The latest title from publisher Adult Swim Games is Small Radios Big Televisions. While the name may seem like utter nonsense, the actual premise is actually really rad. Players explore different factories searching for cassette tapes that don’t contain Billy Idol records (although that would probably be even more cool), but entire virtual worlds.
As someone who thoroughly enjoyed exploring trippy worlds in Proteus and Hohokum, it seemed like Small Radios Big Televisions would be right up my alley. After all, I’m always down for something experimental and fresh in a medium that can feel like it’s treading water at times. Sadly, developer Fire Face Corporation have wrapped a cool idea in a tedious, boring package.
The gameplay in Small Radios Big Televisions is best described as an adventure game, albeit a rather poorly made one. I used the analog stick to click on objects in the environments, which are all various factories, such as doors and switches. That sounds fine, but for whatever reason the developer has the world move with the analog stick, so you’re basically moving a cursor against a constantly moving environment. I got used to it after a few minutes, but it underlines the game’s entire problem: it’d rather prioritize a cool graphical effect over the game playing well.
At first it seemed like I was walking around randomly in these rather dull settings, but then I found my first cassette tape. I was excited, as surely this would be the exciting part of the game, and the real meat of the package. I was wrong. While each casette tape puts the player in an admittedly cool looking landscape (such as a heavily stylized forest or road), the gameplay portion has players searching for an emerald, clicking on it, and then getting booted back out to the main level.
Exploring these virtual worlds is like playing the worst version of Where’s Waldo imaginable. The emeralds stick out like a sore thumb, and there’s no actual movement by the player in these areas. All they can do is look around at a neat environment (which is cool for about 15 seconds), pick up the gem, and then be on their way.
These gems are then used in the adventure game portion of the game, where the player can plug them into devices. I’m not exactly sure what they do, or why I was collecting them. At first, I thought they operated the doors that they were seemingly connected to, but then I found out I could open them anyways. They might just be collectibles, but I really can’t say. Either way, I kept collecting them and putting them in the machines since there wasn’t really anything else to do.
While navigating the world can seem like a pain at first, it becomes really monotonous after a few minutes. That’s because the game has one of the worst map displays I’ve ever seen in a game (even managing to outdo Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate). It’s absolutely impossible to tell where one door will lead the player, and it doesn’t mark where the player has been or what items they might’ve seen but were inaccessible at the time. Thus, I often found myself going in circles until I stumbled upon a room I had never been in before and then I would finish the level shortly afterward.
Small Radios Big Televisions is comprised of five separate levels, and if players don’t get lost due to the terrible layout, then it’ll take about two hours to complete the game. There’s not much of a story or any real reason given as to why the player is interacting with these objects, so the experience essentially boils down to riding a tour bus that visits lavish locations that turn out to be quite dire upon arrival.
To the game’s credit, it does have a few cool ideas. Early on, players learn they can mess with the cassette tapes by exposing them to magnets, which are one of a handful of interactive objects in the game. These alter the existing virtual worlds into a glitched out state. It’s a rad idea, but it amounts to another 15 seconds or so of looking at a cool location and then spotting the item. It also tries to add in some puzzle solving, but it mostly falls flat. It’s a lot of twisting levers and collecting gears, and it felt more like a task of tedium rather than a test of wits.
What’s really disappointing is that every world that the game offers up feels so lifeless. No matter if I was on a lake or riding a minecart, there was nothing to really see or take in. It was just a different variant of what was ultimately the same thing: an empty landscape filled with potential it couldn’t deliver upon.
I spent every minute in Small Radios Big Televisions waiting for it to become enjoyable, and then before I knew it the credits had hit. There was no magic moment where everything clicked, nor did the worlds I was viewing ever become something more than just a cool visual. This may be an audiovisual treat, but there’s absolutely no substance backing it up.
Review code for Small Radios Big Televisions provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.