Mr. Prepper is so disappointing. It could have been something spectacular, given that it weaves a story that is so steadfastly critical of America, but instead it collapses in a whimper that never realises its mechanical ambitions nor delivers on its thematic premise. Combined, those two failings make it frustrating on far too many levels for its own good.
The concept is strong. You play as a prepper. In real life, these people are monumentally irritating wannabe sovereign citizens that are constantly under the delusion that they’re preparing for nuclear armageddon, a domestic invasion, the breakdown of social cohesion, or a zombie plague. In practice, they’re just gun-toting nutjobs that want to live “off the grid” (i.e. don’t pay their taxes), and hold an arsenal of weaponry that will allow them to take down a medium-sized military battalion (that is if they were competent enough to actually fight professional soldiers). In the game, however, you’re the good kind of prepper – a guy that sees what’s coming and simply wants to escape the country before that can happen. Unfortunately, the government decides that our little hero is an agitator, and while it has released him from prison, it is keeping a close eye on him so that he doesn’t go doing too many prepper things again.
Where this game gets its teeth is the juxtaposition between the white picket fences and facade of nice suburbia, and a culture that is in the grip of terror as the doomsday clock ticks down and the authorities become increasingly… authoritarian in what they’re doing. It’s anything but a free society, and you, in control of your prepper-hero, represent the response to that. Rather than spend your life living freely as the propaganda promises, you’re instead digging in the dirt to build a bunker and stocking up on canned food that will make McDonald’s taste delicious by comparison.
To be clear, this is an astute observation of America: That is a nation that is fundamentally not free, perpetually living under the fear of threats both real and imagined, and that climate of fear causes them to act in an increasingly aggressive, if not nihilistic manner, which in turn causes an ever-scaling response from the authorities. Thanks to an education system that more closely resembles indoctrination than it does critical thinking, and an ideologically militant and generally uncritical media, there remains the domestic perception that this is the greatest nation on the planet, and a powerful, stabilising “light in the darkness” force in the world. However, the rest of the world is increasingly aware that we’re watching a corrupt empire, undermined from within by decadence and hubris, in its death rattles (and we’re increasingly comfortable with the idea that that’s a good thing). In that context, Mr. Prepper comes across as a reasonable metaphor indeed.
Unfortunately, perhaps the developers were too timid to really push the envelope, this is more akin to Brendan Fraser in Blast From The Past than Stanley Kubrick’s blistering Dr. Strangelove. It’s silly, rather than sharp. Neighbours say silly things, the authorities are caricatures in their evilness, and the propaganda is all of the “tee hee, this is propaganda… it’s, like, so funny because we’re so enlightened,” stuff. Admittedly, Donald Trump did (and does) quite sincerely push that kind of propaganda, but Mr. Prepper is so on the nose in satirising him and the yeehaw culture around him that it’ll make your eyes roll to the point of true agony.
Unfortunately, this is the strong side of the game. The actual gameplay side of things is basically Fallout Shelter, but such an inferior pastiche of it that you’d rather be a whale and give Bethesda a few million in microtransactions in their free-to-play monetisation machine instead. You’ll be spending most of your time building up your bunker, heading into the wilderness to hunt for resources, crafting stuff, and managing your fatigue and hunger levels.
There are just two wrinkles that make that more difficult: for one thing, you have a strict bedtime, and the day isn’t long enough to get everything you want to done, so you need to prioritise. Note: this applies to the tutorial itself, too, so right from the literal outset you’re being encouraged to rush from point A to point B to get the busywork done with maximum efficiency. Unfortunately, because the user interface is designed to induce migraines and the game does a horrible job of explaining everything from button inputs to basic mechanical techniques, the daily grind is, for far too long, an exercise in not taking a hammer to your Switch. I imagine the game plays more comfortably on PC with mouse and keyboard, but the developers have done an abysmal job of remapping the experience to the Switch’s inputs.
The second wrinkle is that the government’s agents will show up periodically, and by Jove you better not have any suspicious things lying around like a workbench or cans of food when they do. I still don’t fully understand what that’s about, since a workbench exists for more than building apocalypse bunkers. Even I have a workbench and all I do is build Ikea furniture (badly). Also, canned food isn’t something that is exclusive to preppers. Some people simply have a terrible flavour palette. Nonetheless, when the men in black show up, you need to dash around to hide everything before opening the door to let them look around, else they’ll get so suspicious that it’s game over. The problem here is, once again, the game is anything but intuitive to play, so that “mad dash” ends up being more a case of figuratively tripping and rolling your way to the finish line.
The ultimate goal of Mr. Ppper is to build a rocket ship under your house and use it to escape. Again, it doesn’t make much sense, since the amount of rocket fuel you need to power a rocket is… well, it’s enough that the government would notice you acquiring that (especially when seeing a can of stewed meat is sending them twitchy). However, by the time you get to this point, the grind for resources and survival has been so exhausting that you give up trying to make sense of anything and roll with it. It stopped being funny, quirky, or charming long before that point, anyway, so you’re just going through the motions to be done with it.
Mr. Prepper could have a good bit of socio-political commentary to go with a kind of casual simulation structure that even the free-to-play Fallout Shelter largely proved to be a good time. Sadly, so many little things went wrong with it in delivery, and it’s hard to put a finger on just how it could fall over so badly in totality. Was it just that the team is inexperienced? Not confident enough in the vision to fully commit? Not sure how to integrate the gameplay and concept together? Whatever it was, Mr. Prepper is a better idea than execution.