Review – Essays on Empathy
Of the myriad of games released by Devolver Digital over the past few years, Deconstructeam’s The Red Strings Club was one of the few which didn’t click with me. Not because of its intriguing story, but because of its mundane gameplay, to the point I wished the game had just been a visual novel in the first place. I didn’t know what to expect from their next project, Essays on Empathy. The fancy (and somewhat smug) title doesn’t give you any clues on what it is about. The last thing I would have imagined it to be was a collection of vastly different and totally imaginative indie games that were each developed in a weekend on a game jam, but are filled with classy writing and creativity.
Essays on Empathy features ten games included in one package. They’re meatier than your average minigame, but shorter than even the shortest of indies, sitting in a limbo that can best be described as “the tech demo limbo”. However, it is pretty hard to talk about this collection without writing about each of the ten titles included in here separately, before judging the quality of the compilation as a whole.
What can be said about all of the ten games in general is that they follow a similar graphical style that was featured in The Red Strings Club, albeit with an extra dose of detail. All of them, without any exception, featured absolutely fantastic soundtracks which managed to sound very different from each other.
Now, without further ado, let’s dissect each of the ten titles included in Essays on Empathy:
A very simplistic metroidvania about mining diamonds in underground caves in order to create a spaceship that will get you off of the planet you’re currently on. It suffers from really confusing gameplay, mostly revolving around using a hook to create platforms you can walk on. You also need to pay attention to the amount of ore chunks you’re carrying, as it will take a toll on your running and jumping capabilities. Not a very captivating game, but hey, the soundtrack is killer.
Supercontinent Ltd. is an extremely tense and well-written puzzle game about… telephone conversations. It might sound like a boring premise, but hear me out on this one. This cyberpunk visual novel/puzzle hybrid is all about being a hacker with the ability of impersonating other people’s voices, then using your disguise to acquire information in order to progress with the plot.
Without spoiling the plot, Supercontinent Ltd. is all about corporate intrigue and “power to the people” causes. The gameplay is stupidly vague, but it works pretty well. Using the right voice with the right person at the right time makes you feel incredibly smart, as the game doesn’t hold your hand at all. You will feel lost at first, but once everything clicks, you’ll breeze through this telephone thriller in no time.
BEHIND EVERY GREAT ONE
The developers themselves state that Behind Every Great One, a “game” about being a supportive wife in a somewhat low-key abusive relationship, is the hardest game to play in the collection. It’s a tough subject matter with a sad story, but unlike other tough-to-swallow games out there, I didn’t think its core mechanics and overall plot were engaging enough to make me want to endure what’s essentially a take on harsh and somewhat toxic relationships.
ETERNAL HOME FLORISTRY
Yet another odd concept which ended up being way more intriguing than it had any right to be. Eternal Home Floristry is a game in which you play as a one-armed gay hitman working as an apprentice for an old florist. He teaches you the “power of bouquet arrangements”, as each flower you pick for your arrangement expresses a different feeling you want to convey for a specific situation.
There are only four bouquets to arrange, but I loved every single moment of this captivating experience. It all boils down to the fantastic writing, with unexpected twists and well-defined characters. Sure, there’s a bit of excessive drama in a segment or two, but this game is easily one of the best in this collection.
THE BOOKSHELF LIMBO
The Bookshelf Limbo has a nice backstory, being a game made as a partnership with a friend who just so happened to be celebrating his birthday at the time, but as a game itself… it’s quite weird. This is a game about looking for a comic book as a perfect gift for your father. You can check descriptions, online reviews written by trolls, and other accolades. Not a lot of interactivity is available in here and it’s mostly a novel diversion, not a game per se.
ZEN AND THE ART OF TRANSHUMANISM
The pottery minigame from The Red Strings Club is back. In fact, as per what’s explained in the main menu, this game jam project was the basis for that game’s core “gameplay mechanic”. If you liked that bit from the developers’ previous game, then it’s more of the same for you to enjoy, without fail states or anything that would otherwise evoke a sense of difficulty. If you didn’t like that pottery mechanic, then there’s no reason for you to bother.
ENGOLASTERS JANUARY 2021
A pseudo open world story about being stranded in the snow, dealing with personal family issues, as well as the fact that, uh, you’ve just been abducted by aliens and got probed in the stomach. Engolasters January 2021 feels a bit undercooked when it comes to its storytelling and presentation, but I would definitely not mind playing a full version of a game with the same premise.
A VIVID LIFE
A Vivid Life is one of the most experimental games in this collection. It tells the story of a girl who discovers her skeleton isn’t hers, so she decides to steal an x-ray machine and discover more about herself after running away from home with it. It’s quite gross, as it depicts a ton of self-mutilation moments, but it’s immersive as hell. David Cage wishes he could make a story as captivating as this one, even if its gameplay is sparse and, honestly, quite clunky at times.
DEAR SUBSTANCE OF KIN
A truly bizarre experience where you control a mythical creature who can grant wishes to the population of a dying town, in exchange for bits of flesh from themselves or their kin, so long as they truly tell the monster what’s their darkest desire. A woman might actually want to be impregnated by another woman, and a homeless person might wish to become goo in order to spare his family.
Dear Substance of Kin is short and a bit undercooked, but the story and setting are absolutely captivating. I wouldn’t mind playing a full version with the same idea, as long as it had better controls and a bit more depth. One of the best games in this collection, without a doubt.
DE TRES AL CUARTO
Imagine what would happen if Slay the Spire was a comedy routine game. That’s the gist behind De Tres Al Cuarto. I loved the concept, using deckbuilding mechanics to come up with jokes for a standup gig, but the really slow start and somewhat uninteresting plot hindered my overall enjoyment with the game. Still, I definitely wouldn’t mind playing an entire game based around this gameplay loop… with a slightly better progression system, that is.
Essays on Empathy feels like a collection of elevator pitches, of small technical showcases of what Deconstructeam will develop from now on. Some of the games in the collection are too vague and occasionally way too pretentious to be fully enjoyed, but other titles in here, while short, ooze potential. I would love to play a full game based on De Tres Al Cuarto or a full-fledged version of Dear Substance of Kin, for example. All in all, it’s a fun diversion full of unique ideas, even if not all of them pay off in the end.
A bit more detailed than the art style featured in The Red Strings Club, but still far from the best 16-bit inspired pixel art I’ve seen.
While most games feature really simple controls, some of the titles in this collection are either nearly devoid of gameplay whatsoever or suffer from some control glitches.
This is something shared in common with all ten titles. Their soundtracks are absolutely fantastic. They are pretty varied when it comes to their genres.
A lot of great ideas with enough potential to become full-fledged games, but some of the minigames in here are either too shallow or too vague to be enjoyed, even as art pieces.
Final Verdict: 7.5
Essays on Empathy is available now on PC.
Reviewed on PC.
A copy of Essays on Empathy was provided by the publisher.