Desert Child

A game by Oscar Brittain for PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch, originally released in 2018.
Desert Child is a hoverbike racer with light RPG elements set in a visually stunning world. You take on the role of a poor hoverbike racer who is living on Earth and just barely scraping by. He spends his days racing and his evenings eating ramen, taking on odd jobs, and keeping his bike in working order while he tries to save up enough money for a ticket to Mars so he can enter the Grand Prix. Outside, the moon is crumbling, bits of space debris are constantly falling into the atmosphere, and every ship in sight is headed offworld. Earth is slowly becoming the craphole of the solar system… not unlike the worlds of Cowboy Bebop, Akira, and Redline that inspired the game’s style.

When the game begins, you are able to choose from one of four weapons for your hoverbike, including a magnum, a shotgun, and a machine gun, each of which is displayed with varying difficulty ratings. However, their usefulness isn’t apparent when the game begins, as you have no idea how you’ll be putting these weapons to use, and there’s no way to change your weapon once the game begins… so if you’re not happy with your selection, you’ll need to start the game over. While the machine gun seems like a pretty good choice, it uses up ammo quickly and its narrow projectiles require that you be very accurate with your shots, whereas the shotgun offers a wide spray, it can hit multiple targets at once, and its ammo is depleted slowly.

Races are 1-on-1 affairs that take place in sidescrolling environments where the player is able to move into the foreground and background, with the foreground being closer to the screen and therefore scrolling more quickly. At full speed, there’s just enough time to react to obstacles on the track, which must be avoided lest you lose speed. Along the way, you must line up shots on television sets, each of which grants you a small speed boost, and some drop cash onto the track that must be driven over to be collected. Of course, your opponent has the same objectives and spends his or her time blasting away at TV’s, shooting your bike to slow you down, and dodging around obstacles while attempting to overtake you.

As you race, a boost meter fills, allowing you to mash a button and dash quickly ahead. When ammo runs out, you can refill it by dashing into the bed of a truck that appears along the bottom of the track.

There are several different track themes, ranging from deserts to forests to waterways to futuristic elevated highways. Environments are presented at random, but gameplay for each is essentially the same… dodge obstacles, blast TV’s, and stay out in front of your opponent until you reach the finish line. Adding to the game’s style is a slow motion zoom effect that shows both racers as they cross the finish line, presented in an angular shadowbox.

The Earth-based missions give you a feel for the game’s basic structure… Race your bike to build up cash, and spend your time between races wandering around town and visiting shops, restaurants, and mechanics... which allow you to sell off power cells for some quick cash, buy food to keep your hunger level down and allow your boost meter to fill more quickly, and fix up your bike to keep it in working order for the next race. This process repeats until you have enough money for a ticket to Mars, at which point you are automatically transported to the Red Planet.

In comparison to Earth, Mars is booming. The city is considerably larger, with more shops, a couple of mechanics to choose from, a wider array of restaurants, and lots of places where you can pick up side jobs to earn a bit of extra cash. The city is laid out in a somewhat haphazard fashion, with camera angles changing on screen transitions, which offers a visually striking anime-style aesthetic. However, this style-first approach makes it difficult to understand the geography. On the other hand, the city is comprised of only a few areas, so even if players forget where they need to go, they can simply wander from screen to screen until they reach their destination.

On Mars, players can still compete in races to earn money, but there are lots of other ways to pick up cash as well… Players can take on bounty hunt missions where they race through the city attempting to shoot down their opponent, and success results in a big cash reward. Another side mission tasks you with herding kangaroos, which is fairly challenging, but if you don’t care about earning money you can just blast them with your weapon, and you get a kill count at the end of the mission. There are also side jobs for race tutoring and weapon testing, which are also variants on racing.

Pizza delivery missions see you riding a bicycle through a shopping district tossing pizzas in rapid fire at red-highlighted people along the way. Pizzas fly in a bit of a curve, so missed shots may fly into the background or collide with other objects, spilling your hot pies onto the pavement. The game features some excellent music from a variety of artists, but the pizza delivery mission song sets a different tone with its lively and humorous nature, and it comes from the developer’s previous game entitled World’s Fastest Pizza.

You can also take on some more nefarious tasks, such as purposely throwing a race, sideswiping cars, or even hacking a bank… which sees you blasting faux-Windows symbols and breaking marble busts, but for about the same amount of money you can get for performing any other side job. There appears to be no penalty for taking on these dubious tasks, despite a shop that sells police protection, but perhaps intermixing them with more mundane side jobs prevents the police from tacking you down. You can even steal parts from parked hoverbikes and use them on your own ride (or you can legitimately purchase them from shops if that’s your bag), and this is done by completing short reaction-based minigames.

Upgrading your hoverbike is set up as an inventory puzzle where you position different types of upgrades within a fixed space, and then connect them with power cells (earned in races or side jobs) to increase their effectiveness. There’s only so much room, so you can only add a few powerups at a time, and these include increased damage output, more protection from incoming damage, increased accuracy, more money dropped from destroyed objects, and the ability to pull money toward you from a greater distance.

Unfortunately, players will quickly discover that gameplay does not expand beyond the initial offerings. The racing mechanics are fairly simple, with the player dodging obstacles, blasting TV’s or occasional enemies, and maintaining speed. Races do not become more challenging from one event to the next – with the exception of the final challenge – and all of the side missions are variations of these basic racing mechanics. As such, once players have experienced everything that Mars has to offer, they are left to simply repeat the same missions over and over until they earn enough money to enter the Grand Prix. Or they can hop in with a friend for some local 2P races.

Aesthetically, the game is dazzling, with stylish racing, flavorful city designs, cool color choices, and a very hip presentation that give a lived-in feel to the world around you. While the between-race environments are small, they have a lot of variety, with crowded markets, back-alley mechanics, run-down slums, a harbor, a record shop, and lots of quick-service food locations. The music fits the style perfectly and offers a number of compositions from different artists, including Mega Ran, Girlfriend Material, and Yokito Pilot.

Desert Child was created by lone developer Oscar Brittain, who hails from Fremantle, Western Australia and previously studied at the University of Western Australia before dropping out to devote his time to game development. The game contains several nods to the developer’s homeland, and its visuals were inspired by that of Cowboy Bebop, Akira, and Redline. Oscar previously developed World's Fastest Pizza.

The game was published by Akupara Games, which previously published Star Vikings Forever, The Metronomicon: Slay the Dance Floor, Keep in Mind: Remastered, Chicken Assassin: Reloaded, and Whispering Willows.