EA SCOUT the last line of defense for buying on Steam's Early Access
by Jordan Helsley
previewed on PC
"Become the sewer's own Robin Hood, and take back the city."
You're a lowlife, you and your friends. Everything has been taken from you, and your only family exists in the sewers. Being broke and homeless, though, doesn't mean you're going to take it lying down. It's Only Money fills your shoes with the hopes of the downtrodden, and in doing so possibly says more than it means to.
Welcome To Rockhaven
The journey begins at work, monotonous but necessary. Exchanging sand in an hourglass for the money needed to survive. As the tutorial of the game's main mechanics unfolds, you're worked into the world: a satire that hits rough comedy notes to be surprising. Then the horror, so to speak, begins to show: the job is much more demanding than it appeared, evidenced by a one-day-from-retirement confidante getting fired for a minor slip up. At the head of it all: the mayor of Rockhaven, leader of both business and government. The new hire will soon get booted for failing to pick up the slack.
Termination from this corporatocracy means being cast down to the sewers. Dead to society without income. This is the first cautionary tale of It's Only Money, when the company owns the town, the workers can only incentivized to a point. There's a significant amount of satire here, much like other crime-focused games, and it does well to comment on its setting. But it says more in the margins, where your main character now exists.
Enter the Beggar King, anointed leader of the outcasts in the sewer. Through him you'll re-enter society, committing general crime, to take back the city. It's another of the game's commentaries, this time on what it means to be unhoused. Society has cast them aside, and they now must work twice as hard to receive just half. While the story and gameplay here is wrapped in crime, much like the real-world perception of the homeless, it struck me as fundamentally hopeful, that they would retake their city through their own resourcefulness. Homeless, not helpless.
I was enthralled by this world. It's a grungy, dystopian view of a cartoon-ish city. People and their interactions are exaggerated, sometimes for comedic effect and other times to fit the theme. And though it's a map and game put together by a small team, it's brimming with personality, subtlety, and plenty of things to do, without being overwhelming, and also being decently large. I appreciated the care placed in Rockhaven's construction, from the shops to the literal breadcrumb trails that act as your waypoint paths.
The gameplay loop starts small. Because you've got no money, you've gotta start somewhere. Pickpocketing is your introductory tool, which involves surveying a target, somehow leading you to intuit how much they're worth, before engaging in a low-stakes-at-first mini game to pilfer their possessions. It's similar to a Tony Hawk grind, keep your arrow centred on the zone and you'll be fine, and with a bit of practice is becomes second nature. To complete this loop goods can be sold at pawn shops for varying amounts of cash, and thus continues the low-life of a beggar.
Mixing this up are two other mini games: the now-famous dual stick lock picking, and a sort-of Simon Says where you're cutting wires in a broadcasted colour sequence. Fairly straightforward interactions that somehow fit the world quite nicely. Leading you on your way is the GetAJob phone app, feeding you people to talk to with mission propositions: stealing cars, fighting the mayor's lackeys, etc.
It's Only Money gets more enticing as its systems start to expand. The journey from dredge of society to business owner, for instance, raises the bar for not only what you can do, but what you can lose. So then there's money management, ways to upgrade your character and businesses, and other unexpected ways to earn some cash. It's early, but there really is a satisfying amount of stuff to do in Rockhaven.
Let's not forget the growing bounty on your head. The cops doubly don't like your thieving ways, and their pressure and the monetary costs add up quickly. This bounty can be paid off with your hard earned money, or, more engagingly, you can hunt down wanted posters of yourself from to tear down, incrementally decreasing your infamy. This makes for a good excuse to take a break and explore the world a bit.
The Ugly Side of Life
As if committing endless crimes without hitches would be a bit too easy, there's a few nagging issues to deal with. For starters, the basic hand-to-hand combat isn't all that satisfying, and I saw just enough of it to grow tired. It's clearly not the focus, but one of your first missions is centred on your fisticuffs ability, so it's not at the periphery either.
Secondly, personal needs systems. A nagging hunger mechanic felt a bit more like my mother telling to take hydration breaks between scumbag crimes than it did an interesting gameplay wrinkle. Likewise to the sleep meter. Both are one or two balance passes away from working, potentially, but notable nonetheless.
Getting Away With It
It's Only Money is a game with a clear vision. It knows what it wants to do, what it's capable of, and what it wants to say. Better still, its story and setting leave room to interpret its underpinnings as you like. It's not trying to be the next big open-world crime game, it's trying to be fun. And while there's a few snags in its admittedly-slim formula, it's mostly a success. There's fun in working your way from pockets to cars to customers. And in graduating from torn jeans to whatever outfit your well-to-do self wants to wear on that day. Best of all, like so many games before it, it's better in co-op, with a few friends.
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There are no guarantees - but we'd bet our own money on this one. If you're going to take a chance with yours, odds are good this one will deliver.