I can’t recommend Midnight Protocol enough, so grab your energy drink of choice, order some junk food and seal yourself in a room for 24 hours to get the full cyber-decker experience. In a year with high profile cyberpunk RPG disappointments (not naming names, but Cyberpunk 2077 knows what it did), I was sceptical of Midnight Protocol — after all, it looks like someone took the hacking minigame from Deus Ex: Human Revolution and tried to stretch it out for 20-30 hours — but LuGus Studios has managed to deliver on just about everything it promises: immersive cyberpunk hacking, solid characterisation and a surprisingly twisty plot… All delivered with minimalist graphics and no mouse.
One thing that Midnight Protocol nails is gameplay-story integration. Individual missions can have a variety of outcomes, depending on your inclination and the degree to which you explore your options: in one series of missions for a shady lobbying group, you have the ability to plant viruses and report on their operations. Then, between missions, you can spend your money to acquire more programs, upgrade hardware, or research targets. It’s all basic stuff, but it’s been done well. Progression between narrative stages is signposted well, and none of these sections overstays its welcome. The way the story is conveyed (through text and emails) conveys a sense of isolation, all while the gameplay gives you a rush of power. Midnight Protocol also rewards you for exploring its world, testing out the different strategies and a little chess-style minigame.
The gameplay itself is a sort of literal deck-building turn-based puzzle game. Each mission is centred around breaching into a network, fulfilling a specific goal (planting a virus, stealing funds, acquiring information) while evading intrusion countermeasures (ICE). You have a handful of programs — such as stealth programs and ICE-breakers — at your disposal with which to carry out your mission, but the game limits the number of programs you can take in with you and the number of them that can be active at any given time. Easy enough. The main challenge comes with the trace bar: without using certain programs to limit detection, the network can trace you. This forces you to juggle between stealth, detecting ICE and breaking through to your objectives. Some networks have additional challenges, such as system operators (a decker in the network that actively hunts you). All in all, Midnight Protocol’s gameplay offers a good variety of playstyles.
One of Midnight Protocol’s biggest draws is developer LuGus Studios’ decision to completely eliminate mouse interaction to better simulate a command line-style operating system. It’s an ambitious decision given how ingrained the mouse is in PC gaming, but that decision pays off, adding a whole hell of a lot to player immersion. Sure, it does take a little while to get the hang of playing a video game without a mouse — or any form of cursor, for that matter — but after just a couple of hours getting the feel of Midnight Protocol, I didn’t even notice that I wasn’t using my mouse at all.
Now, onto the story. Normally I wouldn’t give spoiler warnings, but I’m going to talk about the plot twists in detail, because I like one of them and have problems with another. So if you’d prefer to avoid spoilers, check out the Midnight Protocol demo. Warning done: Let’s talk twists. Midnight Protocol tells you that you’re playing as Data, a doxxed hacker, investigating the circumstances of your doxxing and uncovering a conspiracy surrounding an illegal AI. The first twist, the one that works best, is that you are dead… Or, rather, Data is dead. This, combined with the established possibility of artificially intelligent zombie accounts that mimic deceased deckers. This immediately raises a lot of possibilities, especially since we have, up to this point, been operating under the assumption that we are Data, and after the reveal we can’t reveal this new information to any of our friends and allies.
The second plot twist occurs during a mission, when one of Data’s former associates who knows that we’re not actually Data reveals that fact to our allies. At this point, we learn that we’re actually playing an undercover operative of DigiSec, the literal internet police. We’re not Lisbeth Salander, we’re Jim from IT. This isn’t a bad twist on the face of it, because it explains the mysterious emails we’ve been getting and why we haven’t shared much (if any) information with our friends, but the issue lies in what it doesn’t explain: why we didn’t know this from the very beginning. I’m just really tired of games where the twist is that you’ve been the villain all along, because so few games since Spec Ops: The Line can actually make it work. That said, Midnight Protocol works well on a replay, in no small part because on a replay, we’re privy to all the pertinent information our character would have. The story also works well enough after the twist, so Midnight Protocol at least ends on a stronger note than many other “you were the villain all along” stories.
Outside of the game itself, LuGus Studios deserves considerable praise for releasing a demo version of Midnight Protocol. This not only demonstrates the studio’s confidence in its product’s ability to hook players in, but it also demonstrates the developer’s understanding that $20 is not a small amount of money for players to spend on something they might not end up playing — regardless of the reason why. In an era where consumers are being treated more and more like investors that you don’t need to properly inform, free demos should really be a given, but as long as they’re not, any developer that releases one deserves credit for doing so.
With all things considered, if the only real negative to be found in a game is a matter of personal taste, you can be pretty comfortable in assuming that it’s a good game. Midnight Protocol is exactly that: a minimalistic game that focuses on its unique, ambitious gameplay, impressive characterisation and surprisingly deep story. For those reasons and more, it’s well worth a try.
Despite a narrative stumble, Midnight Protocol is an engaging cyberpunk RPG that’s well worth your time and money.
Callum reviewed Midnight Protocol using a retail Steam code provided by its publisher.