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Impressions: Else Heart.Break()

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The entire time I’ve spent with Else Heart.Break() [official site] I’ve had two concurrent thoughts:

– I think this game is probably extraordinary
– I am not having any fun playing this game

Don’t let the apparently simplistic screenshots fool you. This is an enormous, astonishingly complex game. After the first scene, you’re in a huge city, entirely open to you, explored from a third-person angle and played like a point and click adventure. You can go anywhere, talk to anyone, pick up lots of things, hang out in bars, go dancing in clubs, snoop in people’s apartments, and apparently, I’m assured, hack computers and the game itself.

I’ve, after hours of playing, yet to hack anything. I’ve yet to be presented with the opportunity to hack anything. I have, however, sold a lot of cans of soda to strangers.

I’ve also sworn approximately nineteen thousand times at one of the most infuriatingly awful cameras I’ve ever seen in a game.

The freedom is remarkable, and especially so in a game that has opted for a deliberately retro style (there’s a combination of pixels and a late-90s vibe) and an antiquated adventure-like interface. You really can occupy hours pottering around, trying doors, finding squats, nicking floppy discs from people’s apartments and sticking them in computers to see what’s on them, chatting to neighbours, riding the tram, dancing in a nightclub, or sitting down for a coffee in the local café.

The odd thing is, while you can spend hours doing this, your character will have taken days. For seemingly no sensible reason, the game’s time moves at sixty times reality, a minute ticking by for every second. This means, in an infuriatingly Sims-like way, menial tasks take the better part of an hour. Getting out of bed, clearing some space in your inventory (and for some ridiculous reason, there’s no storage in your character’s permanent room, so you have to place extra items individually on clear spots on the floor), heading downstairs and out the door, takes you half the morning. And, when your character eventually gets tired if he’s up too long, well, that’s really tiresome.

There’s some notion of reason for it – different things happen at different times in the town. So if you want to meet people at the nightclub, you’ll obviously need to be there at night. Shops aren’t open at 3am, and certain people appear to follow routines – all really exciting stuff. But what I would give for a simple “wait” mechanic, rather than have time fly by at such an idiotic pace.

Then came the soda sales. The story is that your character, an apparently teenage boy, is offered a job on this island town as a rep selling a bubbly beverage. This, I had assumed, meant he’d be attempting to sell it in bulk to local establishments. It is, in fact, wandering around trying to sell it by the can to people in the streets at $2 a go. I’m not convinced that’s the most effective way to go about selling fizzy drinks. But sell it you are told to do, with about fifty percent of the people you speak to proffering you a few bucks for the unpleasant contents.

And that’s as far as I’ve got. I know something else is about to happen, but I’ve lost the will to find it. I’ve lost the will to find anything. The layout of the town is maddening, broken up into segments linked by multiple exits on the edges – but with a rotating camera and no sense of North, you have to frustratingly guess where you are (or ask strangers, if they’re willing to tell you), then open the in-game paper map and attempt to orientate yourself by the confusion of canals and tramlines, and then hope you’ve guessed it all right. Sometimes there are signposts – more often there are not. And then comes the camera.

It’s so poor. At the very start of the game, in a cut-scene, the camera swings around a circle and the walls of the building pop in and out of existence to afford a good view. Hurrah! I thought. But no, that’s for then. For the bulk of the game, walls go nowhere, and the camera – for reasons I can only assign to pure vindictiveness – won’t sit where you leave it. It swings back to an assigned point, almost always behind an obstruction. This is made more maddening by the option to reverse the X axis to something sensible, but the Y axis is left permanently back to front, all contributing to a miserable chore of trying to see anything at any point.

Not knowing where I’m going, having an obscenely silly amount of time to go there in, and not being able to see myself going there, is all I could really take. Which is devastating, because I was really interested to see where it was all going.

I’m sure there’s so much cleverness to be found in here. While I’m not a fan of this current rush of games that appear to think what an audience really wants is to learn to code games (oh the narcissism), Else Heart.Break() has created a world that’s complex and interesting enough to merit such extravagance. But I just haven’t found it.

I was asked to meet someone, somewhere. I forget who it was, and exactly where it was. Conversations disappear with the popping of their speech bubbles, tasks are not collated anywhere, locations are not marked on maps, and having gotten horribly lost, struggled to find my way home, spoken to many others, slept on a bed in a metal container and had a weird dream about a girl then somehow woken up in my hotel bed, days have gone by and I’ve no way of retrieving the forgotten information.

And man! Because wow, that last paragraph! That sounds amazing! Weird dreams, strange happenings, unresolved mysteries, such freedom! But the game’s core story needs to be followed, and I’ve now no idea what the next step was.

So yes, I’ve very clearly failed at this game. And this game has clearly failed me. But I’m utterly convinced that my experience will not be shared by many others. I am certain there’s something extraordinary in here. It seems I’m not the person to find it.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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