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Watch our review with gameplay above and read our review here. Opening in the small English village of Yaughton in Shopshire during the 1980’s you as the unnamed player are dropped into this small rural village whose residents have all vanished, leaving behind nothing but strange glowing balls of light scattered throughout the village, which act as both your guide as well as a gateway to the past as they show the player memories of events which took place shortly before the residents vanished.
Developed by The Chinese Room and Santa Monica Studio, here we have another reminder of why the independent games scene is so important as we get a game which looks like a triple A title while maintaining its independent sensibilities to not be afraid to try something new. As such, we have a game that has no action or items to collect and solely requires the player to make their way around from one side of the village to the other.
Trying to explain this game might be one of the more detrimental aspects of it, especially as its a game which actively shuns anything which we have come to traditionally associate with being needed in a game. This of course means that it sounds like far from the most thrilling experience but like with its closest comparison Firewatch, here we have a game for which the plot and storytelling are king.
Thankfully, the story we get is a gripping tale of quiet village life turned upside down by a series of increasingly strange events happening throughout the village; with the game being divided into five chapters with each one being dedicated to a different person in the village, with the final two being dedicated to Kate and Stephen, the two scientists working up at the observatory and whose arrival in the village being seen as the start of the problem. At the same time, Stephen has to deal with old ghosts having left the village for his career only to find himself pulled back, while Kate being an African-American is treated with distrust by several of the villagers who are quick to blame her for the trouble happening around them.
Drawing inspiration from the likes of John Christopher’s The Death of Grass and A Wrinkle In The Skin as well as John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids there is certainly a real British sensibility to the story which at times feels like an episode of The Archers (a British radio show loved by the older generation) mixed with The Twilight Zone as we get the small village scandals slowly being pushed to the side as we learn of a virus which appears to be affecting the villagers with the authorities writing it off as a case of Spanish Influenza while they try to figure out what is happening, especially as strange things only continue to occur in the village, such as the birds dying and people mysteriously vanishing.
As the game progresses and you work your way through the chapters, the truth about what is happening slowly is revealed via the flashbacks the mysterious glowing balls show us as well as radio broadcasts from Kate, which can be listened to by locating radios scattered throughout the village. Piecing this story together is where the main meat of the game lies as you walk around the village. It’s a real credit to The Chinese Room that this alone is enough to hold your attention throughout the game as clearly they felt that any other factors such as puzzles, item collection or even interacting with someone who isn’t a glowing ball of light would be too much of a distraction from the story they wanted to tell, and hence, don’t feature here.
By removing these elements, the player is left with nothing but to walk around the village and I really do mean walk, as your locked into one set speed for the whole game, which can prove to be more than a little frustrating when your wanting to get to an area quickly, and perhaps its a small grace that you’re never needed to backtrack with the game constantly pushing you on forward with the promise of a new piece of information or location to discover. The village might also be an open world environment but its also one which feels very much on rails mostly thanks to the majority of properties being locked up with those that can be entered often being so that another flashback or radio message can be framed by the surroundings. This is not to say there aren’t still interesting things to see along the way such as the doctors office littered with bloody tissues or a crashed train site, and these help hold your interest as you make your way through the village, however it still comes back to the fact that you could essentially watch someone play the game on Twitch or Youtube and have the same experience of playing the game as your only role as the player is to essentially move the camera.
Visually the game is stunning from the start to the end and at no point does it feel like they are trying to cut corners, and when combined with the score by Jessica Curry, who also worked on Dear Esther, it provides an orchestral and choral score, which gives the game an almost Final Fantasy-like feel to it. At the same time its used sparingly throughout, creating some truly powerful moments, especially as it frames the final moments of some of the characters whose last days we are following, and certainly as we move towards the climax.
This is a game that can be compared to trying to consume a whole cake, for while it looks great and the experience is engrossing and fun throughout it does ultimately leave you craving something a little more substantial once the experience is over. Equally because of the type of story being told here its doubtful that you will want to play through it again, especially as its twists and shocks really only have their impact the first time around. Also, the plodding pace of your character–which you might be able to get past due to the engrossing nature of the story–only adds an unwanted grating edge to the proceedings.
An indie gem despite having a few flaws, this game more than lives up to its reputation while showing us that walking simulators have potential to be a new evolution in story driven gaming and while it might not work for some due to it jettisoning the usual things we associate with games, this is still an experience worth having.