‘Acolyte’ review: paranoid android

Superstring’s latest narrative adventure is a fascinating mystery backed up with unreliable tech

I’m writing this review with Acolyte squatted in the corner of my second monitor. Superstring’s ambitious detective game is rooted half in the real world, with the game itself taking the role of a chatbot that sits at the corner of your screen, guiding you through a narrative adventure that takes a lot of inspiration from the Alternate Reality Games (ARG) popular in the ’90s and ’00s.

To try and get to the bottom of the mystery at the heart of Acolyte I’ve gone to binary translators, used Google to find articles that exist in the real world on Medium, and even gone spelunking into the source code of the game for answers. Playing this game will make you feel like a great detective as you need to really engage your brain just to try and work something out. Perhaps an image has hidden metadata, a hidden image or even just needs to be rotated a few times to find a clue? There’s no handholding, you’ll have to work it out yourself.

Sadly, the way you interact with the world of Acolyte is through Ana, your AI assistant. As the mystery unfolds around you, Ana is your guide, and acts as a progress marker while holding onto clues to mete out throughout the game’s five hour runtime. She is far from being up to the task, frequently fumbling basic inputs and making this mystery harder to solve than it really needs to be. If you’re playing the role of Sherlock here, Ana is less Watson and more, simply, What?

Acolyte. Credit: Superstring.
Acolyte. Credit: Superstring.

A lot of the weight of Acolyte working hinges on how well the actual AI works. At the start, this can be a little rocky from the off if you don’t play by the rules. Ana starts the game by asking your name. “Hi Ana, I’m Jake” I type, and promptly find myself referred to as “Hi Ana, I’m Jake” for a few minutes until I wiped the game’s data and started fresh. Trying to tell Ana that that wasn’t my name didn’t help either, as she ran through her script regardless.

After a quick restart I was able to get myself through 90 minutes of the mystery and had a pretty good time, but then Ana seemed to tangle up again: many of my questions were answered with “Hmm, can you rephrase that possibly?” and when an email found outside of the game asked me to provide Ana with some information contained within it, Ana was ignorant to it and ignored the input.

I managed to wiggle my way through this, but never managed to go back and finish that particular lead no matter how creative I was with my prompts and nudging. Because I never managed to get back to that, it seemed to cause a domino effect of bugs that meant certain parts of the game – even ones that were finished – never showed up as investigated.

Acolyte. Credit: Superstring.
Acolyte. Credit: Superstring.

A lot of this can be handwaved away: Ana is billed as an unfinished piece of software so any glitches and bugs can be explained, and inputs that Ana can’t recognise can be notched up to imperfect software. It’s just a shame that it’s actually down to imperfect software in the real world rather than just in the lore – although Ana can often be quite charming, any goodwill is quickly eroded when you’re desperately typing in the answer to a puzzle 5-10 times only to be asked to rephrase your question again.

God, what a romp though. It’s hard not to recommend it even if objectively it’s easy to see the cracks. Acolyte feels like a real investigation, backed up by the fact that my tools were Windows explorer, Google, Twitter. It’s hard not to be wrapped up in the game for a time until you go back to the real world. Except, due to the way the game blurs reality with the game itself, traces of the time you spent cracking open the mystery are still there, lurking in your auto-complete history, digital ghosts hiding out in your emails or Twitter search history.

Acolyte launches on June 28 for PC. 

The Verdict

A well-written mystery hamstrung by its own central feature, Acolyte has some of the hardest video game puzzles you’ll ever solve. Fans of ARGs might find themselves on familiar ground, but for everyone else, Acolyte is a fairly unique proposition that will be unlike anything you’ve ever played before. Ana is an unreliable companion, but this ride is definitely worth it.

Pros

  • Big mystery to dig your teeth into
  • A unique, well-executed concept
  • Complex puzzles with very little hand-holding

Cons

  • Ana’s AI input is spotty at best
  • Several mysterious seem to work incorrectly
  • Complex puzzles with very little hand-holding
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