I was immediately intrigued by It Comes In Waves on seeing its screenshots and early gameplay on developer Antonio Freyre's Twitter. It has a dusty, analogue, desert sci-fi setting reminiscent of Dune and Star Wars' iconic ripping-off of Dune. After playing it, I'm happy to say I can heartily recommend this brief, creative exercise in tension and dread.
Freyre's previous outing was last year's Undetected, a retro revival take on Metal Gear Solid. I found the two share a similar philosophy on interrogating videogame violence, as well as a throwback presentation halfway between the first two PlayStations, but otherwise It Comes In Waves is its own beast.
You play as an unnamed wanderer who has done something… unspeakable. The game begins in an Anchorhead-style village in the desert, full of inhabitants giving you the cold shoulder. "Forgive yourself first," one tells me, while another says "No amount of specimens will change what you did." This disconnect between your knowledge and everyone else's reminds me a lot of how everybody hates your amnesiac guts in Planescape: Torment. A nearby land speeder takes you out into the deep desert, with an ominous message that you can never return to town again (at least until you die).
It Comes In Waves is like a roguelike without the randomization, with failure requiring a full restart of the game, and you're charged with carrying your "specimen" through the desert to a locked sanctuary. The doors won't open until you've found enough specimen-growth promoting collectibles scattered through the desert, and you have to balance this objective against a constantly depleting thirst meter.
I was high on the hog at the start, killing desert raiders for their precious water (mama mia let's unpack that one) until I took a fall damage-inducing tumble partway through my voyage. At half-health and zero water (you take constant damage when the meter reaches zero) I was in a genuine panic, ready to kill again for a gulp of the good stuff so as not to lose precious progress. The first water-restoring pickup I found after this tense and frantic search was an absolute godsend.
I made it to the end with relative ease after that episode and discovered the surprising nature of my cargo and destination. I definitely wish that It Comes In Waves had been a little more taxing—I for sure felt pangs of guilt for killing guys for water, but I think it needs to push you to that desperation more forcefully. The meter definitely ticks down fast enough, I think the tweaking should be on the water-restoring pickups you find, either how much thirst they quench or the frequency of those pickups. As it stands, all the ones I found immediately filled half the meter, and I could reliably count on finding one at every major landmark. I'd prefer to see a stingier default restored and perhaps a difficulty meter for fine tuning how much you get back, and/or a greater scarcity of these drops.
Still, this experiment did drive me to that point of stress and desperation, and It Comes In Waves is a great gameplay experience that punches well above its price point and runtime. The aesthetics of the wasteland are particularly on point, with eerie landmarks like an eternally burning tree or river of blood really sticking with me. Like last year's phenomenal horror game, Iron Lung (soon to be a feature film!), It Comes In Waves is a game that doesn't ask for much of your time and money, but leaves a lasting impression. You can check out It Comes In Waves for just $3 on Steam or itch.io.