18/07/2021

๐Ÿ’š Where the Heart Leads | PS4 | Review | 9/10 | "A warm-hearted tale of life and all its possibilities" ๐Ÿ’š @ArmatureStudio #IndieGames #GameDev

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When I was asked about reviewing Where The Heart Leads the only knowledge I had was that it was a dreamlike, narrative adventure with a lifetime of choices, which are words that fill my heart with glee.

Making decisions is probably my favourite thing to do in terms of mechanics, I love it. Having to contemplate things like morality, ethics and predicting outcomes are things I enjoy in other media as well as life in general, so I was very excited for Where the Heart Leads.

You play as Whit Anderson, a husband and father who - on a stormy night - tries to rescue his dog who has fallen down a sinkhole, you tumble down into the darkness and become trapped underground. You awake from the fall now trapped underground, but in a dreamlike state, as you progress through the cave you enter the past, present and future of your life and are given the power to change them. 

The bulk of the game is making the choices in the important stages of your life. You start off in your youth growing up on a farm with your parents and brother, and then go right through until you reach old age. Throughout this time, you will make various choices that affect not only you but those around you.

Now, when I've played games like Mass Effect or the Telltale series, choices will be largely on the big scale and things that I won't experience in my everyday life. For instance, in my day-to-day, I've never had to decide whether I should kick a murdering cannibal into an electric fence as in Telltale’s The Walking Dead (FYI - I did). The choices in this game are ones you probably have had to make in your life; should I put work or my children first? Do I try and go for the job I love with little financial security or take the more practical job that pays more money? This game is about everyday life. It doesn't always give you a ton of options, there are only usually two or three possibilities as it instead goes for more frequent decisions that add up over time.

With everyday options, you need everyday people, and it's this that made the game for me. People never felt like caricatures, they had different moods and would react in realistic ways, for instance when I went to my wife in one decision, basically saying I was going to support my brother even though we were struggling ourselves, she reacted with sympathy and care.

However, I went to her with a much smaller decision - after she had experienced a bad day - and she was much less reasonable; which is brilliant because that’s how people are, stress takes its toll and it felt like decisions had consequences that you could see in the characters’ emotions and actions.

An interesting thing about the character design is that characters don’t have fully-fledged models; they are more like ghostly, diamond outlines. It sounds weird, but that’s how I would describe them. When they move, the body collapses into pages. It’s very surreal but I'm assuming by not having full models, helps you project your own reality and preconceptions to the characters. In the game, your brother Sege is very artistic and a bit lackadaisical at times, he sees art as a deep expression of himself that should be challenging and I definitely could see a bit of my own brother in him.

The mechanics of the game are wonderfully simple, when you build objects, you just walk up to the location, press ‘X’ and hold ‘Square’ - no irritating mini-games, just simplicity. There is no fall damage and you keep notes throughout the game in terms of characters and your interactions with them, so you can always look back to see what you have recently done - and what is needed to move forward. Nothing impeded the game or became needlessly complex. 

The developers have been in constant contact via email during the review process and any time a problem has arisen, they have informed us and offered solutions. An example of this is when it was noted by them that the in-game text was perhaps too small and could cause an accessibility concern, it was instantly patched and now you can adjust font size. They have been on the ball, and I praise them for it.

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