When you are playing Safe House by Labs Games, you cannot help but use a comparison to the games that clearly influenced this video game. From the aesthetic of CounterSpy to the room structures of Fallout Shelter to the bureaucracy-laden chores of Papers, Please, you can tell the ambitions of the development team in melding all these disparate forces together. Unfortunately, it does not match its influencers, nor does it surpass as a sum of its parts.
Let’s temper some of the harshness above. The concept of the game is excellent: juggle the macro management of a safe house, its agents, and its mission with the micromanagement of the actions (mini-games) during the night: passwords at the front desk, cryptology, forgery, interrogation, running the infirmary, making bombs, and accepting shipments. Pair this with an interesting story about you running an operations base for the CIA in a foreign country, and in theory, it should work, but like any good battle plan, it gets thrown out once the battle commences.
Each “day” in the safe house consists of three movements: the construction period, the assignment period, and the “working” period. The construction period is when you build new rooms in the safe house to increase your workload, add agents, or gain bonuses. The assignment period is when you send out spies and soldiers to complete missions. The “working” period is the aforementioned micromanagement of playing mini-games or puzzles to earn money. The problem with the movements is they are not balanced well. The construction and assignment periods feel unfinished. As if the developers wanted to do more with these but ran out of time. Many “days” I had no missions to send my spies and soldiers on. There should really never be a day I can’t do anything.
The mini-games themselves are different enough from each other that it feels good to move from one to other. The problem is, they never increase in difficulty. Whether it’s day 5 or day 25, a case in the infirmary is the same – match blood type, find the correctly-spelled prescription name with no ingredients the patient is allergic to. There is also no sense of urgency. It doesn’t matter if I complete 5 tasks in a night or 2 tasks in a night, other than I get more money for more correctly completed tasks. There’s nothing to drive me. In fact, after 30 “days” in the game, I ended up so bored from the mini-games, that I chose to take the vanilla, white bread ending of resigning my post, rather than see where the story would ultimately take me. It was unfortunate since the story was just getting interesting.
The game also had some glitches and issues with mouse sensitivity that I just could not ignore. It hampered my play and honestly cost me success multiple times. It’s just a few user experience issues that appear small, but impact the player’s fun.
Safe House Review Final Thoughts:
Overall, Safe House is a fantastic concept that just never lives up to its potential. It isn’t that I never had fun with the game, it’s just that the amount of fun I had diminished the longer I played. I would be interested in seeing a ‘lessons learned’ deep dive with the developers at GDC next year. I think this is a pass for everyone save those hardcore indie game players.