The year is 2034. You’re the owner of a new diner smack dab in nowhere, Midwestern America. Something sinister lurks beyond the confines of your restaurant. Instead of steak in your burgers, you’ve got something called Zoid meat.
On its surface, Malaysian-made Midwest 90: Rapid City (Midwest 90) is a tycoon or business simulator game. Such games involve a simple premise whereby making cold, hard cash is the ultimate goal.
However, the added post-apocalyptic setting, tastefully stylised artwork, and carefully crafted storyline found in Midwest 90 make all the difference.
With around two hours’ worth of playtime available, Midwest 90’s early access demo may come across as a little unpolished but brimming with potential. The demo can be accessed for free, though donations are welcomed.
Created by Malaysians, based around South Dakota
Midwest 90 began to make headlines in 2021. The game studio behind it, Hidden Chest Studios, received a grant from Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) in 2020, which co-founder Keshavar Ganesparan said was completely channelled into development for the early access build.
While eating a burger, Keshavar looked outside and wondered what it’d be like if there were monsters outside trying to get to his meal.
Inspiration had struck. But the journey ahead to actually carry out that vision would be arduous, especially considering Keshavar’s lack of knowledge of midwestern culture.
Through research, though, he was able to land on a setting, using the state of South Dakota, USA, as a backdrop for his gritty tycoon game.
The developers credit popular media such as Stranger Things, Fallout, and Frostpunk as sources of inspiration.
An engrossing story with an art style that lives up to it
While a game’s actual gameplay is key, driving any immersive game is a good, sensible plot.
Hidden Chest Studios impresses on this front, using perceptions of the American Midwest and familiar tropes of dystopia as a basis for its storytelling.
Rather than Rapid City’s charm, the lore is what truly stands out. In this timeline, America is currently suffering through a New Great Depression where monster attacks leave the country in a state of ruin.
As the game develops, you’ll come across a doomsday preacher spouting vague lines about the catastrophe to come. Going by the name of Pritchard, he talks of a past president, the Great Patriot, who had served three terms.
In the United States, presidents can only serve two terms. The only president who ever served three was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who only did so because the country was in a state of turmoil.
Thus, the Great Patriot serving three terms points at the idea that something devastating had happened in the country.
Amidst this slowly unravelling apocalyptic context, you must find a way to defend your restaurant, manage resources, and protect your employees (if you so wish).
The NPCs in the game somewhat hinge on preconceived stereotypes of semi-rural America. This comes as no surprise when you consider the creators’ non-American backgrounds.
But the stereotypes work to quickly set the tone of the story as well as each character’s archetype. Plus, the art really just sells the game, if nothing else.
You can tell a lot of work was put into designing the characters and backgrounds. The details are impressive and the grungy colour palette makes things such as the weirdly vibrant monster meat stand out.
There are subtle movements when interacting with the characters, but they mostly just maintain one default expression—something that would hopefully be more diverse, come the official release.
On top of that, the dialogue and language are well-written, with straightforward yet vivid descriptions. Take the introduction of Jericho, one of the merchants, as an example:
“As he raises his cleaver, you can see that his arms are strong in a lean, wiry way with American tattoos across the tough skin.”
Guns and monsters
The tycoon genre is a tried-and-true one, its simplicity and limitless nature make it an addictive formula. Of course, on the flip side, this means such games can quickly become boring or too “grindy” at some point.
To counter this, well-made tycoon games typically have something else going for them. Midwest 90 already has interesting lore and a distinguished art style, but the developers made sure to add some mechanisms to bolster the gameplay.
Staying true to the American theme, Hidden Chest Studios was sure to throw guns into the mix.
When the restaurant gets attacked by pit pugs one night, our chef suggests we get a gun from Jericho. So, we do. Jericho barely asks anything before handing over a shotgun and offering boxes of ammo to boot.
The gun mechanism is surprisingly tricky—it takes a couple of seconds to load the gun, and only four fit in the magazine at a time, so there’s no opportunity to go trigger-happy and spam-click on the monsters.
While shooting away, be careful not to hit your employees, because doing so will cause a dip in motivation. This makes using the gun particularly challenging, especially for those without good aim.
Speaking of motivation, an interesting detail was the fact that you can steal tips from your employees. Knowing the importance of tips and tipping culture for the survival of minimum wage employees in America, this is particularly brutal.
Of course, the petty theft will lower their motivation stats, but if you’re ever in desperate need of a couple more bucks, it’s a not-so-lucrative measure you can take.
Good things take time
Having secured grants from MDEC in 2020 and being the winner of Level Up KL 2021’s Best Indie Pitch Award, it’s clear that the industry at large is excited and appreciative of a title such as Midwest 90.
Still, though, there seems to be a long way to go before the Malaysian studio can officially launch the game.
For instance, some of the assets are still placeholders and it’s unclear how far into the plot the team has developed. The UI is functional but not exactly polished, and the flow between the business management parts to the plot parts remains a bit detached.
Overall, though, there’s no doubt that Midwest 90: Rapid City will find sure fans in those who love story-driven games with a side of strategy.
According to the demo’s end scenes, the developers plan to add more NPCs and menu items.
While that would certainly flesh out the game, some voice acting could really add colour and charm to the game. Authentic accents and distinctively Midwestern drawls could bring the game to the next level of immersion too.
But even without them, I’m actually already sold on playing the full game upon release.