The Occupation is a first-person stealth thriller played in real-time over the course of a four-hour investigation. Meaning the game will advance to the next chapter even if you just stand around doing nothing. In it, you take control of an investigative journalist snooping around at government-tied company, the Bowman Carson group. On the face of it, you’re there to ask questions about “The Union Act”, a new controversial act being pushed through in response to a recent terrorist attack on the very same building. Before heading to the first interview, the player is sent a cryptic message from a “third party” suggestion that the terrorist they caught was framed, and there was a cover-up by someone at the facility. You need to figure out who did it.
The opening level is an exposition/tutorial set before the main investigation and is played from another character’s point of view. It hints at conspiracies surrounding the terrorist attack, and other scary things that do a decent job of building enough intrigue to motivate your investigation. This was a mixed experience for me. I felt like I was kind of dumped in with no idea what I was even supposed to be doing. Coupled with some clunky controls, there was a brief time where I worried I wouldn’t even figure out the tutorial. My guess is this was an issue with getting the console version and it’s probably a lot smoother on PC though. Aiming at small or specific hotspots is a lot clumsier on a joystick. Luckily there aren’t really any dangers of getting caught or time pressures here, so you can work through it.
After the exposition, we switch to our journalist, preparing for an interview with staff at the Bowman Carson group. With only a short time to gather clues from your surroundings as you wait for your meeting, you need to dig up some evidence of a cover-up to find out if this third party was telling the truth. This gets pretty tense when you end up sneaking through an air vent into the office of the person you are interviewing with only 10 minutes aiming, hoping to nab that last piece of evidence and still have time to make it out again. If you do get caught snooping, you’re held up by security staff, and precious time is taken from your investigation which is already running short. The game is all about following your leads while balancing a mix of caution and fearlessness you need to get through successfully.
The Occupation does an excellent job of making a game with no combat feel high pressure at almost every turn. Ignoring the fact that the building’s tight security was oddly okay with me showing up an hour early and just kind of disappearing down the halls, discovering the nooks and crannies of the building I was investigating was a real thrill. Clues are laid out in a way that allows you to follow a lead at length, slowly uncovering more hints as you desperately try to piece the mysteries and the layout of the building together at the same time. As you collect clues, summaries of the hints are added to your dossier which you can access any time. You can also take any items you find and store them in your briefcase for later, which seemed like a great way to get into a room, grab a clue, and leave before getting caught. Unfortunately, this is where the frustrations start, because after trying every button possible, I discovered there was no way to ever reaccess those briefcase clues again. The dossier generally covers any issue around remembering vital clues as it saved the summaries, but sometimes the game will accidentally place clues in there before it has time to register what’s in them. Whoops. Guess I missed out on that super important clue unless I restart.
After totally blowing my first investigation (my bad) I at least felt like I finally understood the game well enough to do well on the second. I set out quickly gathering as many clues as possible on the main lead I had. Even with the briefcase bug, I powered through or would reset if I managed to hide away something that seemed really important. My assistant later calls with a hint to say that there’s a piece of data that could be vital to the investigation. If I find it she says I need to save it to a floppy disc, print it, and then fax it to her. This proves a bit tricky when every office in the building has a magnetic entrance designed to wipe floppy disc data and is a recurring puzzle in the game. Finding ways to transport the data between offices and floors by exploiting the flaws in the building’s security measures is a lot of fun at first too, but sometimes in order to do this I would want to put the floppy disc down in one room, so I could move around and investigate another safely.
I did this twice, and both times the game did not allow me to pick the disc back up. This was a disc the game made pretty clear I needed if I had any hopes of getting anywhere in my next interview.
It’s very possible that I was doing the wrong thing there, but in a game all about discovery I should be allowed some room to experiment. Allowing me to accidentally remove a key piece of evidence from the game in two ways, the briefcase being the other, sucked all the fun out of it.
I wish this review could be longer and that I could rate it highly because what was promised (and what it sometimes delivered) was a perfect sleuthing game. Instead, I spent most of my time resetting the game over and over in order to figure out what I was doing wrong, only to realise the game just wasn’t working. And unfortunately, the compounding bugs and issues meant I only got part way through the second chapter.
The good news though is that the PC version has been getting some love. Looking at the steam listing, the developers are pushing out lots of updates to the PC version, which definitely includes at least one floppy disc-related issue. Once my frustration has died down, I may be picking up another copy on PC to give it a second chance.