Self-disclosure: I am a huge fan of the Blade Runner franchise. Ever since I was a young teen and saw the original movie, I have been a fan. There is something unique about the atmosphere of a Blade Runner story. There is a certain pace, the eerie darkness, the rain-slicked streets, the hopelessness, the existential questions it raises about humanity. I love it all. I even loved the book by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which the movie is based upon.
Shortly after falling in love with the original movie (and watching it in all its different iterations), I was introduced to the 1997 video game. At the time, I remember being completely blown away by its unique voxel-based characters and the intricate, unique, and utterly Blade Runner-esque environments. The story, as well, was engaging; familiar enough that fans would feel like they were living a life parallel to the movie, but different enough to feel new. Plus, the game boasted several unique endings depending on various choices that you could make along the way. It is one of the few games that I ever bothered to complete multiple times just to experience the various endings.
Things happened with Westwood Studios, the company that developed the original game. I’m not going to go into the details, because they’re easy enough to find with a quick google search. Suffice it to say that because of several factors, including corporate dealings and decisions making ownership of the IP, as well as the way that the original game was programmed to begin with, it quickly became impossible to re-release in its original form. The original game, likewise, was impossible to play on modern machines, so, for people who were not fortunate enough to play the game when it was first released, there was no real feasible way for them to experience it.
Now, 25 years after the original game was released, Nightdive Studios has released the Enhanced Edition version of the game, allowing new and old players to experience Blade Runner with enhanced graphics and interfaces, including a higher framerate capability over the original.
Then, I played the game.
In the Los Angeles of 2019, the Nexus 6 replicants have a five-year lifespan. Naturally, the replicants want more life and fight, tooth and nail, to try and achieve that goal, usually with dire consequences. I feel that the game, in all its efforts to achieve a new life, succumbed to the same fate as the replicants within its narrative.
Why? It’s essentially the same game as the original, with a new coat of paint, right? Not quite.
In upgrading the game’s graphics to a new high-definition standard, a discrepancy that was not apparent in the original version became much more obvious. The thing is that the environment art was done in two-dimensional graphics, while the characters that populated the environment were modeled in three-dimensional voxel-based sprites. With the fidelity of the original environment art, the voxel characters felt like they belonged in the scenes. They fit. But, with the upgraded high-fidelity background art, the voxel-based characters look completely awful and disjointed with the environments in which they occupy. It’s almost like they fell deep down into the uncanny valley and were unable to claw their way back out the other side.
This jarring visual discrepancy seems to only serve to underscore other weaknesses in the game that were easier to overlook before, such as the stiff voice-acting, the extremely dated ‘90’s CGI cutscenes, and the awkwardly derivative script that, in today’s light, seems to pale in comparison to the stories presented in the movies.
But all is not lost. I am by no means alone in my dissatisfaction with the enhanced edition of the game. Seemingly in response to the negative response to the new version of the game, the developers also released a playable version of the original release of the game along with the enhanced version, as well. So, now people can re-experience the original game, or experience it for the first time in its original format, rather than the newer version.
I am still a huge fan of Blade Runner, and I am thankful for the opportunity to relive the memories of such a key gaming experience from my childhood, but I would say that if the enhanced version was a new release today, it would not be impressive on its own. Looking at it through the lens of being a kind of strange time capsule of late ‘90’s video game history, it can be appreciated in a much better way. I wish I could say better things about it, but unfortunately it does not deserve it.