Smile For Me Review – No Forced Happiness Here

    Title: Smile For Me
    Developer: LimboLane
    Release Date: April 24, 2023
    Reviewed On: PS4
    Publisher: Serenity Forge
    Genre: Adventure, Mild Horror

Smile For Me was first released on Steam in 2019, but I wouldn’t end up playing it until its console release. This is a shame, given how unique this title is, but I’m glad to play it nonetheless. While its console release is on Xbox and Switch, I found that it lends itself perfectly to the Switch thanks to the portable nature of the console. Having this strange adventure on the go provided an interesting way to experience this unconventional adventure.

Smile For Me is presented as a modern interpretation of point-and-click adventure games. You have full movement and camera control, though the actual game cycle of getting an item, trying to find the place or person you’re meant to use it on, and then receiving another one is certainly evocative of titles like Myst or Starship Titanic.

As the Protagonist, you begin the adventure in The Habitat, a strange, surreal building that purports to be some kind of treatment facility run by Dr. Habit. Habit appears in cutscenes as a puppet but is also drawn in the same two-dimensional style as all other characters on the surrounding walls.

Supposedly, the patients of The Habitat (including yourself, a botanist) are there because they are unhappy and need to learn to smile again. This is reinforced by the strange motivational posters plastered everywhere. Yet, notably, it seems like many of them are either not that unhappy, or their unhappiness is tied directly to the Habitat and the Doctor himself.

Smile For Me's central antagonist, Dr. Habit, depicted as a puppet.

There are all kinds of other stuff going on here, though it’s rather apparent that things are not as they seem, to the point where I would consider that an un-twist. But, from the strange video messages Dr. Habit sends the player to how the facility appears to fundamentally and willfully misunderstand happiness, it’s clear that there will be a twist, but we’ll touch on that later.

Besides presenting and using items, the key way the player interacts with the world is by nodding or shaking their head. Of course, this has been mechanically doable in video games for decades, but being used as a conversation mechanic adds a layer of immersion into the typical first-person experience.

This is where the Switch really shines because no other platform the game has been on is capable of both motion controls and the ability to hold the screen in your hands. Physically nodding or shaking the Switch doesn’t work flawlessly, and in fact, with motion controls on, the entire game feels a little off-kilter as the camera moves with the gyroscope. Still, I honestly felt like the strange, wonky way of navigating the world suited Smile For Me perfectly. After watching some gameplay of the PC version, the rigidness of the camera felt too stiff for the way the game looks.

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Speaking of the visuals, I also was immediately drawn in by Smile For Me’s presentation. The Habitat is rendered in a surreal, minimalist low-poly style, with the characters being two-dimensional similar to Danganronpa. Everyone is drawn differently and expressively, and the vocal grunts that accompany their dialogue are charming. There are 23 characters to meet in this game, and every single one of them looks distinctive.

The characters are all impressively interwoven, if not in and of themselves, in how their quests interact. While some steps of the puzzles were a bit…obtuse (the diary pages may seem unnecessary, but it’s essential to read them to know how to get the good ending), I’m sure more seasoned adventure players than me would be able to figure them out.

The game also doesn’t overstay its welcome, clocking in at about three and a half hours. The pacing can be a bit strange, as in the final four or so in-game days I played out of fifteen, I finished more than half of the characters’ quests after being worried I wasn’t progressing quickly enough. Taking my pin from earlier down, though, I would say that the real twist is how I ultimately responded to the character of Dr. Habit.

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It’s no surprise that you’ll eventually come face-to-face with him, and the encounter is as vaguely disturbing as much of the other imagery in the game. Still, you are ultimately presented with a choice here. I don’t want to go too into spoilers (again, read the diary). Still, despite the concision of the whole interaction, I ended up pretty happy with how my character’s story played out.

Smile For Me is not going to be for everyone. It’s a little disturbing and nauseating, and occasionally its puzzles are just too complicated for their own good. It feels almost like an experimental title, though that ends up giving it a lot of its charm and heart. This game may have a very particular vibe, but I was fully caught up in it from the jump, and it left me grinning ear-to-ear.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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