Review: Tethered (Steam)

Quite a few years have passed since I last played a 3D God Game. Of course, Black & White was the first subgenre representative to teach me both the basics and even English, since in 2001 I wasn’t as proficient in it as I am now. Those were happy times and that game’s complexity and fun factor has yet to be replicated by another iteration or similar title. Not that many such games might exist on the Steam Store or outside of it. But the gaming’s equivalent to Nietzsche, must not rejoice just yet. God Games are not dead. Tethered wishes to prove that to us.

Developed by a promising Steam debutante, Secret Sorcery Limited, I have to agree that the inclusion of a Non-VR Tethered update in April (a few months after the initial launch) made this review possible. I consider Virtual Reality as more of an expensive fad, passing or not, than anything truly useful to me. I’m still a couple of years away from owning such a headset, but any developer which tries to cater to “both Steam crowds”, deserves some recognition. Plus their game is lots of fun, but more on that below.

The plot is quite simple: you’re a nameless, but not faceless (because of the stone totems) deity with full control over the lives of Peeps. They are a cute race of bipedal creatures in need of guidance from a superior being. That’s where you step in and shall fill that spiritual void while ensuring their survival and eventually, their prosperity. The game’s very title deserves some further attention. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “tether” means: “a line (as of rope or chain) by which an animal is fastened so as to restrict its range of movement”. We may consider the Peeps as animals in the same sense in which humans are also part of the same taxonomic rank. Don’t debate me over evolutionary biology, okay?

So you get play God with a race of sentient beings. That’s all fine and dandy until you find yourself restricted by the game world and the movement mechanics. You see, Peeps live in an idyllic realm of floating islands and despite the fact that you’re an all-powerful spirit, you can only zoom in on them while hopping from one cloud to another. So you have fixed viewpoints over a limited space and the tethering part fits into place, like a glove. You instruct your Peep subjects by “linking” them to their next task or designated profession, using only your mouse peripheral. Tethered contains thirteen levels nicely noted in Roman numerals. Sadly, they lack sufficient variety to stand out from each other. They’re all combinations of smaller or slightly larger floating islands containing the same basic resources you require, in order to assemble the same templates for various buildings.

Tethered is powered by Unreal Engine 4 assets along with custom ones which the dev team, clearly spent sufficient time creating and tweaking to a quality standard. The performance in the Non-VR version I could test out, was as advertised. Stable and constant 60 frames per second at 4K resolution. I couldn’t complain about a single issue relating to the visuals or overall performance. Tethered looks great and ran without a hitch. Quite surprising, given my past experience with UE4-powered indie titles. Frame rate was more of a lottery than guaranteed stability, at 4K or even 2K res. That’s how you spot the difference between an indie game developed by a single enthusiast and a title on which an entire team has worked and had the means (time and budget) to iron out any potential optimization issues.

Another pleasant surprise was the inclusion of Celtic Music in the soundtrack. It was both relaxing and fitted the mood and game setting. Peeps are as peaceful and easygoing as Tolkien’s hobbits, so I found the music selection to be a perfect representation of this. Sound effects were in place, but voice acting is missing altogether. Truth be told, not much need for it since the Peeps speak in their own little gibberish and we have no narrator or “voices of reason” like in Black & White. I really miss those two crazy avatars for Good and Evil…

Tethered had the right ideas going for it, but perhaps the execution has some flaws in its design. I have to repeat my complaint on the severely limited game worlds which shift from one level to another, yet they feel pretty much the same, with just asset redecoration over far too small floating islands. Cute or not, the Peeps have only a handful of roles and they all seem to be of the same indistinct gender, with just skin tone, setting them apart from one another. They require basic resources such as food or timber, yet they have no shelter or exhibit the need to rest. The only threat to their existence, apart from hunger, seems to be the inclusion of critters which appear at night and which the Peeps need to fight and defeat. So after you’ve played 2 or 3 stages in Tethered, you’ve pretty much experienced all that that game has to throw at you, in terms of challenge or building diversity.

The game’s main goal is to reach a certain Spirit Energy threshold, in order to unlock new levels. This type of energy is represented in-game by glowing cyan orbs which you attract towards yourself with a right-click. Consider it the reward you constantly receive for taking care of your little worshipers. The totem which stands as a testament to your power over Peeps, will also show how much Spirit Energy you have accumulated along with how much you still require before progressing to a new world. Speaking of which, there is no real sense of achievement or progress. Black & White had an increasingly larger creature which would act on your behalf and Spore would allow you to take control over a species’ destiny from its microorganism stage and all the way to spacefaring status. Tethered seems limited by its gameplay in equal measure as by it game design. Perhaps more updates or some (free) DLC can fix this?

It’s a decent God Game, don’t get me wrong. It’s also not showcasing violence or themes that might be inappropriate to children. It just had potential for so much more, if it embraced an open world design and that genre’s specific mechanics. You don’t feel the power or freedom of a deity in Tethered, while caring for clones of the same cute little creatures gets repetitive rather fast. Even as it stands I don’t consider it overpriced, but if you do, just wait for a Steam Sale. I’ll be eagerly waiting to see what Tethered can achieve in the future.

All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.


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