One thing's for sure: Consortium isn't afraid to hide one of its chief influences. Mere minutes in, responding to a quip from the pilot of a futuristic craft crammed with quasi-military types, I jumped on the best of three possible responses: "So you're the ship's joker, right?" Had it used a capital "J," developer Interdimensional Games might as well have shouted out its inspiration. Indeed, Consortium is partly Mass Effect stripped of all that business of exploring worlds and drilling planets, opting instead to unfold events in an aircraft from 2042 that feels like the Normandy and looks strikingly similar to a Boeing 747. L. Ron Hubbard would be proud. But this isn't some soulless rip-off; look past crippling bugs and visual oddities, such as water faucets that seem to spit mercury and the Tomb Raider-circa-2003 faces, and you'll find a role-playing game experience that's at least worthy of breathing the same air as BioWare's space saga.
Consortium presents us with a distinctly European vision of the future, down to quips about how Americans no longer make the best stuff in 2042. It's populated with a motley selection of nationalities and races that work for a peacekeeping organization that may or may not have sinister intentions, and the entire concept hinges on a military hierarchy that labels people with the names of various chess pieces. You, for instance, take on the role of Bishop Six, a warrior enforcer of sorts on his first day on the job, and your presence leads you to butt heads with the knight in charge or tease unfortunately named pawns about relieving themselves in the brig toilet. As the plot reveals, it's a fun job, and you end up investigating murders, sniffing out traitors, attempting to tame mercenaries with diplomatic skills, and sometimes even fighting.
Taking on roles isn't a figure of speech in this case. One of Consortium's most fascinating quirks is that its meta-narrative assigns you the role of a contemporary player in a satellite-based game that lets you slip into the minds of figures from alternate futures. (Top that one, Oculus Rift.) It initially seems like little more than a tired Assassin's Creed-inspired conceit, but only minutes in, Consortium lets you blurt out the truth to your underlings if you wish. Part of what makes Consortium so appealing is that such playful sallies affect the game's more serious preoccupations with murders, subterfuge, and even cocky Bulgarian recidivists who attack you with antique fighter jets in order to stay off the sensors. Push it too far, and the talking chess pieces around you might start to doubt your ability to lead them to checkmate.
It's generally fun to hear them talk. While some of Bishop Six's responses exhibit an unfortunate smidge of juvenile phrasing, the surrounding crew members exude a degree of humanity barely suggested by their antiquated models. Pause too long before answering as I did while taking notes, and they cut off the conversation out of a belief that you're either rude or just don't want to answer. Conversations flow well from one to another regardless of shifts in subject matter, and Consortium tops it all off with a generally competent voice cast. This works well when you hear Knight 15's confidence waver in the face of little human errors, which makes her leadership seem more believable, or even when crewmembers of various ranks argue over whether to announce the discovery of a murdered rook's corpse.
Push it too far, and the talking chess pieces around you might start to doubt your ability to lead them to checkmate.
It's fitting, then, that the ship itself is as much of a character as the crewmembers who populate it. Not unlike Cowboy Bebop, Consortium walks a fine line between the familiar and the far-fetched, and that mixture adds a touch of creepiness as you hunt the rooms for clues and hobnob with crewmembers who balk when you question things that someone in your position should know. You spend almost all your time on the ship, and it's thus a good thing that its three decks offer plenty of exploration to make up for the absence of any ground exploration on your way from Bulgaria to London. Partly thanks to the inclusion of a sweeping musical score by composer Jeremy Soule of Elder Scrolls and Guild Wars fame, the mere act of exploring its air ducts and closed rooms is a pleasure in itself.
Consortium also serves as a decent if uninspired first-person shooter, even to the point of including a prompt at the beginning that adjusts the difficulty for story or action. It's a familiar enough concept, but Consortium goes further than most games by letting you avoid almost all of the gunplay by focusing on careful answers and juggling the dispositions of various enemies and friends. It's a more rewarding approach to Consortium, much like playing Dishonored with an exclusive focus on stealth. Yet shooting is so secondary to the general drive of Consortium that much of it occurs in training exercises in a holodeck of sorts, or through a brief virtual dogfighting sequence. There are no specializations or skills to tinker with--only a smattering of weapons and the ability to incapacitate downed soldiers or to heal allies around you.
And man, is Consortium glitchy. I spent my first few days with the game occasionally unable to get far beyond the loading screen without the computer locking up; I later learned to wait it out for about five minutes. And there's an otherwise impressive sequence late in the game that can cause all manner of problems. I struggled with it myself until the devs posted a workaround on the Steam forums last Tuesday that allowed me a peek at what passes for the end. The issues are so severe that Interdimensional now has a disclaimer on its Steam page acknowledging and apologizing for the troubles, along with the hopeful news that the problems should clear up with a bulky patch toward the end of the month.
It's a shame, because Consortium delivers a uniquely enjoyable RPG experience despite its rather disappointing running time of around four to five hours. That's not as bad as it initially sounds, however, since you discover remarkable differences in gameplay depending on how you make your decisions throughout the game (and on whether you decide to shoot up the place), thus lending Consortium a dose of replay value. For now, at least, it's best to wait. Consortium has a fascinating story to tell that leads you down some bizarre narrative pathways that break the fourth wall, and it's likely best experienced when you can get it to play without crashing or bugging out. Considering that it's partly a game about time travel, a couple of weeks isn't that long to hold out.