Review – Where the Heart Leads
Armature is most recently, and probably best, known for their Xbox entry, ReCore. For as flawed as it is, it was an enjoyable title, and that verdict is shared among a lot of members of the WTMG staff. It is why my interest was piqued when I saw the trailer for their newest title, Where the Heart Leads. It is also why I was so completely let down after “playing” it.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting an action platformer. I wasn’t even expecting an unfinished action platformer like ReCore launched as. What I was expecting an interesting but small indie title that looked like it had emotional depth and, yes, I got that. However, I wasn’t expecting that to include two big things. One: for Where the Heart Leads to play 90% of the game for me, and two: for me to actually want it to play 90% of the game for me.
Let me lead with the good, Where the Heart Leads is a relaxing, intriguing, and emotional tale. It is told in a unique way as you explore through levels of memories. The art style is simple and has a watercolor or pastel feel. While it isn’t complex, and mostly slightly distorted diorama pieces created in Dreams, it does a good job making everything feel ethereal and has a fragile surreality.
Fin. That’s it. That is my list of pros. Thank you for reading my review. Follow us on… sigh. Ok. I hate this part… when you play a game you were intrigued by, from a studio you respect, and just not enjoy a single moment of it. Dialog is done graphically, with text bubbles. The issue is even on a bigger TV, the text was so tiny, I had trouble reading it. A patch helped make the text bubble bigger, but it would still shrink in size the further the camera was from the talking person. With no talking and no natural ambient sounds, sound was little more background dressing.
Finally, Where the Heart Leads is less “game” and more “isometric visual novel”. I felt like I was playing a slow, very slow, very very slow version of My Name is Mayo. Press X, press X again, press X again. Honestly, I preferred unraveling Mayo’s story more so than Whit’s. I said it: Mayo > Whit. Come at me!
Ah, yes. Sorry. Who is Whit? Whit is your protagonist. It is his journey and his memories that you are unraveling. You follow key moments of his childhood, teenage years, and young adulthood as he starts his own family. You see the relationships he has with his parents, brother, and his girlfriend while you get to somewhat guide his demeanor and outlook on key moments. I say “somewhat” because most choices seem to be, “act like a jerk” or, “be caring”. It is these key relationships, and a handful of choices made, that dictate where the heart leads. Ohhh, I get it now..
The game kicks off with a storm, or earthquake, or land sink. Honestly, I am not really certain which. In any case, a giant hole opens up in your yard and your dog finds his way down it. The logical solution is to hook a bathtub to a crane lift and lower yourself down. The end result is Whit at the bottom of this crevice and taking a stroll down memory lane. The issue is that, for far too long, you have no understanding of anything going on.
Wandering around the inside of the rabbit hole, most levels are a fast, five minute interaction. I may be using “interaction” too loosely, as you mostly press X through drawn out dialog and then maybe get to choose a single reaction type, usually lying between “act like a jerk” or “be caring”. Some levels may have you move your character from point A to point B, even picking up collectibles along the way. After a handful of these linear levels, you then get to an open world segment where you walk around and interact with a number of people for a more global story, then repeat more linear chapters until the next open one.
Again, for far too long, this is just more collecting of the mundane. I get that your dad was a bit of a jerk, your brother a bit of a free spirit, but after hours of doing this, nothing jumps out as anything other than an average, normal childhood and adulthood.
With dialog being the main gameplay of Where the Heart Leads, I simply got tired of pressing X and soon enabled auto-text. I would try to read along but if need be, would simply press L1 to look at the dialog history and then make my reply based on the last two statements. Even after that, I found myself somehow caring so little that I would leave it on auto-text while I got up and did a little this or little that around my house. I would sit back down and just choose the “less jerk” option and repeat. Where the Heart Leads doesn’t want you to play and after a while, I just stopped fighting it.
Although never striking or eye catching, the art direction is unique enough, and lends itself to the game’s ethereal settings.
A glorified indie, art house, visual novel. When the game volunteers to remove gameplay from you, that is all you need to know.
No voice work or natural ambient sound. Relies on sound solely as queues and background dressing.
Fun Factor: 1.5
Finding out more about Whit and what is going on does interest you at first.. until it doesn’t. And it doesn’t way before you can care again.
Final Verdict: 3.0
Where the Heart Leads is available now on PS4.
Reviewed on PS4.
A copy of Where the Heart Leads was provided by the publisher.