There are also environmental distractions, like toilets, that you can use to manipulate enemy movement. Sadly, these are often no more useful than your ability to whistle, and much more likely to get you caught since there’s a delay when using them. Combine that with the fact that the game is constantly adding new enemies, objects, and even tiles, and you end up with an experience that often makes you second-guess your own decisions.

There are more than a few gadgets at your disposal, such as the blackjack, an obvious callback to the Thief series.   The catch is that they must be found within each self-contained level, and you can only carry one at a time.. I liked this a lot because it required some deeper decision making than other games that simply allow you to carry everything you’re given. However, the fact that you have to sit through each gadget’s cooldown time when you first pick them up was an endless source of frustration for me, and felt entirely pointless beyond lengthening a level’s completion time.

I mention completion time because throughout each level you’re timed, in seconds, and compared to your best speeds, those of your friends, and those of the entire player base. I’m not normally a competitive person; I’m the kind of guy who plays Call of Duty for the campaign and nothing else, and I love MOBAs – so long as I get to play against AI opponents. That being said, something about Volume‘s approach to competition in a single player game brought out the beast in me. I spent hours clawing my way to the top of the leaderboards, shouting expletives at my screen and rejoicing when I finally made it to the top.

“I spent hours clawing my way to the top of the leaderboards, shouting expletives at my screen and rejoicing when I finally made it to the top”

While this is easily Volume‘s most satisfying aspect, it’s cheapened by the fact that some people have already figured out how to achieve negative times through hacking. For a while, I had the best global completion time for the first level – that is, until someone completed it in -1 second. I’m still the second best, but I feel cheated knowing my effort has effectively been invalidated. This doesn’t affect the game too badly for me, but I fear this could put a huge damper on replayability as players simply won’t bother to improve their times, knowing that legitimate effort will go unrecognized in the wake of cheaters.

However, there are plenty of other reasons to keep replaying this game, chiefly its lasting difficulty. Even some of the earliest levels in the game can be eye-poppingly frustrating, whether it’s your first or tenth playthrough. If for whatever reason you feel these levels have nothing more to offer, the game has an exceptionally simple level editor that you can use to build your own levels or even remake the existing ones. Fans of the story have nothing to fear here, as it’s possible to experience the narrative through all of the levels on offer, be they official or fan-made.

It’s only a shame that trying to experience the story often gets in the way of gameplay. Most of Volume‘s dialog takes place in-game, which isn’t so bad until you get seen or take a look at one of the many text logs, at which point whatever line was being spoken resets entirely. It broke my immersion, and I found myself standing around for long periods of time – entirely engrossed in the dialog, but desperate to be able to play.

Overall, Volume is a game that has its share of problems. However, the few problems it does have are easily fixed and minor at best, and the game’s star-studded cast more than make up for its minor pains. The resulting experience is one that’s incredibly well put-together – a simple yet thought-provoking stealth game with a fantastic story and the possibility for a large amount of user-made content. I, for one, will be playing this for a long time to come.

  • Great write up, Dakota. Just scanned the Internet for other reviews on the game and saw that the same concerns are worn by many. But based on your preferences implied, I’m confident in purchasing this game today! Thanks.

  • These leaderboards have been a step backward for games, turning personal bests into social status symbols. Now video games are associated with competition, which is associated with aggressive behaviors. But this is a relatively new aspect of games, because before “social media” and “online connectivity” this was limited to video arcades where almost no one cared or even knew who the initialized names are (whenever/wherever the arcades still existed in the first place!) Still no one cares, but everyone is convinced their imaginary social network friends do care. It’s not healthy.