The second album is always the hardest. The first is the one you've been making in your head for a decade, the very best of your early work, often raw, sometimes inspired, it's the starting point that so often defines a career. The second, however, is crafted in less time, with more pressure, and it's done so with the burden of greater expectation. Does the comparison make the leap to video game development, in particular indie game development? Maybe, maybe not, but assuming that it does, Mike Bithell has done a great job with his second album, Volume, and our expectations have well and truly been met.
Thomas Was Alone is an elegant platformer, puzzling and charming in equal measure, and Volume picks up the baton where that game left off, and then runs with it. Commendably, these are very different games. Thomas being a four-sided platformer, Volume instead built around the art of stealth. They share some of the same DNA though. The life force of both games are the puzzles that flow through them, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Bithell's style when delivering narrative.
It sneaks up on you pretty quickly that Volume is a work of homage to the stealth genre, and Metal Gear Solid is clearly a defining inspiration. That said, the game has its own identity that reveals itself over a century of levels, and for the most part, it's engaging and enjoyable. Bithell hands the player a selection of tools that are essential when solving each scenario, and having spoken to him previously about the game, we know that's because he didn't want to create a game where players could skirt around the various tricks of the trade that we're given when we take control of Sam or Snake.
Here we're playing as Rob Locksley in what's an unashamed riff on the Robin Hood story. Set in the future - with some nice interlocking nods to the story in Thomas Was Alone - Volume puts you in the shoes of a man fighting the new order. Locksley is simulating heists against the rich and powerful and sharing them with the masses via the futuristic equivalent of a let's play (indeed, prominent YouTuber Charlie McDonnell provides the voice of our chief protagonist).
Each broadcast takes place in a new level, with Locksley showing the people of England how to take down the heists in real life via his simulations. The tools needed to progress through each stage are dotted around the levels and players pick them up as they advance. Apart from the odd key to open a barrier, they're nearly always a means of getting around the guards that patrol each area. There's several varieties of enemy, and avoiding their gaze and/or disrupting their patrol patterns is generally the way forward.
There's no taking out the guards; at best you can incapacitate them for a few seconds while you get past, but they always come back. The enemy AI is very simplistic, which makes it fairly straightforward when planning your moves because it's easy enough to predict the behaviours of the guards that you need to circumnavigate. There's options embedded in the environment - taps to turn on or toilets to flush - that a nearby patrol will investigate, and it's not long before Locksley is able to initiate his own distractions via a whistle.
On top of that there's portable trip wires that stun opponents, you can ping-pong an audible distraction off walls and around corners, you can put on a disguise, and even go invisible; each level is built around a different tool (or two) located in the environment, and you're presented with a puzzle that requires you to utilise the equipment on offer. The challenge is variable; some you'll suss out in a matter of seconds, others will take five minutes or more. With such an inconsistent challenge, so to comes a sliding scale of satisfaction. There's certainly some levels that are more interesting than others.
The story is delivered at certain points during your progress through the various challenges, and Danny Wallace - playing a quirky AI called Alan - is on hand to swap quips with Locksley as he runs each gauntlet. If we're honest, the delivery of the narrative stumbles here and there, although to its credit it never wanders off course even if the game's not as charismatic as its predecessor. Still, it's an interesting retelling of the Robin Hood myth, and Bithell's own ideological viewpoint can be felt bubbling away under the surface.
The story might hold it together, but it's not the star of the show. For that we need look no further than the missions we're handed and the various items we're given to unlock each challenge. The level design, the abilities of the items you carry, the variety of guards that you encounter; these factors all combine to keep the experience fresh during the five or six hours it'll take you to complete the game, at which point, if you're still hooked, you can start trying to shave seconds off each run (there's also player-generated content to check out thanks to the level editor).
Towards the end of the game, as the difficulty gently ramps, you can occasionally use the checkpoint system to gently cheat your way through a puzzle (once a guard has tagged you the game resets to the last checkpoint and the guard returns to their post - so dashing for a checkpoint can be all too convenient), but we didn't really mind this; it's an out for players who don't mind taking the path of least resistance, and because going back to a checkpoint resets the charge on whatever device you're carrying and you have to wait before you can activate it, cheesing the checkpoint system effectively rules you out of completing a speedrun or setting a personal best.
The visuals finish is elegant yet functional. You can see what each patrolling guard can see, which allows you to plan ahead and make decisions on the fly, and the levels are well built, their decoration interesting (there's a lot of dinosaurs in there for some reason). There's a nice use of colour and shading. Clean and simple design compliments the futuristic setting of the game, and it all feels very cohesive.
Indeed, cohesive is the key word here. Once again Mike Bithell has crafted a focussed and purposeful game. There's elegance in its design, and the constant stream of bite-sized challenges will keep you engaged until the credits roll. Is there enough to keep you coming back for more? It's hard to say with The Phantom Pain looming on the horizon, but speed-runners and puzzle fanatics will certainly find reason to revisit each level more than once. Either way Volume is worth your time, and proves that Mike Bithell's first album wasn't a fluke. His second might not be quite as charming, but it's accomplished, enjoyable, and easy to recommend.