Review: Else Heart.Break()

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I’m all for games that break the mold, but that doesn’t make them any less disappointing when they don’t pan out. The pitch for Else Heart.Break() is pretty great, offering you a dynamic, open-world adventure full of drama and hacking. The art style is fascinating, the interface is clean, and the whole thing just drips with potential. And then you sit down to play it, and you wander around a city for 20 minutes, either waiting for a timed event to roll around or to stumble across something interesting. Even after two hours I could get no deeper into the game than this, being constantly rebuffed in my efforts to dig in by empty rooms, locked doors, and silent people.

You play Sebastian, a young adult with fine taste in clothes and horrible taste in eye shadow who’s just scored his first job in a distant town. The intro at his home eases you into the simple point and click interface that powers the game, and then moves him off to the unfortunately-named Dorisburg to make it on his own. With only a hotel room and a vague hint at a business contact, it’s up to you to help Sebastian find purpose and meaning in this strange, bitty city.

This really is how the game starts, leading you to your lodgings at a hotel and then telling you that maybe you can meet the guy who hired you at a nearby cafe. For any other adventure game in existence this would either lead you to meeting the dude or finding a clue that leads you to him, but here that plot thread pretty much dead-ends. At that point you’re on your own, roaming the twisting streets looking for something to do. You might find it as I did eventually, or you might check out the weird shops and houses around town, or you might take to rummaging through garbage bins. It’s the promise of that open, dynamic world to explore, but as you might have expected already it’s pretty well at odds with having a tight narrative to follow.

The “dynamic” aspect of the game is in how all the characters have schedules they keep to. There are no random NPCs here, everyone you see is a citizen of Dorisburg with things to do and thoughts to have. NPCs get up in the morning, go to work, take breaks, go shopping, hit the bar, and go to sleep, just as you’ll have to. There’s a clock ticking away in the top left that tells you what time it is in the city, which will be important when characters ask you to meet them somewhere at 10pm or get coffee at lunch. Again, this gives the city the impression of being alive, but also makes it harder to find people when you need them, or events that actually progress the plot.

That right there is the real heart of the problem, really. The folks behind Else Heart.Break() made a dynamic world but didn’t give it a dynamic plot. You can stroll wherever and talk to whoever and pick up beers and floppy disks but the story isn’t going anywhere unless you meet specific people and do specific things with them. Instead of creating some bold new point-and-click hybrid, the developers just made it harder to play through a pretty standard one. And the worst part is, it’s not like a standard one where you can keep fiddling with a puzzle you’re stuck on. I lost the plot about 45 minutes ago and really have no idea how to get back on it, despite finding neat new things like a ministry of computers.

I haven’t touched on the choices you can make in the game or the supposedly extremely powerful hacking systems you can dig into to alter things about the game world, because I never triggered the right events to get to them. My two hours in Else Heart.Break() were spent wandering the city, waiting for parties, and navigating some awkwardly-translated dialogue. That’s another important note, for a game that leans so heavily on drama and relationships, the writing is stiff and unnatural. Interactions between characters always feel rough and shallow, and in an effort to capture the pathos of unemployed youths they end up overloaded with “whatever” and “I dunno” and “that’s cool” instead of anything useful or interesting.

I know there’s something special in here. I’ve seen it in the trailers, and I’ve heard tales of it in the rare positive review. But you REALLY have to put in the work to find it, work that’s probably not going to be very engaging or gratifying on its own. You have to work against the open, dynamic grain of the game to follow the breadcrumb trail of events until… I don’t even know how long for. What I do know is that it’s longer than I’m willing to try, and surely longer than most people would be willing.

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