Tron: Identity review: a sleek, cerebral noir visual novel

Tron: Identity review: a sleek, cerebral noir visual novel

The question of identity — of what makes a person who they are — is as much a matter of experience as it is of the perspective of one asking it. This is as true in life as it is in the Grid, the spectral digital dimension in which the Tron series efficiently takes place.

In the world of Tron: Identitythe new visual novel adventure game by Subsurface Circular and John Wick Hex developer Bithell Games, the Grid takes on an entirely new perspective when seen through the eyes of lead designer Mike Bithell and company: that of noir-like mystery drama of half-truths, hearsay, and conspiracies nested within mysteries. Though my time with the game was relatively short, the experience was nonetheless one that I walked away from with an overall glowing impression, eager to dive back in for another playthrough in order to uncover clues to still-lingering questions.

Set sometime after the events of 2010’s Tron: Legacy, Tron: Identity places players in the role of Query, an intuitive program tasked with investigating a mysterious explosion. Said explosion took place at the Repository, a towering, fortified nexus of highly classified information maintained by a governing body of higher-level programs known collectively as the Core. Something else is amiss, however: The entire facility is empty, save for a handful of suspects. The explosion, which rocked the facility, wiped the memories of several on-site programs, compromising the reliability of their testimony. Despite the explosion presumably having been triggered to cover up for a robbery, nobody seems particularly inclined to say just what—if anything—has been taken, least of all the facility’s administrator.

A screenshot from Tron: Identity, featuring a character named Griz (Left) and the player character Query (Right) standing side-by-side one another overlooking a crime scene.

Picture: Bithell Games

As a member of the “Disciples of Tron,” an order of programs who work independently from the system in pursuit of the capital-T Truth, you’re only supposed to observe and investigate. But before the night is over, you’ll have to make some hard choices — choices that will not only impact the course of your own future, but that of the entire Grid itself.

As far as how the game exists alongside other visual novels, Tron: Identity is a fairly straightforward experience. There’s no left-field fourth-wall-breaking twists à la Doki Doki Literature Club gold romance subplots à la dream daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator, but rather a pure focus on the fundamental crux of the genre: reading through text and shaping the personality of your own character by choosing between dialogue prompts that branch into more possibilities. Query is more or less a blank slate at the beginning of the game, a program whose entire modus operandi is defined by impartiality and noninterference. However, in order to develop rapport with the suspects and negotiate their willingness in aiding your investigation, sooner or later you’re going to have to break your one rule: caring enough about the lives of others to either interfere on their behalf or stand between them and their goals. The overall experience of playing the game is intuitive and enjoyable, with the sole exception of one mechanic: defragmentation puzzles.

A screenshot from Tron: Identity, featuring one of the Defragmentation puzzles from the game.

Picture: Bithell Games

As a Disciple of Tron, you have the ability to do something that no other program can do: Reconstruct and restore the “Identity Discs” of programs whose minds were wiped in the wake of the explosion. Defragmenting Identity Discs takes the form of an elaborate card game, in which players eliminate cards by moving them across the bottom of a ring-shaped interface. To advance, players must eliminate enough cards until the number remaining matches that of a prerequisite number listed in the corner of the screen.

This minigame is more frustrating than it is novel, with increasingly elaborate rules that only become more taxing as you’re forced to redo previous moves over and over again in a bid to find the right combination of cards to fulfill the necessary sequence. To the game’s credit, Tron: Identity gives players several opportunities to minimize these pain points, including the choice to allow the game to automate the elimination of a minimum of three cards per puzzle, and even skip these puzzles altogether by selecting the option from the game’s menu screen.

A screenshot from Tron: Identity, featuring Proxy and Query facing off in a light-disc duel.

Picture: Bithell Games

As someone who didn’t particularly enjoy these puzzles and found the challenge of interacting with them more obtuse and frustrating than gratifying and intriguing, I elected to skip them altogether in order to get back to the actual detective work of the game. While the option to sidestep these puzzles entirely was welcomed and appreciated, it nevertheless makes the defragmentation puzzles feel like a tacked-on bullet-point element of Tron: Identity rather than a meaningful addition to the game’s overall design.

Tron: Identity is a visual novel adventure through and through, and a particularly well-written and engrossing one at that. It may not be enough to move the needle for devout Tron fans who otherwise have no interest in the genre, but it’s nevertheless a creative take on the series with a rewarding story and intriguing characters that extrapolates on the universe of Tron in adventurous new directions. Defragmentation puzzles aside, it’s a dramatically stimulating and entertaining story well worth experiencing whether you’re a Tron fan or not.

Tron: Identity was released on April 11 on Mac, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Bithell Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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