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Harold Halibut is very hard to enjoy when everyone's so openly passive aggressive toward you

In fairness, I would be, too, if I had to deal with hapless Harold everyday

A tired beige man sits on his bed in Harold Halibut
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Slow Bros

Claymation-me-do Harold Halibut is one of those puzzle-y adventure games that instantly catches your eye when you see it in screenshots and trailers. I mean, who wouldn't be intrigued by its beautiful handmade models and sets? They all have such a lovely texture to them, and the slightly ramshackle way they fit together gives the game a firm sense of place. But after playing an early preview build of Harold Halibut this week, I've been disappointed by just how frustrating it is to actually play. It's not that it's difficult. In fact, the tasks Harold's assigned in the opening few hours of the game are almost insultingly easy, extending to little more than 'feed the fish' and 'talk to so and so', all of which can usually be accomplished by interacting with a single button prompt to move the story along.

Rather, it's Harold himself that makes everything feel like such a chore. He's a bit of a dolt, you see, and everyone around him knows it, treating him with such weary and open disdain like he's some kind of village idiot that I, too, quickly came to dislike him. Harold doesn't help himself much either on this front, weathering everyone's underlying frustration with him like it's all water off a duck's back. It doesn't seem to faze him in the slightest, perhaps because he's too oblivious to even notice. But while this doziness might wash in a book or TV show, taking control of such a character in a game isn't nearly as pleasant. After all, it's not just Harold that's being treated like an ignoramus. By extension, you, the player, are as well, which isn't just immersion-breaking and frustrating, but it's also insulting to your own intelligence. And that, my friends, does not equal happy adventure game fun times.

A man and an old woman stand in a hallway of office doors in Harold Halibut
The game starts with Harold being fined for not having enough credit on his travel card, and it only goes downhill from there. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Slow Bros

It's a shame, as the story hinted at during its opening hours is quite an intriguing one - even if the rough setup is one we've heard several times before. After leaving a dying Earth in search of a new planet for humanity to begin life afresh, lo and behold, that new planet ends up being little more than a poisonous bog with no breathable atmosphere. So they make do, building an underwater society where everyone gets around by vacuum tube, and everything's controlled by the clearly dodgy All Water Corporation. It's Bioshock by way of Wes Anderson, though when a message suddenly arrives from Earth supposedly saying, 'Hey, everything's actually hunky dory now because we somehow all pulled together and saved the planet,' the overlords at All Water start acting very suspicious indeed.

It's a plot I want to hear more of, but not if it's going to be doled out between Harold's endless to-ing and fro-ing around his watery home, trying to find X to relay a message to Y, and then give a message from Y to X and possibly also Z, all of which are never in place you expect them to be, even though you literally just spoke to them two fetch quests ago. They scurry about the place like ants, these folks, often without warning and with no discernible reason to be in any particular place at any particular time. It leaves Harold to traipse after them, laboriously going through each location to try and find where they've wandered off to. It's tedious work, and it's made worse by both a walk and jogging speed that always feel several notches too slow for any given task.

A man goes to fetch a container from a wall of shelves in Harold Halibut
Jeez, boss, no need to rub it in... | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Slow Bros

Even when you do track these folks down, Harold's exchanges with them are equal parts maddening and exasperating. Sometimes, for example, a timer bar will appear pressuring you to choose a certain line of dialogue Telltale-style, but the bar disappears so quickly that you barely have time to even read each response, let alone internalise what they might mean or entail. This can make choices feel rushed and careless, but that feeling pales in comparison to some of the other tasks you're required to do. At one point, your supposed friend Cyrus asks you to fix his broken 3D printer, which involves unscrewing lots of little panels from the control box. It's the kind of light, tactile arm manoeuvring that's worked exceedingly well in other kinds of puzzle games - see Fixfox and Assemble With Care as just two great examples of the form - but here it's reduced to pointless busywork, if only because at the end of the puzzle Harold is essentially forced to electrocute himself, at which point Cyrus reveals that the damn thing wasn't really broken at all, and that he just thought it would be funny to call you down to 'fix' it and hurt yourself.

This is really sucky, not just because Harold's once again the butt of everyone's jokes, but because it also disrespects your time as a player. Puzzles should exist to further a game's plot, not just kill dead space between tasks for a laugh at your own expense. The really infuriating thing is that Harold himself just shrugs his shoulders and carries on like this is a totally normal occurrence in his daily routine. But even when his 'friends' aren't causing him bodily harm, he's such a vacant and disinterested human being that he rarely has anything insightful to say anyway. His default response seems to be mostly just asking more questions, leading to protracted merry-go-rounds with NPCs as they try in vain to spell out what Harold needs to know but is repeatedly failing to grasp.

A beige man stands in front of a projector screen in Harold Halibut
Minus points to Cyrus for being a turd. Plus points for having all the panels I unscrewed lying in a heap below the printer after completing the puzzle. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Slow Bros
A man talks to an old woman in Harold Halibut
A balding man with a moustache talks to Harold in Harold Halibut
Most conversations you have with other people around the ship end up being very frustrating. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Slow Bros

It all gave me terrible flashbacks to the turgid conversations I had in Outcast: A New Beginning earlier in the month, only here you can't just hammer skip to bring the conversation to a swift conclusion. Every encounter has been carefully scripted to account for both its voice and animation work, so even if you do cut the talking short, you still have to wait for the game to play out the ensuing animation - albeit at a slightly fast-forwarded pace - until the next voice line triggers. Sure, this is marginally less jarring than having a camera whiplash between each speaker, but I'm not entirely sure it's really saving you much time in the process. It all still feels too slow, which is a tricky thing to try and mitigate when your patience is wearing thin already.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh on old Harold. Maybe I simply have a lower tolerance level for this kind of japery than others do. But I do wish he would buck up a bit and show a bit more backbone. It might be different if Harold's intelligence was merely being underestimated by his considerably more capable colleagues - if he expressed even a modicum of his own frustration at being treated so poorly, then the game might have the better makings of an 'I'll show 'em!' comeback story. But when he simply takes it all in his stride, all it does is reinforce that you're very much at the bottom of the food chain in this world, which makes it hard to feel like you'll ever truly find your place within it.

Perhaps that, too, is the point - that you're meant to feel like a fish out of water so you can go off and solve the mystery of this strange ship without anyone really worrying or caring about what you're doing. But if that is indeed what developers Slow Bros are going for, I worry that they've laid it on way too thick, to the point where some players will simply get turned off by it all, and put down their controllers long before Harold gets a chance to turn things around for himself. The fate of his watery home on Fedora 1 isn't so captivating that it will pull me through it all regardless, nor will the endless schlepping about between locations as I run increasingly pointless errands for all these passive aggressive ingrates. With its Steam launch still currently slated for early 2024, I'll be waiting with tempered expectations for Harold Halibut's full and final release.

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