It could’ve been great. It’s not even good.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is one of the favorite films of all time. A lot of people hate it, and it’s not hard to see why – they go in expecting swashbuckling adventure à la Pirates of the Caribbean, and instead they get two and a half hours of Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany trying to catch a single ship (the movie ends before we find out whether or not they succeed.) The plot is simple, realistic to the point of nothing much happening, but it’s still an engaging and entertaining film because the attention to historical detail is spot-on and the characters are so compelling and well-written that it’s interesting even just to watch them discuss puns over a meal.
I mention this because Herald advertises itself as being cut from the same cloth, bearing as it does the subtitle of Interactive Period Drama, and as a result I was really excited to play it. I love a good historical piece, and I don’t want my criticism of the game brushed off as simply “not getting it.” I know that you can tell a good story – even a great one – by putting a group of characters on a ship and having them do little more than talk to each other. I also know that Herald fails to do so. Its characters are one-dimensional, its attempts to deal with deeper and more controversial issues falls flat, and the whole thing is just…boring. It’s boring!
It’s really, really boring.
Herald is the latest entry into a genre we don’t really have a name for yet – the Telltale brand of choice-driven interactive storytelling. Set in a world where Oliver Cromwell’s British Republic was successful and the great Western powers have united under a single government, the Protectorate, most of Herald‘s “gameplay” involves talking to people and making decisions that will affect how other characters perceive you. There’s the occasional “puzzle”, but it’s never anything more complicated than “walk to the place you’re told to walk and click on the item you’re told to click on.” There’s nothing wrong with a game having such limited gameplay – so long as the story is interesting enough to keep the player engaged without the assistance of any mechanical systems. Unfortunately, Herald‘s isn’t. Let’s start with that whole “choice-based” thing – your choices have little to no consequence in how the story plays out. Most (not all) scenes that offer you a major “This Is A Choice” moment will end the same way regardless of your actions.
The only real change will be in how other characters perceive you, but even that seems to be ultimately meaningless. I know this because I decided that I wasn’t going to make friends with anyone on the HLV Herald (the titular vessel where the entire game takes place.) This was partially because I didn’t like any of the characters (more on that later) and partially because I always enjoy seeing the extent to which these sorts of games will allow you to be evil (if you’ve never seen how bleak things can get in Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us, for example, I highly recommend it.) I betrayed every character’s trust, reporting any secret I was told directly to whoever I was asked not to report it to. I made friends with the goatee-twirling bad guy and made fun of the nice passenger’s fear of ghosts. And the result? The first officer and the senator’s daughter confided in me about the stowaway they were trying to protect, and were shocked and appalled when I immediately suggested we report her to the captain. Rarely if ever did I feel like my choices were making a difference, and most of the time I felt like I wasn’t being given a choice at all (as when I actually tried to report the stowaway to the captain later and was immediately interrupted. I later got in trouble for conspiring to keep her a secret.)
With no gameplay and very little consequence, Herald is largely a character drama. Unfortunately, there is not a single character I had any interest in. The playable protagonist, Devan Rensburg, is a man caught between two worlds – he was born and raised in the Western Protectorate, but he is also half Indian and is just starting to learn about how badly the Protectorate’s imperialist policies is destroying the country of India in this alternate history. The developers made a conscious decision (by their own admission) to present the historical facts of Western expansion in the 1800s and let the player decide whether to come down for or against the horrors of colonialism. As a result, Rensburg feels like something of a blank slate – his past is a mystery, and his personality is largely determined by the player’s actions. Except it’s not, because as I said above he’s pretty much going to do whatever he wants regardless of the choices you make, meaning that he’s a blank slate of a character that I also felt like I couldn’t relate to at all. Not a great combination.
The rest of the cast is painfully one-dimensional (which, to be fair, is one more dimension than Rensburg has.) From the evil senator with the goatee, spiky hair, and bargain-bin Tim Curry impersonation to the fat comic relief drunkard with the silly voice (he’s gay, too, for good measure), characters are introduced as stereotypes and never really progress beyond that first impression. Would it surprise you to know that the sole female character (the senator’s beautiful daughter) turns out to be Rensburg’s love interest, calling him flirtatiously by his first name after their first scene alone together? Or that the tough but fair captain runs a tight ship? They’re all portrayed by voice actors whose performances range from mediocre to bad – Devan himself delivers his lines with competent conviction, but the boatswain just sounds like he’s reading off of a script. Even Jim Sterling, who plays the aforementioned drunkard, brings none of his trademark manic energy to a role that should have been perfect for him.
And this is without talking about some of the more controversial characters. I give the game major props for trying to address themes that games normally shy away from, and it breaks my heart to report that it does so embarrassingly ham-fistedly. For example (the rest of this paragraph will contain spoilers), there’s a character who may or may not be a pedophile, and who has absolutely been making the ship’s cabin boy deeply uncomfortable with some inappropriate comments. There is no option to completely dislike this person, or (at least as far as I can tell) report his actions to the captain. We’re supposed to feel sorry for him when something terrible happens towards the end of the first episode, but I didn’t want to feel sorry for him, and it only made me feel more removed from the narrative. The same is true of a non-black character who cheated on his fiance with a slave (we only have his word that the girl reciprocated his affections), then ran away when their affair was discovered and the slave was lynched. I have no problem with the game giving you the option to agree with his actions, but the closest it ever gets to condemning him is a dialogue option that suggests he might have been a coward for running away.
I know there’s a certain type of gamer who cringes whenever race or inclusivity is brought up in a videogame review (they appear in our comment section from time to time), but the developers themselves have stated that they “wanted to make a game about what it’s like to be part of a minority and what it’s like to be excluded.” The game makes an admirable effort to be inclusive, the introduction of the unified Protectorate allowing the narrative to feature characters of many different races, nationalities, and creeds – plus the aforementioned gay character and one character who may or may not be transgender. Unfortunately, most of these nationalities come to little more than a series of really bad accents (the worst of these being supposed Scotsman Ian Douglas, who seems to think a Scottish accent just means pronouncing every eighth word wrong.) As a white person in a predominantly white society, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the most qualified individual to judge how well the themes of racial prejudice are written, but to me it came across as oddly uneven. This is a world where black slavery clearly still exists, and yet the Jamaican cook and the other people of color on the crew don’t really seem to face any discrimination from their white crewmates. There’s a scene where the Indian first officer Aaron Ludlow complains about not being allowed to have a weapon because “I’m always expected to follow the white man,” but it’s made clear that none of the white officers are allowed to carry weapons either, so the complaint rings hollow, especially when the captain gives him special permission to do so as soon as the complaint is brought to his attention. Race was being mentioned, but I wasn’t sure what, if anything, the game was actually trying to say.
I kept playing, waiting, hoping against hope that Herald would get better and that I would understand why so many other outlets had given the game such high scores. I sat through scene after incredibly boring scene. I sat through the awkwardly-written dialogue, the historical inaccuracies (only two characters pronounce the word “boatswain” correctly, and that really is the least of it.) I sat through the loooong scene where Tabatha plays piano for Devan, her dead-eyed model unblinking, her mouth unmoving as she “sung” (the hand-drawn art is absolutely gorgeous, but the 3D visuals are stiff and hideous.) And then, after about five hours, the game suddenly ended. My jaw dropped to the floor – I hadn’t even realized that “Book II” had started, let alone ended. Herald’s Steam store page claims that each episode is a standalone story, and that the third and fourth Books are optional DLC, but the story doesn’t end on a cliffhanger so much as it just doesn’t end, the credits rolling at moment where absolutely nothing has been resolved and the characters have gone through no real change. If there’s a demand for me to review the next two episodes I will, but as it stands I certainly couldn’t recommend paying for them, or, indeed, for the first two.
A lot of games fail because of a lack of ambition. Herald is that rare and tragic beast that actually fails because it’s too ambitious. I would’ve given anything to give it a more positive review – I agree with the developers that more games should be unafraid to address themes of racism and colonialism head-on, and I love the idea of seeing more understated historical dramas in gaming to balance out all the zombies and explosions. Unfortunately, (unlike many of my contemporaries, it seems) I don’t believe that we should overlook a game’s flaws just because it’s trying something unique and different. Herald is a lovely idea executed very poorly, and it’s not even interesting enough to really hate.
It’s just boring. Really, really boring.
Final Verdict: 2/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Wispfire; Developer: Wispfire; Players: 1 ; Released: February 22, 2017 ; MSRP: $9.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Herald given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.