If only playing the game was as fun as looking at the game.
Desert Child certainly wears its influences on its sleeve, set some fifty-odd years in the future on a downtrodden and dystopian Earth with more than a few passing resemblances to classic anime series and films such as Akira and Redline. The launch trailer released a few days before launch even features a shot-for-shot remake of a segment in the opening to Cowboy Bebop. Desert Child spends a lot of time putting its aesthetic flair front-and-center, which is a wise choice considering there’s little else worth checking out in this game.
Racing on futuristic hover bikes is the most exciting part of gameplay in Desert Child, and it clearly received more fine tuning than anything else in the game. During a race you’ll need to dodge or shoot obstacles while being mindful of your boost meter to keep a lead on your opponent. If you run out of ammo you’ll need to boost ahead into a truck to reload, but scattered among the obstacles are floating TVs that can be boosted into to refill ammo or collect money. Chaining together multiple TVs is the key to skillful play, allowing you to save boost power for holding onto 1st place.
And that’s about it. Races are the primary way to make money in Desert Child so you’ll be doing them a lot, but after playing for about ten minutes you’ve already seen everything they have to offer. This would be fine if you didn’t need to do them for very long, but this single gameplay concept is stretched way too thin over the course of a few hours. A good race will net you around $150, so you’ll reach your initial goal of $500 around the time racing starts to feel too repetitive to be interesting. The second goal is a much larger $10,000, which is a monotonous chore to reach.
After reaching your first goal you’ll be transported to a city on Mars that’s got plenty of locations to explore. This wider exploration is just another chore to take care of on your way to the next goal. Camera angles in the Martian city are stylish and impressive, but they take no effort to actually convey where you’re going. The only hint towards which buildings can and cannot be interacted with are a pop-up button telling you that you can enter a shop. The art looks impressive, but every landscape is so over-designed that the locations and objects you’re supposed to be noticing and engaging with don’t stand out enough. Navigating the city is pure trial and error, and there’s no map or info screen telling you where you can go. Perhaps this is intentional and you’re meant to explore your way through an unknown landscape, but playing Desert Child is already a monotonous chore. Being overwhelmed because I didn’t know where to go didn’t make things any more fun.
You can’t just beeline through races to get your goal as fast as possible either. If you don’t periodically pay for bike repairs or food then your race performance will suffer. Finding where you’re supposed to eat and get your bike fixed is crucial, and neglecting either chore will leave you essentially unable to boost at all during races. This only serves to make the repetitive monotony of racing take even more time; food and repairs are also so expensive that they can nearly wipe out a whole race’s winnings in one go.
On top of all of this, Desert Child just feels unfinished. Menus are clunky and difficult to navigate, and any given control input outside of races feels more like a polite suggestion than a command. One minigame - delivering pizzas - has money-filled TVs just like a regular race, but as far as I can tell there’s no way to break them open. Written text all feels like a first draft with errors in punctuation and capitalization that aren’t consistent enough to look like an intentional stylistic choice. The worst oversight of all was when I accidentally selected the option to start a new game on the pause menu. Without confirming that I did really want to start a new game, I was immediately sent to the beginning of the game with all of my progress thus far being completely deleted when the new save file autosaved.
If I were to judge Desert Child exclusively on its aesthetics, I would have nothing but glowing praise for it. From the gorgeous pixel art to the incredible soundtrack, Desert Child looks outstanding. Looks can be deceiving though, and it’s clear that much more time was spent on crafting a distinct style than fine-tuning gameplay. If you’ve so much as watched a trailer for Desert Child, you’ve already experienced everything worth seeing in the game.