Wot I Think – Winter Voices: Avalanche

By Quintin Smith on October 18th, 2010 at 5:07 pm.

The prologue to episodic indie RPG Winter Voices, Avalanche, was released over the weekend, available for the pocket-sized price of €4.49. Even for an indie game Winter Voices has a standout concept- you’re a girl simply trying to overcome the death of her father. Read on for Wot I Think.

Winter Voices is upsetting. Heartbreaking, even. And writing this review is the hardest part of all. Because my word, is this ever a wonderful idea for a game. And boy, does it ever disappoint.

But I’ll get to that. Just let me be positive for a minute, because this is a brave little game that deserves some love.

Easily the most impressive aspect of Winter Voices is how it manages to gracefully transport the framework of a tactical RPG – classes, experience points, skills, quests and battles – into a stark and comparatively realistic setting. As I mentioned above, the game is about getting over the death of your father. Winter Voices: Avalanche opens with you paying your last respects to his body, quickly moves on to his rustic cremation, and from then on you’re free to wander and talk to the simple folk of the sad, snowbound community in which you live, and engage in pitched battles.

The battles are – wait for it – entirely metaphorical. If you approach a building that featured prominently in your childhood, or for whatever narrative reason your character is overcome by despair, a fight starts as you’re assaulted by spirits and memories which chase your character around the map in a fairly straight tactical style.

Now, this is where Winter Voices starts getting clever. At least in the Prologue, there’s no way to actually defeat these feelings. The objectives of different fights might simply be to run away, or survive for a certain number of terms, or stop the feelings from getting past a certain point. You do this through use of skills unlocked from a beautiful skill tree which is absolutely my favourite part of the game.

Have a look:

It’s a snowflake. An enormous, emo snowflake. You start at the centre, and each direction represents a different way of dealing with grief. See the yellow-looking skills towards the bottom right? They relate to regressing into your own imagination. The orange skills above those are all to do with being sociable, and the power of friends. An example of a skill that lies between both of those areas is Imaginary Friend, which summons an ally that will hold enemies back.

I chose to go in a different direction, however. I decided my girl was more intelligent and self-aware than she was smart, so the skills I chose could all be found on the upper half of the snowflake- skills relating to strength, anger, denial and building walls around yourself. Two early skills I took were Emptiness, which drastically reduces healing and damage, and Betrayal, which has you “deny your own personality in favour of a better one. Prevents enemies further than 4 tiles away from attacking you.” These choices let me then grab Super Ego, which boosted my Confidence skill and my ability to push enemies back.

Another clever aspect of the combat is your character’s Memory statistic. When you’re allocating stat points after you’ve levelled up, you can increase your memory to boost the rate at which you gain experience (because you learn more from each talk and encounter), but it also causes the demons you wrestle with to grow in strength (your sad memories gain clarity).

All it amounts to is a completely seamless dynamic difficulty slider. Want more skills and more complex battles? Crank up your memory. Or is your character breaking down as she runs out of energy during every single fight? If so, you leave your memory well alone. You try and forget.

Winter Voices’ core concept of melding grief and RPG mechanics impressed me so much that I quickly began using my own bank of evasive mental skills to help the game out. I started ignoring or forgiving absolutely everything Avalanche was doing wrong, positive that the game was just finding its feet. Judging by the other reviews out there, I got much further than most, but it couldn’t last. There are some astonishingly bad design decisions in Avalanche that I just cannot believe developers Beyondthepillars either didn’t notice or didn’t consider issues worth fixing.

While I love the idea behind the fights, the animations all take three times as long as they should, and you’re not given nearly enough information on how the rules of the game work. At best, fights in Avalanche still manage to be tense, close-run things. At worst, which is when you’ve just had a fight, thanks, and you know how to win, and it’s easy, the battles are the videogame equivalent of watching a fat man climb stairs on his hands and knees.

Wait, I take it back. The worst battles in Avalanche consist of the more abstract fights you have as a result of the village elder advising you to drink some magic mushroom tea and go to sleep. Always a good idea when dealing with unfathomable emotional damage, that’s what I say.

The first of these jaw-droppingly ill-conceived horrorfights has you defeating a collection of small, black spirits which are sustained by a number of white flames. The white flames shoot balls of energy along the two axis where they’re located, so to defeat the black spirits you have to use your repulsion power to knock the white flames or black spirits into places where they can’t help one another. It’s a puzzle.

However, there are a lot of black spirits, and there are also a lot of white flames, and both the spirits and the flames actually move to help one another as you’re slowly trudging around the map. You move your paltry maximum of 4 tiles, you watch another 25 seconds of energy-shooting animations, and maybe one of the flames or spirits makes a move which resets all the work you’ve been doing for the last minute. It took me a full 45 minutes of anguish before I’d extinguished the last spirit.

I think this was roughly when I started running low on goodwill, meaning I was in no shape for what Avalanche throws at you next- an approach to your home that takes the form of a long gauntlet, with spirits chipping away at your energy the whole way. Believe me when I say that the layout of this particular battle is ball-wrinklingly tedious enough already. But guess what? When you win, it’s revealed that the fight is in fact a puzzle, and if you simply complete it then you have to play through it again, and again, until you figure out what in blue fuck the game wants you to do.

When I completed the fight for the second time Avalanche actually crashed, losing me the experience points that had up to then been the sole redeeming feature of the last half an hour. I remember screaming, but after that the memory gets hazy. When I came to my senses an hour later I was lying naked on the floor of my kitchen, my feet were bloody from where I’d kicked in my monitor, and I’d daubed POT FUCK on my bare chest in low-fat yoghurt.

This is me hiding from dangerous memories in the Northernmost part of the map. I enjoyed this fight, actually.

When I first started playing Avalanche I saw myself recommending it in the same way I recommend Pathologic- as a bleak, cruel, yet utterly fascinating experience. But it’s not a fair comparison, because while Pathologic did its own thing right up to the end, Avalanche is half interesting, and half a mediocre tactical RPG that’s not worth anybody’s time.

This said, I’m maintaining some amount of optimism for Episode 1 of Winter Voices, which according to the game’s site should be out next week. I think that as fights start to feature more skills and companions, there might be less of a reliance on gimmicky battles, which the developers have proved themselves about as good at designing as an equal number of sea otters.

And if the fights in future episodes of Winter Voices pick up, then we’ll be free to enjoy everything else that’s on offer here, like great music, loveable art, and writing which, while often melodramatic and slow, never once bored me.

If you’re interested in giving Avalanche a shot, you should go right ahead. It’s not even €5, and if you ignore all the pain it caused me I probably got about €5’s worth of fun out of it. If you’re on the fence, I’d say it’s worth waiting and seeing what Episode 1 brings. If its mistakes are a little less dramatic, you can be sure I’ll be all over it.

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58 Comments »

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  1. Xercies says:

    I would give this developer the money just for doing what others are only cottening on. Combining the game mechanics with the story. Niggles aside this actually sounds like a really interesting little game.

    • Dave says:

      Given what Quintin wrote, “niggles” is an understatement.

    • Quintin Smith says:

      It does start as niggles. I can do niggles. I did niggles for about my first four hours with Avalanche.

      Then some non-niggles started showing up. Antiniggles. Fuck those things.

    • chesh says:

      For further evaluation’s sake, how many hours of anti-niggles were there? what sort of a niggle:anti-niggle ratio are we looking at?

    • Quintin Smith says:

      No, I think this stops here. It’s only a matter of time before somebody makes a politically incorrect typo.

    • chesh says:

      Surely a wise call, but it’s still a valid question. Are we looking at four hours of “frustrating, but tolerable” and then another four of “how could they be so blind”? 4:2? 4:6? I guess since you’ve said that the first four hours was tolerable, the only information that’s really needed is how much longer the rest of the game was.

    • Army of None says:

      What’s the niggle:antiniggle ratio in a single peggle?

    • DJ Phantoon says:

      What, nipples?

    • BAReFOOt says:

      Actually this is a classical case of imbalance. Story and artwork are great. Mechanics and technology are bad. There are many games that do great mechanics, but have no story. But they don’t add. They multipy!
      So S × A × M × T → 8 × 7 × 2 × 3… still only gives 336 out of 10,000! While with good mechanics and a stable engine… 8 × 7 × 7 × 6… you would not have had just more. You would have had 2352. Seven times as much greatness!

      Add a good personal resonance factor to it (how much this game’s experience resonates with your feelings and personality), and you would have had a game you’d never forget. Sadly though, that’s not the case.

      I hope they can think out new basic mechanics. But that usually is a lost case, as it can make it so different, that the rest does not work with it anymore. I still can hope though, right…?

    • jeremypeel says:

      Love your formulae, BAReFOOt; reminds me of this, at 2:16 or so:-

  2. Dominic White says:

    Aww. I was fascinated by what you had to say about it on Twitter, and it’s a real shame to hear that this is so wonky, gameplay-wise. It’s a fantastic concept, and it sounds like it’s scuppered by some ridiculously elementary design flubs.

    From the sounds of it, the combat could be enhanced massively simply by playing all animations in parallel, rather than as a long, tedious queue. Of course, that wouldn’t help the unintuitive puzzles (perhaps some internal monologue would be of help there?), or the stability problems, but it doesn’t sound like there’s anything that can’t be fixed with some effort.

    I really hope the developers take the first wave of criticism to heart, and refine episode 1 before they even think of releasing episode 2.

    • Quintin Smith says:

      Me too. God, me too.

      What worries me is that they did /say/ it would be one episode a week, and Canard PC (the big French PC gaming mag) gave Avalanche 8/10. I can see them steamrollering onwards, regardless of all the negative reviews. According to the site, Winter Voices is only the test of the MMO engine they’ve developed, anyway.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      Canard PC is more of a fringe indie mag than “the big French PC gaming mag,” to be fair. PC Jeux (i.e. PCG France) is probably the most recognised PC-only mag, and there are a fair few well-known mags that do multiformat and are better-known than Canard PC.

    • DJ Phantoon says:

      To be fair, no one likes the French so you can’t blame Quintin for mentioning the only one he could think of and moving on.

    • Loomchild says:

      Quinns: “Winter Voices is only the test of the MMO engine they’ve developed, anyway.”

      Why am I not surprised ? Oh yeah, because Dofus has the same problem of having to wait for animations during fights. Or at least had, they got a little better.

      It’s a sure proof that they expect to have more players in the fight, so they have to make the AI play its characters one after the other. Speeding up the animations would help anyway.

  3. RyePunk says:

    Excessively lengthy animations are the bane of a Tactics game. That alone will stop me from buying the game at the moment. Although if they release a bundle after all the episodes are finished and the story is compelling enough, I might dive in at that point.
    We shall see.
    Certainly seems fresh. Which is always welcome.

  4. chesh says:

    Goddamn, I am so torn about this. I have a pretty high pain tolerance for an interesting concept, but if Quinns is going into blackout rages because of a game’s inept design I’m just not sure if I’ll be able to manage.
    But man! That concept looks so amazing! I don’t think I’ll be able to resist, ultimately.

    • Quintin Smith says:

      MY TIP: Play a Volva, and boost your memory steadily throughout the game. The higher your memory, the more complex and engaging the fights will be.

  5. Wilson says:

    I’ll be interested to see how episode 1 turns out. This sounds like a great idea, and something I’d like to play, but I don’t want to buy it in case I like the concept but hate the game itself (e.g. I want to complete the game, but don’t enjoy any of the battles). It’s always saddening/angering when you get elements in games that seem so blatantly and obviously bad that you wonder if anyone actually played those bits themselves before the game was released.

  6. Superbest says:

    You “decided my girl was more intelligent and self-aware than she was smart”? I don’t…

    • jeremypeel says:

      The rules:-

      Intelligence = natural wisecrack ability.

      Smarts = Wisdom gained through experience and the influence of an elder sage.

  7. pipman3000 says:

    wanted: someone to collect 10 negative feeling spleens. offering 30 copper pieces and your choice of pointy stick, flashy underwear, or fake jewelry as reward.

  8. Octaeder says:

    Shame. I nearly picked this up after your tweets on the subject last night. Might just wait till Episode 1 now though.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Morph says:

    So this isn’t episode 1? Is it a prologue game? I’m confused.

  10. Joe Martin says:

    Oh god, this. I wanted to kill myself because of this game. I actually sobbed it was that utterly shite.

    There is a limit to how far a good idea can carry you with sloppy execution.

  11. bwion says:

    You know, I think I’m still tempted, especially at this price. This sounds really interesting, and I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for crazy bullshit tactical RPG fights. (Just how high is that tolerance? We will see!)

  12. Tom says:

    This is the sort of game that, even in a crowded week, even if it’s actually terrible, I want to pay the developers to keep making. Because I’d rather have a risky, aggressive game that makes a good number of mistakes than a well-executed boring game.

    Basically, I will pay them for having balls as big as the oceans.

  13. Premium User Badge

    James G says:

    I was all for buying this immediately as I read you describe the levelling system, the concept alone was making me go all dewy eyed at the ideas it embraced. It is a shame that those fantastic concepts do not translate into a well developed game.

    I’m now torn between waiting and seeing if the managed to rescue it, or jumping in early and risking souring my experience.

    • Serenegoose says:

      This. I so want a game like this, but I don’t want to try it and put it down disappointed. An idea like this deserves so much more.

    • qrter says:

      You can wait all you want, you supposedly won’t be able to skip the lesser bits anyway:

      WARNING: Episodes are not playable as stand alone. You must install the episodes in their release order and begin with Winter Voices: Avalanche.

      (Although I expect them to change this, as it’s a really dumb choice.)

    • jeremypeel says:

      Yeah, would really love this to be good – clever, abstract RPGs are in short supply. We’ll see, I suppose.

      Quinns, you mentioned on Twitter that the devs have emailed you – did they mention whether they’re going to remap their entire direction due to your criticism or not?

  14. Huw says:

    One to add to the Wait And See list, then. Thanks for the review, Quintin. What a bloody shame.

  15. Heliocentric says:

    When your dad dies, don’t take drugs old men offer you… Quite simple really.

  16. Snubber says:

    You spelled “vulva” wrong.

  17. Premium User Badge

    Lambchops says:

    it’s a brilliant concept, I absolutely love the presentation and ideas behind the skill tree.

    Shame the gameplay doesn’t live up to the ideas behind it. I can’t stand mediocre fighting in RPGs so I think I’ll give this one a miss. it’s an intruiging concept though and hopefully the devs take ffedback on board, one of the great things about episodic gaming is it gives them time to improve and refine.

    let us know how the first ep turns out Mister Quinns. If it’s good I’d definitely buy.

  18. qrter says:

    It says on that order page that they’ll be releasing it on Steam very soon – I’ll probably get it on there.

    It sounds interesting enough for (less than) 5 euros (even knowing I probably will never finish it).

    • qrter says:

      Wait, this worries me:

      WARNING: Episodes are not playable as stand alone. You must install the episodes in their release order and begin with Winter Voices: Avalanche.

      So.. if they solve a lot of the problems for Episode 1, I won’t be able to skip the annoying prologue? That seems a bit stupid.

    • pipman3000 says:

      i was going to wait for the series to become good before buying it but welp there goes that.

  19. Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

    What an incredible idea and skill tree. Breathtakingly imaginative.
    If they ever add a good tactical engine to it, a think ive found a game almost tailored towards me.

  20. sneakers jordan says:

    that’s really great news
    i never heard it before
    nice post
    look forward your new posts

  21. Vagabond says:

    I went ahead and purchased it. I received an email saying I could download it up to 3 times within the next 48 hours from the supplied link. I downloaded it once at work to have a go during my lunch break but couldn’t get air working on my PC. I’ve just got home from work and tried to download it a second time and the server tells me I have used up my allotted time or downloads.
    My advice, wait for it to be available on steam.

    • Vagabond says:

      Additional note: They were very prompt in resetting my download limit (it was done within 15 minutes of me emailing them, while I was posting the above). I assumed timezones and such would mean a longer wait.

      That being said, I still can’t recommend a system that only gives you 48 hours to download a file compared to steam.

    • Premium User Badge

      Morph says:

      Succumbed to its lure and bought it, though not had chance for a play yet. No problems with the download, though the install took two attempts.

    • qrter says:

      Still, seems a lot of faffery for a 5 euro game.

  22. Zhan says:

    So this is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories but in a bad tactical RPG form? Also what’s up with daddy issues in video games this year? Silent Hill, Mass Effect 2, Dead Rising 2, BioShock 2, Heavy Rain, Nier and I’m talking only about the games that use dads as an instrument to tell the story and not just a reason for protagonist’s rage. My stepfather passed away just before the start of the year so I might be just noticing it more but It’s really weird to have game after game doing something father related. Like in Mass Effect every character has a daddy issue, up to the point that Sheppard becomes a spiritual father to Grunt. Silent Hill had the same concept as this game but told through an image of her dad that she created as a kid. Dead Rising, Bioshock, Heavy Rain and Nier all let you play as dads in hard to deal with situations, with Heavy Rain being the only one not dealing with daughters. I’m sure there were more dad oriented games this year but those are the ones I played. Also there were small dad related parts in games like the human noble origin in Dragon Age and the son of the main Dominion guy in Starcraft but those were pretty cliche and not as crucial to the plot of those games. I’m rambling at this point but still, what’s the deal with those themes popping out this year?

  23. Kea says:

    Canard PC is more of a fringe indie mag than “the big French PC gaming mag,” to be fair. PC Jeux (i.e. PCG France) is probably the most recognised PC-only mag, and there are a fair few well-known mags that do multiformat and are better-known than Canard PC.

    This, sir, is pure blasphemy.
    CPC is the best PC-only french mag. Not because it is very good, but because the other french PC mags just turned into such big piles of poo a few years ago.

    Although their test of “winter voices” sounded more like a “let’s help an interesting conceptual indie game” , than a real, objective test. I must admit it didn’t convince me to actually buy the game.

    Note to developers out there. Stop doing flash games. Don’t EVER do flash games. Why would you do that ? No wonder your guilt and despair are coming after you.

  24. Premium User Badge

    Morph says:

    ARGHGHHH! Yeah so I am now experiencing the Quintin rage. I managed to miss out on the 45 minute puzzle somehow, but I’m trying to approach the house mentioned above and I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing. It suggests you have to run the gauntlet, then resets. But there is a hint that maybe you are supposed to lose – also tried to find myself reset. What the hell?! If I can’t find an answer on a forum somewhere in the next 15 mins I’m afraid it’s goodbye Winter Voices.

  25. SenorKaffee says:

    I purchased Avalanche yesterday and played for a little over an hour.

    Despite of my first impression from the screenshots and art page the presentation is pretty dull. The village is very repetitive, most houses look the same from the inside and it’s really hard to distinguish the characters. The future episodes also need a lot more work in the sound design department. When there is music, it is great, but there are just too few sound effects – no winter atmosphere, no environmental sounds like footsteps.

    I love the idea, I like tactical RPGs and I’m a big fan of Final Fantasy Tactics. In this game, the slow gameplay nearly killed the experience for me. I’ll try to continue the game, but please, please, crank the speed up to 11 in your next releases.

  26. Lunacy says:

    For what it’s worth, there’s a patch available now on their order page. If you bought the game through Steam you have to go to your Steam folder > steamapps > common > winter voices ep 1 in order to apply it.

  27. Dan says:

    Thanks this review was by far the best I’ve read all the others were truly dreadful (such as the games-daily-news one, where the reviewer seems incredibly upset that he has to read text and the computer won’t read it to him) – keep up the good work!

  28. haha says:

    Haha! A huge emo snowflake!

  29. Spike says:

    My impression so far is similar. Great, brave concept but some poor execution. The character interactions feel like a wordy script being read to you. The translations from French are a bit painful at times – that can be fixed easily by using a native speaker to tweak them. But the tactical interface is poor and the tactical problems are just a bit dull. And yes, there’s not enough information about the ‘rules’ – though in a way that’s quite refreshing. For me the worst aspect of the tactical interface is that the forced 2.5D perspective means there are lots of squares you could move into or fire through that you can’t see on the screen, and are really hard / impossible to select. If there’s a capability to rotate the perspective, or remove the terrain, I couldn’t find it. This makes the tedious tactical puzzles even more tedious.

    Still it’s very encouraging that someone is attempting a concept this brave. I hope they respond to feedback and improve the game. And I hope we’re not just alpha-testing their dreams of MMO largesse and grandeur.

  30. TJF588 says:

    Good news, everyone! Winter Voices is back in production. Not only will Episodes 5 and 6 be produced (with the others getting back onto the Store), but Season 2 will, depending on Season 1 sales, more games or a book.

    What’s most relevant here, though, is that there will be a “Big Patch”, with the only revealed line of the patch notes being that “« Enemies now play all at the same time. »”.

    Woo!