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If action games can be thought of as interactive movies, and role-playing games can be thought of as interactive novels, then what sort of game might be thought of as an interactive poem? The answer to that is a new independent game called Winter Voices by French developer Beyond The Pillars.
Winter Voices is an episodic game, which means that it will be released in seven small chapters, beginning with the prologue Avalanche, which is followed by new episodes every month or so. It’s currently on the third episode, but this review will cover just the first one.
In traditional gaming terms, Winter Voices could be called a Strategy RPG, but that doesn’t really describe the game. You do level up a character and choose what stats to raise. Combat takes place on a grid-based field which requires you to use planning to achieve objectives, however Winter Voices is not really about stat-building, or using battlefield maneuvers to outflank an enemy’s weak side. This game is about experiencing a woman’s loss of her family.
The actual gameplay is stripped down, there are only three classes, no inventory, and it uses very simplistic combat. Graphics are also bare minimum, with only a handful of character models and enemy types. Sound design is almost non-existent outside of the Narrator and music. It’s also rather buggy and will freeze up or crash from time to time.
Where Winter Voices excels is in the story it tells, and the way that story is told. The game starts with still images, hand-painted art depicting the tiny village where the first episode is set. A brilliantly-cast narrator tells the story of this isolated, snowbound hamlet and the history of the main character. You play the daughter of man who traveled to this village from afar, to raise you here. In the first bit of narration, you learn that your father has dies just that morning. You quickly discover that your mother died long ago, but was born in this village. Then, over the course of the four hours of this episode, you begin to grieve for the loss of your parents, while making choices about what you will do once nothing binds you to your home.
You explore the town using a point and click interface, with an isometric view. It controls much like Diablo while you travel the town speaking to the various NPCs. You get a simple series of quests which further the plot, but you have the option of talking to random villagers to learn more about your parents’ history.
From time to time you’ll encounter a “Memory”; that’s the game’s equivalent of a battle. Yes, the game is about the symbolic inner conflict that your character undergoes, rather than fighting monsters. When one of these emotional battles starts, the game switches to a grid and uses turn-based RPG/Strategy controls. The combat is always about reaching an objective on the battlefield; never about killing your enemies.
Often the objective is phrased in a riddle and players will have to guess the meaning of these cryptic instructions. Sometimes players are put in no-win situations, bcause sometimes when coping with an emotional loss, you can find victory in defeat…
It is quite abstract at times, and deliberately so. Winter Voices is not a game to test your mastery of min-maxing, or your ability to deploy tactics. The combat is just a tool for telling a story and forcing the player to experience these events from a more subjective standpoint.
It’s very common for a video game to have gameplay so good that the story becomes irrelevant. It’s extremely rare that the opposite happens, where the storytelling so great that it transcends the problems with the gameplay. Winter Voices is an example of the latter. Despite its many, many technical problems, it’s such a poetic and moving experience that the activity of fighting enemies and gaining XP becomes insignificant, and it’s easy to overlook the imprecise controls, cluttered interface, and rampant typos in the text.
As with many indie games, Winter Voices is only going to appeal to a niche audience. That niche is not Tactical RPG fans. Fans of Final Fantasy Tactics, or Disgaea should stay away. This is a game for persons who will enjoy unraveling mysteries and interpreting metaphors. The individual episodes are priced at five dollars each, but must be purchased and played in order, so even if forthcoming episodes have better gameplay, players will still be required to go through this prologue. The good news on that front is that if players aren’t entirely sold on the series after trying the demo, they can try this first episode by itself and then determine if they want to stick with the full seven-part series.
We’ll have reviews of the other currently-released episodes of Winter Voices in the coming weeks and we’ll follow the series to its conclusion in the months ahead as they become available.