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Wot I Think: The Fidelio Incident

Goodbye, Esther

First-person story-led The Fidelio Incident [official site] is, we're told, inspired by the Beethoven opera. It's also about a couple in a plane crash off the coast of Iceland, trying to escape their past. Here's wot I think:

You know what's interesting? A story-led first-person game set in the wilderness of an island off the coast of Iceland, where following a plane crash you're trying to reach your stranded wife at the top of a nearby mountain. The cold is so brutal you can only survive for seconds away from a heat source, dashing and stumbling between hot springs and the fiery remains of plane wreckage, while the cruel nature around you strives to thwart your progress. You know what's a bit less interesting? When that's there as a metaphor.

The Fidelio incident is a reasonably short game, two or three hours, that fits into the mould of story-driven first-person games that so often prove so effective. There are puzzles, but they're rudimentary - turning wheels to open pipes, never really pushing on anything that requires thought - and it's mostly about piecing together the history of your relationship through finding diary pages (yeah) from your wife that have scattered about the rocks and ice after your crash. While trying not to freeze to death.

It's also a game about the Troubles, in some sort of way. Which certainly wasn't something I'd immediately expected when crashing down into the icy tundra. The game, apparently inspired by Mr L. Beethoven's only opera Fidelio, has you playing as Stanley, husband of the now very stranded Leonore. You begin by rushing from fire to geyser, trying to find paths to your wife without your view completely frosting over, at which point you fall down and die. As you go, you learn more and more, and it quickly becomes apparent that you and your partner are on the run, your need to gather these diary pages driven not just by the player's curiosity, but in order to remove any evidence of the characters' past discretions.

Which I was all very up for, until quite early on things started feeling a little forced. It's so splendidly realistic, and then your path is blocked by an incredibly localised hailstorm, that eternally sits through an archway leading to a path along the mountain side. What a shame, I thought, that it would be so silly. And then it becomes apparent that things are perhaps odd for a reason, and then at that point I properly stopped caring because oh bloody hell it's a bloody metaphor isn't it?

That's not a fair complaint. Done well that can be splendid, but I'm not sure The Fidelio Incident does it especially well. I love impossible corridors with too many doors as much as the next person, but it feels too laboured here. Far too much like a game doing that thing it's seen games do, rather than ideas bursting forth from a story that somebody really wanted to tell. I may be wrong about that, but that's certainly how it felt to me.

And that's really not helped by the original core premise already being good enough! I was rather enjoying the struggling-to-not-freeze mechanic, finding or creating paths that allowed me to reach distant points while staying warm enough. I wasn't really after a tortuously over-long sequence about clearing impossible clouds of bugs away with impossibly large red steam pipes while walking over a big tree. Yup.

It's so very, very pretty. And that make sense, this being an indie project by the art director from God Of War 3, Ken Feldman, along with his team at Act 3 Games. The vistas, the mountains, the cracking ice and infesting insects, all look absolutely stunning. It's a pleasure of a game to screenshot, if nothing else. And for the most part this is well managed, running at 60fps in silly widescreen. But "for the most part" is never what you want to read about smoothness because it's the polite way of saying, "It struggles occasionally." Especially - and this is maybe the first time this has been a complaint about a game - in a sequence where you wear a scarf. For some reason that causes the game to drop to 30fps and look rubbish for a short while. It's also worth adding that they recommend using a controller, and while I defied this and used mouse/keyboard, I could see why the recommendation is there - it often feels too sludgy to move about.

I'm not nearly educated enough to comment on the game's handling of the Troubles, and I'm wise enough to not even try. I can imagine for some it'll be problematic, for others emotionally impacting. It has the sense to invent particular moments to talk about, a fictional massacre, rather than picking out historical events, but it's still going to raise some eyebrows or some heart rates, I should imagine.

It's caused me to learn the story of Beethoven's opera, although the overlap between the two is very slight. There's certainly none of the exciting Shakespearean-esque people falling in love with people in disguise, anyway. And sadly, no songs.

The result is a really interesting-sounding game, but one that steps on its own toes, its desire to be avant-garde thwarted not only by the over-familiarity of the devices used, but also the clumsiness of their implementation. Too much of the game is spent being annoyed by having to slowly trudge between levers - a crime as old as gaming itself - only to allow it its little follies. The acting is splendid, the writing decent, and as I've said, the graphics a fabulous showing off within the Unreal Engine. But in its short time, it frustrates too often, and tries to do too much.

The Fidelio Incident is out now for Windows via Steam for £11/$15/15€, although currently enjoys a 34% discount.

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