American Arcadia review: ingenious spy thriller is a can’t-miss November game

Trevor and Angela stand tall in American Arcadia.

“American Arcadia turns The Truman Show into an interactive indie thriller you don’t want to miss.”

Pros

  • Great retro future art style
  • Gripping story
  • Strong lead performance
  • Clever puzzle platforming

Cons

  • Satire loses its focus at times
  • Chase scenes get repetitive

Trevor Hills is a perfectly average guy. He wakes up every morning, follows the same routine, works at his boring desk job, and heads home without making a fuss. He’s an ideal all-American good boy — and it’s about to get him killed.

That’s the juicy premise that fuels American Arcadia, the latest project from Call of the Sea developer Out of the Blue. The standout puzzle-platformer takes the gameplay ideas of moody genre classics like Limbo and works them into a small-scale Hollywood spy thriller about the world’s dullest action hero. He’s not running and jumping from a serial killer or giant monster, but something far more threatening: a media mega-power that’s decided his boring life simply isn’t profitable enough anymore.

American Arcadia is a sharp dystopian satire that takes jabs at capitalism, Disney, and reality TV. Imagine a playable cross between The Truman Show and The Fugitive, all dressed up in 1970s retro-future style. Out of the Blue delivers on that premise with clever gameplay that replicates the thrills of cinematic chase scenes and hacker flicks alike in colorful 2.5D. It’s a small rallying cry for ordinary people who just wish they could break free from the dehumanizing corporate world.

Under the dome

When I’m first introduced to the world of American Arcadia, everything seems hunky-dory. The opening moments introduce me to Trevor as he goes about his day to day in the titular Arcadia. I get some calm moments to soak in the intricately designed “city of the future,” a 2.5D metropolis that takes colorful inspiration from 1970s retro future design, before I find out everything around me is a lie. It turns out Trevor is unwittingly the star of an enormous reality TV show set in a city trapped inside a dome.

It plays like an interactive combination of The Truman Show, The Fugitive, and Free Guy

That’s where American Arcadia gets into some juicy satire. A mysterious hacker named Angela informs Trevor that he’s one of the show’s least popular cast members, because he’s just too boring for viewers. Since keeping a cast member alive isn’t cheap, the megacompany that runs the program plans to cut him … permanently. It’s a sharp-witted premise that takes aim at the way capitalism reduces people and workers to dollars and cents. That’s especially resonant right now, as the video game industry is in the midst of mass layoffs that have carelessly thrown thousands of developers out to sea. The modern workforce is starting to feel as cutthroat as a TV show competition.

Some of those satirical wires do get a bit crossed during the surprisingly long adventure. Commentary on reality TV culture gets mixed up with jabs at Disney, a company that the game’s nefarious media corporation seems clearly modeled after. Those two pieces don’t always fit together cleanly, but it does let American Arcadia paint a broad picture of our country’s obsession with money, power, and consumption.

Trevor walks into INAC headquarters in American Arcadia.
Out of the Blue

Even if it’s thematically imperfect, the story is a compelling setup for a good old Hollywood thriller. It plays like an interactive combination of The Truman Show, The Fugitive, and Free Guy, with the average Trevor becoming an unwitting action hero as he tries to escape the dome. Credit goes to Spider-Man voice actor Yuri Lowenthal here, who turns Trevor into a lovable loser that I can’t help but root for. Lowenthal nails Trevor’s slow-building frustration, as each new twist he learns about Arcadia shows just how little control he has over his own life. By the end, he completes his transformation into a true everyman: a guy who just wishes everyone would leave him alone.

Run and hack

To deliver its Hollywood premise, American Arcadia adopts an action-adventure setup that’s most similar to games like Limbo. Trevor’s escape has him sneaking past guards with a bit of puzzling and doing some fast-paced urban platforming during chase sequences. The added twist, though, is that players also control Angela, who can remotely hack Trevor’s surroundings to help him escape. It’s a one-player co-op premise that works surprisingly well and paves the way for some ingenious moments.

… a smart spy thriller with varied set pieces.

During one early chase scene, I see a guard coming down an elevator. He has a view of Trevor’s escape route through clear glass, but there’s a quick junction where the glass is covered. I get Trevor into cover and take over a security camera as Angela, who hacks the elevator just at the right moment so that the guard’s vantage point is blocked. A later stealth segment has Angela hopping between drones patrolling a room, using them to stun wandering guards and clear the way for Trevor. Inventive moments like that bridge the gap between action and puzzle to create a smart spy thriller with varied set pieces.

Some segments play with the format even more. Occasionally, I take direct control of Angela as she infiltrates the enemy headquarters in full 3D, first-person perspective. An early situation has me hacking security cameras by placing dummy video feeds in front of the right camera and sleuthing out a door code for a locked server room. At its best, American Arcadia lets me live out all my hacker movie dreams.

Angela holds her phone as she tries to help Trevor in American Arcadia.
Out of the Blue

There are enough creative gameplay ideas here that American Arcadia never fully runs out of steam, though it is stretched thin across its seven chapters. Chase sequences can get repetitive after a while, especially due to some inconsistent checkpointing that often kicks me back a bit farther than I’d like during tricky sequences that require a little experimentation. My attention never wanders for long, though; there’s always another crowd-pleasing moment ready to crank the approval rating back up.

And audience approval is everything in American Arcadia. It’s the metric by which a billion-dollar entertainment enterprise gets to decide who is profitable enough to live and die. That heightened premise is terrifyingly not far off from our own reality, where hundreds of lives can be upended with the snap of one rich executive’s fingers. The city of Arcadia may seem like a distant dystopia, but the sobering finale reminds us that the world outside of its domed walls isn’t always much better. All we can do is keep running and hope we find our way out eventually.

American Arcadia was tested on PC and Legion Go.

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