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I’ll be honest, I fell asleep the first time I played EMPORIUM. I also beat it that time, leaving me only fleeting memories of the beginning and ending. That makes a pretty good review in just two sentences, and if you want to punch out here I’ll continue being honest and say you’re not missing much. The core issues that put me under on this one have to do with the story, which is especially damning because story is all it has. Beyond the striking art style you’re getting an incomplete tale told in a way that does little to harness the power of its medium. Because of that I’m going to spoil parts of the game (mostly the structure) but if you’re still reading then I doubt that’ll bother you much.
You awaken face down on the bloodied pavement outside the titular EMPORIUM, with precious little to do besides enter and peruse the strange exhibits on display. An old man by a camper will prompt a response from you, and then from there you travel to a strange, broken place where he meets you again. You’ll climb a tower he inhabits, and then find yourself in front of the changed EMPORIUM once more. Through each of these cycles you’ll glean more and more of your connection to the old man, as well as to the dreamlike expanses you find yourself in.
Have you noticed the problem yet? I’ve just described the (literal) gameplay loop to you in less than a paragraph. Everything I mentioned there is everything you do in the game, just repeated upwards of half a dozen times. Repetition is a powerful tool in storytelling but it’s an utter drag on the proceedings here due to the lack of significant agency or revelation. Every time you loop you’ll see new things but you get just two choices per loop and their effects are unclear at first, and even once you understand them it’s still not to any appreciable effect. The game simply scoots you along to the next slice of contextless dialogue (unless you’re REALLY paying attention to the sets) to digest, as if expecting you to subsist on scraps of story indefinitely.
What narrative there is touches on subjects like lost youth and depression, and I’d be lying if I said the mentions of child abuse or entomophagy weren’t a little horrifying. The themes and atmosphere are definitely trying for a psychological horror vibe, apparent nowhere more clearly than the deep, booming soundtrack. It just doesn’t work because you have no real connection to your character. You piece together the links between him and the old man and listen to the horrors of their lives but in the 20 minutes you’re going to spend with them, you’re not going to form the bonds necessary to derive any sort of anxiety from their experiences. The emotional hook to the story isn’t there, perhaps since the game is so determined to be vague and mysterious instead of letting you get inside anyone’s head.
I won’t disparage the graphics, which were precisely what inspired me to give the game a go in the first place. The simple shapes and muted colors convey the right amount of melancholy, and some expert camera direction helps put it over the edge to something special. Again, it’s just in service of a narrative-driven game that never opens up the narrative to you. With your only control being movement, running, and checking things, there’s not nearly enough gameplay to prop up a vague story that requires analysis and commitment. To get the full story you’d need to play through the thing three times, which isn’t bad for a 20-minute game but multiplies that awful repetition threefold. I take great pleasure in championing indie and arthouse games but they need a basic level of quality and incentive, and while EMPORIUM might have the former it is sadly lacking in the latter.