Revisiting Westwood's atmospheric Blade Runner adventure game

With the news that Blade Runner is now available to buy on GOG, we're republishing Andy's retrospective from back in 2017.

I never think of Blade Runner as an old film. Thanks to its use of practical effects, Ridley Scott’s obsessive attention to detail, and 2007’s pristine 'Final Cut' HD transfer, the dystopian sci-fi classic has barely aged.

So I was amazed when I realised it was already 15 years old when Command & Conquer developer Westwood released its spin-off game in 1997. They won a bidding war for the rights to make it, beating EA and Activision, and the result is a flawed but interesting point-and-click adventure that beautifully replicates the visuals and ambience of Scott’s rain-soaked masterpiece.

While Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard was a washed-up veteran cop pulled out of retirement against his will, in the game you're a fresh-faced rookie, Ray McCoy. He has the trenchcoat, the blaster, and the crummy apartment, but he’s younger and less world-weary than the film’s hero. Your first case is an animal murder at an exotic pet store: a crime on par with homicide in this world where animals have all but died out. McCoy himself has a dog, which cost him a year’s wages.

Investigating the crime leads McCoy to a group of rogue replicants—synthetic humans who are almost indistinguishable from real people, and whose presence on Earth is illegal. As a Blade Runner with the Los Angeles PD’s elite Rep-Detect squad, it’s his job to hunt them down and kill them. Sound familiar?

My biggest problem with the story is how closely it mirrors the film. Despite the immense size of this futuristic urban sprawl, McCoy’s pursuit of the replicants takes him to many of the same locations Deckard visits—from JF Sebastian’s creepy toy-filled apartment in the Bradbury Building to the colossal gold ziggurats of the Tyrell Corporation. As a fan of the movie, getting to visit these locations is a thrill for me, but it makes the game’s plot feel like a retread. The replicants’ leader is a low-rent Roy Batty who has the same black coat and love of reciting poetry, but none of Rutger Hauer’s menacing charisma.

The story isn’t the reason you should reinstall Blade Runner, but rather the chance to exist in that world. Even with fuzzy 640x480 pre-rendered backgrounds and messy voxel-based character models, every screen is drenched in atmosphere. The perpetual rain, roaming spotlights, blinking neon signs, and cluttered streets evoke the same downbeat, gloomy feel the film does. Scott’s pessimistic vision of the future is a powerful setting, and Westwood expertly mimics its melancholy tone.

The game itself is a pretty standard point-and-click adventure of the pixel-hunting (well, voxel-hunting) variety, but with a few twists. When you start a new game, it randomly decides which of the principal cast are humans or replicants—including McCoy. The choices you make, and the timed events it’s possible to miss, will result in one of thirteen different endings. Ambitious stuff for a game from 1997, even if your overall impact on the course the story takes is minimal. This unique approach to storytelling had a lot of potential, and it’s a shame a sequel was never made to expand on it.

Some technology from the film is recreated brilliantly, including the ESPER machine. In the film Deckard uses this to explore a photograph in three dimensions, and you can do the same in the game to uncover clues. The monotonous click, click, click as you move around the image sounds exactly like it does in the movie. You also get a chance to use the famous Voight-Kampff machine: a device that probes a person with emotion-stirring questions and statements to determine if they’re a replicant or not.

Blade Runner 4

Some of the original cast from the film reprise their roles for the game, including Sean Young as Rachael, Brion James as Leon, James Hong as Chew, William Sanderson as JF Sebastian, and Joe Turkel as Tyrell. It’s actually possible to miss the meeting with Rachael and Tyrell if you don’t talk to your captain, Guzza, at a specific time in the police station. The performances are a mixed bag in any case. Hong is brilliant as Chew (he’s brilliant in everything), but some of the other cast sound a bit dazed. However, again, as a fan of the film, I love that Westwood managed to reunite some of the cast at all.

For whatever reason, they didn’t manage to secure the rights to Vangelis’s stunning, sweeping score. But it doesn’t matter, because Frank Klepacki’s version for the game is near-identical. As someone who listens to the Blade Runner soundtrack on a regular basis I noticed a few of the synth sounds weren’t quite right—but most people will never realise. Stepping out onto the balcony of McCoy’s apartment and hearing the moody strains of 'Blade Runner Blues' drift in is an evocative moment.

There are far better point-and-click adventures on PC, but few are this atmospheric

As if it wasn’t unlikely enough that McCoy’s pursuit of a group of rogue Nexus-6 replicants would so closely mirror Deckard’s, both actually take place at the same time. When you meet with Tyrell, Rachael will mention the other Blade Runner. Study a photo taken in Animoid Row and you’ll see Deckard in the background showing the snake scale to the fish woman. It’s a neat touch, but only highlights how unoriginal the story is. Perhaps the similarities between Deckard and McCoy are intentional: a popular fan theory posits that all blade runners are actually replicants.

Blade Runner is a game with big ideas that almost always fall flat, but it’s still a worthwhile experience—especially for fans of the movie. There are far better point-and-click adventures on PC, but few are this atmospheric. Sadly, all of the original game assets have been lost, like tears in rain, so an HD remaster seems unlikely. But the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long...

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.