Review – Tron: Identity
Have you ever had Iced Cucumber Pepsi? Of course you haven’t, it’s a maddening idea that shouldn’t even be considered by someone entrusted to operate a car. Yet, back in 2007, it was all I wanted to drink for two glorious months. Cool, refreshing, sweet but not saccharine, this seemingly defiant beverage was consumed upwards of three bottles a day as long as I could find it. Pepsi Japan will release random flavors every once in a while, and, regardless, I will give them a try. Salty watermelon, red bean, baobab, whichever: I must try them. Even if it sounds like something I will truly hate, like caramel punch, I must consume them. For, though it’s awful, it is Pepsi giving me something new, and I am here for it, regardless.
Tron: Identity, is the latest drip feed in the slow, agonizing world of Disney giving something to Tron fans. We’ve gotten nothing in terms of a new movie or television series, despite Marvel and Star Wars releasing something every couple of months or so. As a result, those who enjoy the world of The Grid, Users and ISOs have to turn to games, which are also few and far between. This latest one came as a bit of a shock upon announcement: the high paced world of light bike racing and competitive death sports hardly felt like the next natural step for a visual novel mystery. Yet, at the same time, that seems to make perfect sense. After all, the Grid exists beyond just the Users and whatever happens when you put Jeff Bridges in a VR helmet. This is an opportunity to expand upon the lore of the overall world, not just what makes a big budget film tick.
You are Query, an investigative program working in a New Grid that is wholly unrelated to previous Grids in other Tron mediums. At the Repository (the center of information) in this Grid, an explosion has occurred and it seems that something has attempted – or perhaps successfully – was stolen. Several suspects exist, including the security program, Grish; the smarmy and aloof controller, Prinz; Ada, the librarian/gardner; and Cass,Sierra and Proxy, rogue P+rograms of different levels who appear to be at the Repository for different, potentially sinister purposes. You must use your dual skills of speech and defragging to reach the answers.
Choose the correct line of questioning to gain trust and further unravel the mystery, and defrag a program’s memory to help unlock details that may have been forgotten. What exactly happened here, and who, or whom, is to blame?
As a visual novel, Tron: Identity performs in a beautiful if typical way. Each screen is a series of textual interactions combined with some static and slightly interactive graphics. Players can look for glowing points on the screen to click and unlock additional details/information that help to flush out the Codex for the game and little else. As dialogue trees for characters and areas expand, you’ll gradually gain the respect, suspicion, disappointment and/or anger of every Program you encounter. Your Codex, which serves as a glossary as well as a narrative tree, shows the potential branches of every character as you interact with them, and how some branches can end suddenly if the right or wrong choices are made. Don’t forget, you are operating as the law: the sudden need to “derezz” a Program may occur if things go sour.
The visual aspect is done to a T, and it’s clear that Bithell Games took a long look at the world of Tron in order to craft a brand new location and characters that feel completely at home in the existing lore. It’s a tough balance to strike to capture the foreboding aspects of Tron, especially when you consider Tron: Legacy felt like almost a step backwards due to the improvement in technology and available practical effects.
Yet Tron: Identity weaves saturated neon throughout in a way that feels sickly and corrupted instead of brilliant and flashy. It has the glow of something that speaks of glory gone, or of a dream deferred. Characters and areas are crafted for what can only be described as a fever dream Gibson had after drinking absinthe and watching Casablanca. That’s the noir thread that keeps this detective story going is having all that makes the cyberpunk ideals bleed in spite of what should be a fantastically whimsical world. I’ll never understand how or why Disney gave Tron the greenlight, and, at this point, I refuse to question it further.
The storyline is surprisingly compelling in terms of both presentation and natural direction. Query, as a Program, is faced with the same trials and tribulations that come with all Programs within the world of Tron. Namely, having prime directives and ideas that get challenged through “corruption” of code and concepts. The central throughline about the privatization of data and obfuscating knowledge is one that should ring true with the audience of today and, sadly, will be one that continues to echo as history flows like a river. When certain truths are revealed, Query has to make some difficult calls which branch in multiple directions, and each avenue is worth exploring.
That is something Tron: Identity does especially well. At first, the fact that a playthrough clocks in at barely longer than an actual Tron movie feels almost insulting, if only because I sincerely wanted MORE of everything unfolding before me. But the Codex shows pathways opening and shutting as you move forward, giving clear but not overly obvious directions as to what can and cannot be said to access more and more of the game. Players will be able to note immediately when they should have chosen differently, and, even from the very beginning, the entire path of the game can change if you decide to give Grish a chance to tag along or ask him to stay at the front door. That singular moment creates two completely separate games that can and should be explored to get the full story out of what transpired in the Repository.
There are, sadly, a couple of elements that prevent Tron: Identity from becoming more than just an interesting piece to Tron fans and cyberpunk enthusiasts alike. The first is the autosave system which not only prevents being able to back up and change your decisions, but also puts you on rails to ensure you must see each decision through to the end. While the Codex does continually update so future playthroughs are cumulative, you still can’t do anything else to try variable choices in the moment. The idea that wanting to see how a single decision changes a moment means another couple hours of play is depressing and frankly boring, a sharp counterpoint to the visual novel culture of seemingly infinite save slots and quick loads.
The other is the goddamn puzzle, which is integral to progress and also a huge pain in the ass. When you need to help defrag a Program’s memory, you get sucked into a puzzle game of matching number tiles until only a few are left. It’s mandatory at least for the first time through, it’s impossible to lose, and it just feels like something the developers tried to hang their hat on in terms of “extras.”
There’s a little bit of challenge to it, but most of the arbitrary nature of the game (you can match directly next to it or three tiles down, sometimes tiles just aren’t available, etc.) makes it a chore instead of a treat. Plus, featuring it with an Endless mode in the menu implies, well, endless play, but it’s just standalone puzzle, stop, do another, stop, repeat, give up, drink a gimlet, fall down the stairs, call you brother, hang up, and just pass out in the vestibule. It’s a process as old as time and just wasn’t engaging to me at all.
What players are left with is something similar to my experience with Blade Runner: Enhanced Edition. If you love the source material, it’s going to be a grand expansion of the world and, truly, this is a great entry to the Tron pantheon. It’s a very competent if short visual novel, and it’s engaging in a bite sized sort of way. I do wish that Disney had thrown some money at it to get voice work, but I’m fine that there’s just ambient electronica and the proper synthesized sinister feel that carries the read text.
Be sure to turn off automatic progression so you can read and enjoy the world around the story instead of just barreling through, and grin and bear the puzzles so you can get more of the excellent conversations and fantastic potential. A crime has happened, and Query will find justice one way or another. But you will be left guessing until the final moment as to who is vindicated and who, ultimately, must be derezzed.
The world of Tron emerges here, fully realized and expertly crafted to shift from a 3D survival games to a brooding detective story, and it works on so many levels that I’m shocked it’s never been tried before.
Very standard visual novel interactions with some natural puzzle segues and a little bit of screen clicking to unlock bonus world descriptions. Ultimately, the lack of save slots and forced autosaving hamstrings the visual novel core ideals.
Great atmospheric mixes that feel both cybernetic and suspenseful, the music is a constant that only underlines the lack of voice work or additional sound effects to break up the overall vibe.
Fun Factor: 7.5
This was a great taste of more of the Grid and additional ideas that I’ve always enjoyed and sought additional entries of. It’s small enough to be enjoyed by those who don’t do visual novels, but not enough meat for those who want a textual feast.
Final Verdict: 7.5
Tron: Identity is available now on Steam and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on PC.
A copy of Tron Identity was provided by the publisher.