Narrative adventure games are a bit like eating shellfish. Some people love the taste and texture of the succulent meat. Others end up with a nasty rash, enlarged tongue and a fear of prawns that will never leave them. I sit on the fence with the genre myself – not with shellfish, they always get a hard pass. Sometimes I find myself utterly caught up in a complex and well-paced story of a narrative adventure, whilst on other occasions I’m left cold by the lack of compelling gameplay. So, it was with some trepidation that I approached Armature Studio’s surreal narrative adventure ‘Where the Heart Leads’. Would I love it or hate it? Rather boringly, the answer is somewhere in between.
The story of Where the Heart Leads kicks off with family man Whit Anderson falling down a sinkhole in an effort to save his dog. To be fair, it was always going to go wrong, as a plan involving a bathtub and a winch is never going to be a winner. Either way, by plunging down this hole – akin to Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole – Whit enters a strange world in which he can revisit his past and make choices that will change his life, for better or worse.
It’s an intoxicating set-up. After all, who wouldn’t want to travel back in time and do-over the mistakes of yesteryear? Armature Studios certainly don’t drop the ball when it comes to living up to the premise of making meaningful life-changing decisions either. Where the Heart Leads is crowbar packed with choices to make. These aren’t fake smoke and mirror choices either, in which virtually the same outcome plays out no matter what you decide. Instead, Whit’s life can actually be transformed, often by a seemingly simple decision that you almost forgot you made. Scarily similar to real-life then, as consequences have a habit of making an appearance when you least expect them. Once you’ve realised this it puts more pressure on every decision. I found myself mulling over a series of text boxes for an embarrassingly long period of time to ensure I didn’t royally mess everything up for poor old Whit.
The story is a highlight. This is a sweeping and epic tale, one that keeps the player guessing until the very end, of which there are apparently thousands. I’ve no way to substantiate this claim but based on the volume and variety of choices the game threw at me it does seem entirely plausible. What I can tell you is that during my playthrough there were numerous dramatic events that I felt supremely invested in and, on several occasions, utterly uncertain of what was the best course of action to take. Surely this is a clear sign of a narrative adventure game that delivers a story as compelling as that of any book, film, or graphic novel? The story of Where the Heart Leads is up there with the best of any creative media.
So, if you’ve taken a glance at the score before beginning this review – it’s okay, I won’t tell anyone – you might be confused that a game receiving hundreds of words of glowing praise hasn’t walked away with a top score. What went wrong? That would all be down to the presentation. You see, despite the fantastic story, there are numerous presentational obstacles that will hamper a player’s enjoyment of the game and make it difficult to engage with the characters and the world depicted.
First off, the isometric viewpoint is a real chore. Camera controls are awkward and clunky, rarely reacting to your inputs in the way you expect. All too often your view of Whit will be blocked by an unruly tree branch. Navigating the environment proves irritatingly finicky as well; all too often the route you need to take is unclear. I found myself having to walk Whit into obstacles just to find the correct path through certain locations. The isometric viewpoint also places too much distance between the player and the characters. Despite my attempts to zoom in I always felt too far away. Sure, it meant I could fully take in the creative and surreal landscapes but I felt utterly disconnected from the interaction between the characters.
This issue is further exacerbated by the fact that almost everyone Whit meets is depicted as a featureless hologram. Worse still, they are not really animated, instead they’ll just teleport around the screen like a homemade stop motion cartoon. The effect of this is that it kills any character and personality the NPCs could have had. Now, this problem could have been avoided if voice-overs were used to help emotionally invest the player in the characters and provide them with a unique voice, but sadly Where the Heart Leads is a text-box-athon.
Worse still, the scripting of the dialogue is lacking, far too many characters sound too similar to one another. Rather than meeting different and interesting individuals, it can feel like your player character is chatting with a hive mind. Yes, elements of this can be explained away by the overarching story but it doesn’t change the fact that the characters you are meant to care for are painfully indistinct.
The effect of all this is that, even though I wanted to keep on turning the virtual page, to keep on following the tale, I found the game pushing back against me. Playing Where the Heart Leads somehow balances out as an experience that is both intriguingly intoxicating and curiously cold. You’ll eat it and it’ll taste delicious but it might give you a rash. Just like shellfish.