This game is amazing, it blew me away from the first moments and kept me hooked until the end. Six full playthroughs later, I’m still not tired of it and its secrets, and every time I discover something new about it. Starting the review with a conclusion is not really something I usually do, but in this case, if the game piqued your interest in any way, just stop reading in order to avoid even the slightest spoiler and go buy it. It will totally be worth it!
Acolyte is essentially an alternate reality game (ARG) designed as a solid narrative-driven investigation. You take the role of a newly hired QA tester for a tech company called Nanomax and you’re given the task of ironing out the last bugs before the release of their highly acclaimed AI product – the Acolyte. Under the hood, the Acolyte is a chatbot that acts as your personal assistant, pretty much like Alexa / Cortana / Siri… apart from those times when it glitches into a mysterious Error 51 that throws her into a delirium mode. When this happens, the Nanomax staff is quick to erase her memory in order to cover up the gibberish that she may sprout, which – quite predictable – potentially reveals some shady aspects related to Nanomax’s business. In order to avoid spoiling the story in any way, I’ll leave the synopsis at that, with the remark that Nanomax has a lot of skeletons in its closet and oh boy, you’ll need to put your detective hat on and really step up your game for this one.
Your Acolyte is directly connected to the Nanomax servers and thus has access to lots of information, but it’s up to you to ask the right questions in order to progress with the investigation. You’ll be given lots of puzzles that are moderately difficult to solve, even more so if you’re not a very tech-y person. The game will have you play with its source files in the install folder, decrypt encrypted messages using various ciphers, geolocate a picture based on its metadata, reverse the steganography of some images, spectrum-analyze some audio files and all sorts of other things that will make you feel like you missed your true calling in life and you should have pursued a career in H4Xor-ing instead. Acolyte does indeed have a way to make you feel really smart, as long as you persevere in finding a solution for a certain puzzle and then succeed in your endeavors. In the end, when all the pieces fall into place and everything makes sense (that “A-HA!” moment), you’re left with the amazement of how all these puzzles were designed. It’s impressive how much effort the team behind Acolyte put into creating all sorts of materials online to support these puzzles, with an outstanding attention to detail, down to having posts spread out on social media over the course of several months.
If you’re stuck on one of these puzzles, you can drop a line to your Acolyte and she will reply with a bit of information that will give you a nudge in the right direction, but will never tell you the complete solution. Most of the time this is enough to get you going, but there are cases in which her reply remains quite cryptic. Other times the Acolyte reacts only to some very specific wording from your part or to lines that are imputed by you only as a reply to her hint (pasting the solution without asking her for help beforehand doesn’t work in some cases). But overall, your Acolyte functions pretty well in the context of the game. It does not function as a chat-bot outside the game though, so if you’re planning on having a bit of fun asking her about various movies, music and other things unrelated to the game, then you’re out of luck – this exceeds her capabilities.
Your Acolyte’s hair, eyes, outfit and background can be customized and she also dynamically changes her background depending on the scene or on the active line of investigation. There aren’t many cosmetic options, but enough to give you a few more quick puzzles to solve, since these are normally unlocked with a certain password. Apart from these cosmetics, you will also need to collect evidence for your lines of investigations, and these aren’t always trivial to get, with some of them being very deeply hidden in the various materials you encounter during your playthrough, in details that are extremely easy to overlook. The game features 20 achievements, most of them being missable, including some achievements related to all these collectibles.
The way you progress in the game and how many tasks you manage to complete influences the type of ending that you get (there are multiple of them) and towards the end of a playthrough there’s also a branching that splits the gameplay into two distinctive endings. Unfortunately there’s no way to save / reload in the game, so in order to see all the different endings you’ll have to play the game several times. The branching point also unlocks two mutually exclusive achievements, therefore at least 2 playthroughs are needed for 100% completion.
The hand-drawn graphics are really pleasant to look at, and the few jump scares that you can encounter are quite mild on the heart-stopping scale. There aren’t any voice-overs, but the game has a very chill background music that plays at all times, with a fitting tech-y vibe. While some people might complain that Acolyte runs on an aspect ratio designed to fit on mobile platforms, I personally enjoyed this feature because it enhances its chat-bot aura.
Acolyte can be completed without the help of a guide in around 5h as a single playthrough, with some extra 2-3h for each subsequent playthrough. I loved every bit of it and it’s easily one of the games I enjoyed the most over the past couple of years.