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You really need to shut your brain off to enjoy The First Descendant

A man with a gun fights a robot in The First Descendant.

One month ago, I was sitting in a meeting room at Summer Game Fest about to go hands-on with The First Descendant. I was eager to see how Nexon’s multiplayer looter shooter would shake up a space dominated by Warframe and Destiny 2. Before I could start, I was shown a long video presentation breaking down how the game works in exhaustive detail. I was instantly lost; it felt like I was reading gibberish. That confusion didn’t clear up when I was tossed into a hub with no direction and had to be shepherded into a dungeon by a nearby PR person like a lost sheep.

I came away from that experience appreciating its sharp shooting and character-driven gameplay, but felt like I’d need to see the game in context to really get it. I wanted to know more about the world and its characters. I wanted to build a Descendant from the ground up instead of getting thrown into a hub. It felt like I was doing it a disservice by judging it based on a high-level activity that I couldn’t possibly hope to understand.

After finally getting to play right from the start, I now realize that I had gotten a fairly accurate slice of the full game after all. The First Descendant is an inscrutable looter shooter that still doesn’t make a lick of sense to me several hours in. My mistake was that I was trying to put an ounce of critical thought in while I played. In reality, I’d need to virtually shut my entire brain off to enjoy it.

Tune in and tune out

You’ve probably heard someone say — or even said yourself — that they want to turn their brain off when they watch a movie or play a game. It’s a common refrain for people who see blockbusters as nothing more than light escapism that can entertain for a few hours. I’ve never related to that sentiment. Even the most bombastic action movie can still be an enriching experience that sticks with me. Why would I want to waste my precious time on this Earth just looking at flashy noise that will go in one ear and out the other?

Still, I can understand the desire for that kind of experience. Life is hard and explosions are cool. Why not escape a horrific news cycle every now and then and go comatose? For those who actively want that experience, I have great news: The First Descendant doesn’t require players to use a single brain cell. In fact, it’s better if you don’t.

Descendants charge towards aliens in The First Descendant.

When I load in, I’m quickly hit with a barrage of nonsense. I’m not going to try and explain the narrative setup. After playing for a few days, I do not understand a single word of it. Charisma vacuum NPCs spend a lot of time monologuing about lore, but none of it sticks. I stare at my screen slack-jawed as proper nouns are flung out at me. I am thrown into the deep end from minute one and I never submerge. After an opening tutorial, I’m tossed into an MMO hub filled with quest markers I don’t understand. I open a menu screen to see walls of text and numbers. There is no hope for me.

I’m convinced that developer Nexon understands how borderline nonsensical it all is, because it doesn’t waste time in getting me into the action. I load onto a planet and start following a colorful quest marker like a bull charging at a red cloth on instinct. A mission activates right in the world. Suddenly, I’m shooting a bunch of aliens. I don’t know what they are or why I’m doing it. I just shoot them until I’m told the mission is done. Other missions ask me to stand around an unexplained device for a while and fend off aliens. I have no idea if these missions are related to the story in any way, because I have no idea what the story is. All that matters is that I am shooting aliens with a gun.

To The First Descendant‘s credit, that shooting is certainly tight. Each gun feels like it has real weight when I pull the trigger (the PlayStation 5’s DualSense really sells the sensation). I feel a sense of power as I mow down waves of enemies. There’s also some excellent sound design here to emphasize each shot, making my bullets feel truly deadly. It’s not quite as sharp as Destiny 2, but I quickly sink into the flow. Before I know it, I’m activating more missions just so I can keep emptying my clip.

A Descendant in a robot suit fires a gun in The First Descendant.

A certain appeal

There are other gameplay pieces here that check the right boxes. I have a grappling hook, which lets me swing up to ledges like I can in Halo Infinite. I have a set of character-sspecific abilities to deepen the action, à la Overwatch. I start by playing as Ajax, a beefy tank who can drop shields and smash down on enemies like one of Destiny 2‘s Titans. All the while, I’m getting more and more guns that I can experiment with. When I power my brain entirely off, it all feels great. At one point, I realize that my jaw is literally hanging open. It’s like I’ve lost all control of my body for a moment and dropped into a blissful state of nonexistence; I’m functionally dead.

Anytime I try to spring back to life, it poses a serious threat to my enjoyment. I’m completely overwhelmed by the amount of loot I can equip at once, most of which raises a stat I don’t understand by a meaningless number. I can really get nitty-gritty with my character build, equipping several mods on individual guns. Instead, I just grab whatever is in my inventory and attach it to whatever’s equipped without even looking at it. I do not notice a difference when I start shooting again, so it hardly seems like I need to think about it much more. Another menu gives me an enormous list of stats that are in no way tangible or even legible. None of it matters. As long as the numbers are big, I am meant to feel like I’m doing a good job.

I get that appeal. I was a Destiny player for several years, even during the narratively hollow moments of its original campaign. There’s a thrill that comes from watching numbers go up as I equip new gear. I’ve seen plenty of people loving their time with The First Descendant so far, whether they’re just enjoying its shooting or ogling its characters (search the game on X and you’ll find a lot of very weird posts). There’s clearly a primal joy here that’s resonating with a certain kind of player. I can almost feel it as I sit on my couch and disassociate while my rumbling DualSense controller gives me positive reinforcement. I am a dog pawing for treats.

A squad of Descendants shoots in The First Descendant.

At first, it was my intention to write a full review of The First Descendant. I don’t think I can do that in good faith. A review would require me to put some critical thought into my playtime and think about what the work aims to communicate and how well it accomplishes that. It would also require me to trade in countless hours of my precious life when all I really want to do is play for 30 minutes here and there when I need to experience time travel. Sure, I could power my brain back up and tell you how its lack of coherent story sucks any motivation out of it, criticize its unbelievably egregious microtransactions, or compare it to the myriad of games its taking notes from to scientifically engineer a “fun” looter shooter. But at some point, that feels like overkill. Reviewing The First Descendant would be like reviewing a fidget spinner. It spins. What more do you want to know?

So if you’re the kind of person who maintains that art should require no brainpower, please feel free to reap what you’ve sown here. The First Descendant is the ultimate conclusion of that line of thinking: an IV bag that dribbles out a consistent dose of morphine. I’m not going to judge anyone for hooking it up to their arm; we all need something to get us through this life.

The First Descendant is out now on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC.

Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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