Title: Where the Heart Leads
Release Date: July 13, 2021
Reviewed On: PS5
Where the Heart Leads is a strange one. On one hand, it claims to be a surrealist narrative adventure game, but then as you dive into the story, you can’t help but realize just how ordinary it all is. It certainly does tell a well-thought tale, featuring characters who grow and evolve throughout, but if you’re going in expecting something to challenge you with surrealism and existential motifs, then you’re likely to be disappointed.
Where the Heart Leads opens up on a seemingly peaceful and ordinary farm when all of sudden a giant sinkhole appears. As the family of the farm investigates the damages, they find their dog has fallen into it but is still close enough to be rescued.
This has the father of the family, Whit Anderson, come up with a hair-brained idea of using a bathtub and a makeshift pully to rescue the family pooch. While the rescue itself is successful, Whit, unfortunately, falls deep into the sinkhole uninjured, and must now try to find a way out. In the meantime, he decides it’s as good a time as any to reminisce on his life.
Where the Heart Leads quite literally follows the life and times of Whit Anderson, and while early on it may seem like the game is going for some metaphysical hook in its narrative, instead, it has you jog down memory lane. So rather than it being a story of intrigue and discovery, players are instead experiencing something almost entirely retrospective, as they relive key moments from the past in great narrative detail, learning all the ins and outs of Whit’s personal life and growth.
This can be fine for what it is, but from the pre-release and game description, players might find themselves disappointed after a few hours, only to realize that they signed up for Home and Away rather than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The story told is a pretty ordinary family drama, as Whit navigates his various close relationships, and relives pivotal points of his life, everything from marriage to fatherhood. The narrative is linear, and so it feels like you’re going through the motions of a pretty predictable timeline.
There are choices to be made by the player during the game, as Whit manages the expectations and interests of those closest to him, and so while choices are consequential to an extent where they change certain details, they don’t really impact its major direction in a hugely altering manner.
Whit faces things that are obviously predestined, given how he is already married with kids in the prologue, but it can be interesting to see how the dynamics of his relationships and other details change based on the choices made. The decisions are hardly ever dramatic or altering as something out of Life is Strange, but the game does enough to make you think about how Whit deals with his relationships and choices.
Aside from making choices, there are light gameplay elements here as players can explore simple areas and interact with various objects and people. There are some occasional environmental puzzles, but they at most involve simply talking to the right person to move the story along. Occasionally there are also some action prompts, such as when building certain things.
Still, this game is all story and doesn’t provide much in the way of discovery or exploration outside of superficial filler, although there is a scarp book journal of sorts for players to collect various details and objects of interest, this mostly functions as a summary of prior events and ideas for what to do next in the story.
The real challenge here though is whether you will end up caring enough about the story and characters, especially when it is a pretty ordinary and mundane family drama. The pacing is slow and at times needlessly detailed, where the back-forth dialogue can feel like filler, rarely ever achieving anything dramatic or revelatory.
There are some surrealist metaphysical devices attempted, but these don’t do much to change up the tedious flow of the narrative. At the core, there is nothing terribly wrong with the story, but given the slow pacing and lack of meaningful payoff, the game doesn’t do much to achieve its lofty claims of surrealism.
While the content of the story barely achieves any form of existential surrealism, the visual style certainly attempts to create an abstract mood. The character models have a unique style but they’re not very effective in creating personality, instead, much of the connection made with the characters is via the text-heavy dialogue, which thankfully is a little easier to sit through thanks to the launch day patch which fixes up the font size.
The various environments certainly have their moments of quaint serenity, but for the most part, the presentation style doesn’t feel engaging or alive, as even the atmospheric music can get a little repetitive and dull. In a way, the mood and atmosphere of the visual style don’t quite complement the narrative and pacing.
Where the Heart Leads is a difficult game to recommend, but it can be fine if you know what you’re getting into. If the idea of a slow family drama, one filled with ordinary and tedious adult problems, sounds interesting to you, then you might just enjoy the coming of age story of Whit Anderson. If you’re expecting this to live up to its surrealistic ambitions, then you’re probably going to face disappointment, especially when you realize that Whit Anderson’s existentialism is about as interesting as your own.
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