Review: The Shivah

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Everyone has to start somewhere, and Wadjet Eye Games started with The Shivah. Originally created as part of a game jam, The Shivah was improved and expanded and eventually released as a retail product. However, even a high-effort start can be a rough one and it really shows here. Lacking the scope or detail or steady pacing of more established games, The Shivah still feels very much like a first effort, one that’s best skipped to get right on to its aforementioned peers.

You play as Russell Stone, a Rabbi in a run-down synagogue that’s on its last legs. The bills are piling up, the congregation is leaving, and Stone just doesn’t have the heart to carry on. Then in an instant all that changes, in such dramatic fashion that Stone can’t just accept his windfall without digging deeper. That digging proves to be a dangerous choice, leading him into the shadows of Manhattan and its Jewish community.

The religious angle is certainly unique among adventure games, which is a colossal shame because the elements of Jewish culture and history are far and away the best parts here. At the core of the conflict is a question of faith and orthodoxy, one with significant repercussions and no easy answer. Exploring the impact of this conflict puts Stone in all sorts of uncomfortable situations, both with his people and those connected to them. This framework holds up a tale of doubt and redemption that not many games can match for how grounded it is emotionally. However, it’s pretty much ONLY grounded emotionally because by the end, matters will have spiraled far from the calm conversations and investigations of reality.

I wasn’t sure what I expected from the actual gameplay of The Shivah but it wasn’t the wafer-thin clicking exercises I got. Most of your time in the game is either going to be spent listening to people talk, or breaking into their computers via their hilariously insecure passwords. Dialogues are lengthy and emotional but break occasionally to give player input in the form of three vague approaches like “confrontational response” and “Rabbinical response”. These as you might expect have the old Mass Effect problem of not properly expressing to the player what they’re going to do, especially the “Rabbinical response” which came off as some sort of insipid rhetorical questioning.

No matter what opaque choices you make the dialogues are still going to end up in roughly the same places anyway because there’s only one path of progression through the game. The info you get from people opens up new scenes to explore around Manhattan, and also new names and leads to search the online Jewish community for. This is the best example of a puzzle the game has, because taking half-remembered names and business cards and doing clever searches to work out addresses and email access is at least more realistic than constructing makeshift tools out of brooms and coat hangers. It’s also the best example because it’s pretty much the only example… you’re only going to have three inventory items the whole game (and you start with two of them), and the game’s Clue system that keeps track of useful notes as conceptual items is barely used at all.

There’s not a lot to the game in either challenge or depth, which isn’t great but wouldn’t really sink a title with me on its own. What killed The Shivah for me was the ending, which I won’t spoil but pretty much trips over every hurdle an ending needs to clear. It comes mostly out of nowhere, it escalates the stakes beyond reason, no one involved does anything that makes sense, it requires an infuriatingly exact string of decisions to get through, and it doesn’t wrap the game up in a very satisfying way considering what it reveals. It’s the sort of ending that would have worked with a longer, deeper game that gave time to develop the characters and build up to a wild crescendo, but hitting it after an hour or so of mostly empty rooms was a real sucker-punch.

The Shivah is far from a bad idea for a game, and honestly more adventures should be made that are similarly rooted in real-world ethos. But it ends up being a bad game for not giving its story room to breathe, not giving the player enough to do, and not wrapping things up in a sensical or tolerable way. There are other little irritations too, like the inconsistent audio quality of the voice acting and the lack of feedback when you learn key information to progress. Really though, the core problem is that this one needed more time and more effort for what it became. The Shivah may be an important part of Wadjet Eye’s history, but it’s better off being left as a footnote in favor of more polished games.

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