Midnight Protocol review: an engrossing hacker puzzle RPG – The Verge

Video games have taught me that hacking mainly involves two things: capturing little computer-shaped nodes and typing in a command line. Midnight Protocol is no exception. Released last month by Iceberg Interactive, it joins a glut of cyberpunk games from the past couple of years, and it doesn’t add any single standout innovation to a pretty familiar formula. But it’s one of the best iterations of that formula I’ve seen: mechanically elegant, narratively economical, and crafted with care.

Midnight Protocol is noir cyber-crime by way of turn-based roleplaying games and spatial puzzles. When you log into its slightly airspace-looking simulated computer desktop, you’ll learn that your pseudonym is Data, and you’re a master hacker who just narrowly avoided imprisonment. At first you’re simply trying to get back on your feet, taking small jobs from your veteran fixer Snail with some help from a young, morally conflicted partner named Clover. But you’re also hunting down the person who leaked information about you online, and as you uncover their identity, you realize there’s something troubling afoot.

Developer LuGus Studios draws on the cyberpunk genre’s hardboiled roots rather than reaching for elaborate worldbuilding, heavy-handed commentary, or retro-futuristic nostalgia. Your protagonist is fundamentally a futuristic version of the private investigator who’s stumbled on a dangerous secret that could get them killed. The longer you play, the more the game delves into its sci-fi premise and even the conceit of its fake desktop interface. But the writing stays admirably restrained, surgically paring down stock genre plots and using passing references and terse messages to build its characters’ histories.

Much of Midnight Protocol’s story plays out over simulated emails, chat sessions, and a small searchable data bank. The meat of the game, however, lies behind a list of network addresses sent by other characters. Addresses lead to levels composed of interconnected nodes with different functions. Your goal is to complete a task — like acquiring a file or installing a virus — using a keyboard-only interface for jumping across nodes, deploying hacking tools, and allocating power between different programs. In its default mode, each turn gives you two actions before the network responds to your moves.

Between network heists, players have access to a black market of hacking programs and hardware upgrades, which can be purchased with credits siphoned from computer networks. The key to progression is completing jobs that unlock new programs through a reputation system, looking at reports about what’s on a given network, and picking a loadout of software that will let you tackle it.

I dropped a link to Midnight Protocol in The Verge’s Slack gaming channel soon after I started playing, and it drew immediate comparisons to the hacking sections from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. That’s fair, and there are plenty of other potential comparisons as well. The node system is reminiscent of Uplink, while the faux command line conceit was used in Hacknet and Quadrilateral Cowboy. Shadowrun Returns features turn-based RPG virtual combat. Moving between the nodes even feels a bit like the puzzles of Hitman Go, as you’re trying to reach the right targets in the right order while a network trace bar gradually fills up.

But Midnight Protocol synthesizes these elements into something that’s minimalist yet incredibly polished — imagine the story of your favorite sci-fi RPG was set inside its hacking mini-game. It’s an experience with absolutely zero filler. Every network is fine-tuned to offer a specific flavor of challenge or an intriguing bit of world detail, including small choices that the game keeps track of, sometimes by increasing your “white hat” (idealistic) or “black hat” (selfishly criminal) reputation, and sometimes through emails from your clients or conversations with Snail and Clover.

A chess minigame inside the computer desktop of Midnight Protocol

This can be frustrating at the beginning when you’ve got a bare-bones deck and desperately need money, because there’s no easy way to grind for the credits you’ll need to buy hacking programs. It’s also not immediately obvious that you can restart missions and make tweaks to your loadout before you jump back into the network, something that made the game instantly more rewarding for me.

Once you’ve got a well-stocked software library and a good grip on the formula, though, Midnight Protocol is a perfect mix of short puzzles that require darting through with laser-focused precision, big messy node grids to methodically dismantle, boss battles full of on-the-fly strategizing, and the occasional cathartic smash-and-grab level you can utterly dominate — plus a couple of secrets that require poking around Data’s desktop. While I found myself leaning a lot on a few core programs, the design encouraged me to mix up my strategy to suit the network.

I haven’t explored every corner of the story or gameplay, particularly an alternate mode that lets you play in real time against network protocols. But a reasonably full playthrough can completely consume a long weekend (or a more restrained series of weeknights) without losing momentum or becoming repetitive. There are lots of games sort of like Midnight Protocol, but few deliver so many strong variations on a simple theme.

Midnight Protocol was released on October 13th and is available on Steam and GOG for Windows, macOS, and Linux.

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