Harold Halibut Review – Waterworld

I’d be lying if I said I picked up Slow Bros.’ cinematic adventure game, Harold Halibut, for any other reason than that its Wes Anderson-style stop-motion aesthetic immediately caught my eye when I discovered it last year. Ten hours later, this touching tale of finding home has proven that it’s more than just a pretty face.

250 years ago, the terribly named FEDORA I left Earth for the last time on the verge of a cold war to find a new home to preserve the human race. After 200 years, a planet was discovered, but the ship was caught in a solar storm and ended up crash-landing. Thanks to a lucky landing and some pretty meticulous waterproofing, the inhabitants on the FEDORA I miraculously survived the crash, only to find themselves at the bottom of an ocean. In fact, the planet they had discovered is made entirely up of ocean, leaving them stranded underwater.

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The crew of the FEDORA I find themselves stuck on board the ship after it crashlands in water.

We play as Harold, who has lived his whole life on board the FEDORA I and works as a lab assistant to the ship’s lead scientist, Jeanne Mareaux, who is still working on a relaunch procedure to bypass the solar storms and find a new home for humanity. The game is split into days, each counting how many days it’s been since the FEDORA I crashed and, later on, counting down the days left until the window for relaunching closes for the inevitable future. Each day, Harold is given various tasks to do, usually menial – but in doing so we learn more about the ship and its crew of colourful characters.

While I was unsure of Harold as a lead character to begin with, he grew on me as the story progressed. We’re first introduced to Harold as Mareaux scolds him for losing his PDA, and for also forgetting how to use it. Once we’re given a brief tutorial on this, which very realistically felt like teaching an older person how to use a smartphone, Mareaux reminds Harold to take notes throughout the day, which he does so… in the form of ineligible, but entertaining nonetheless, doodles. This is one of the first games where I’ve been genuinely excited to see the completed task notes.

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Of course Harold is taking his notes, Mareaux! 

Harold is about as loveable as a character can get. He’s clearly taken advantage of by others on board the ship, being ordered around to complete the menial tasks no one wants to do, and belittled due to his lack of common sense. Despite this, he grows into a very aware character; he knows what people think of him and he knows that he’s taken advantage of. In fact, Harold ends up being one of the most insightful characters in the game as the story progresses. 

Harold Halibut is full of interesting and loveable characters. I felt invested in this close-knit community and would have felt more compelled to explore the ship to seek out these conversations had it not been for one problem: the game’s pacing. While Harold Halibut tells a wholesome story, filled with dry, witty humour and touching moments, it has some severe pacing issues. For a game that features very little gameplay, it really needed to hammer hard on its story and plot, which it does for the most part, but is also filled with hours of fluff and pointless gameplay moments that don’t feel fulfilling in the slightest. At ten hours long, Harold Halibut could have been just over half this length and still told the story it had to tell.

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Harold has some great character development throughout the game.

That being said, Harold Halibut does have a compelling story to tell. It’s weird and it’s fun and I only wanted to keep progressing to find out what happens. But it does feel like each time the story makes progress, we end up stuck in another loop of filler material until the next big plot point. I was also a little disappointed in the ending, not by what happened but by an expected, larger revelation that felt like the story was heading towards but never landed. The end result left me underwhelmed.

While Harold Halibut is a narrative adventure game, it does feature small, pointless gameplay moments that it could have gone without. Some of these were comedic and enjoyable to watch, such as the silly animations used for scrubbing graffiti off the lab wall, or a strange scene where Harold throws boxes down the stairs into his room, but the camera is tilted sideways so that we’re almost playing a game of Tetris. But, for the most part, these were drawn out and irksome, such as slowly driving a ship while the characters have a long conversation, or pressing buttons when a character tells you to. These were more moments that could have just been cut to reduce the playtime. 

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One of Harold’s usual tasks involves cleaning the ship’s filtration system.

As mentioned before, visually, Harold Halibut is masterful. Using handmade sculptures and model-making techniques, the game is made to look like stop-motion animation – which it does so with meticulous detail. We can see the paint strokes on the character models and sets and stitching on the models’ clothes. Each set looks fully made up and is decorated with lived-in detail, this genuinely looks like a ship that’s been sitting at the bottom of the ocean for 50 years with its rusting walls. I also liked the retro styling of Harold Halibut’s setting, it’s not quite atompunk but still has a unique retro, sci-fi feel to it with its use of analogue technology.

Music-wise, Harold Halibut uses an odd mix of tracks – both composed scores and licensed songs. None of them feel out of place, but I did feel like there was an inconsistency in the music that robbed the game of an audio identity. There were some pieces that felt perfect for the scene, but as a whole the music felt like a missed opportunity.

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Each set in Harold Halibut looks fully lived-in.

Harold Halibut is unlike any game I’ve played before. It’s got brilliant humour, touching dialogue, and a storyline that had me wanting to keep playing to find out what happens. The graphics and art direction are a clear standout highlight, and it’s not only of of the best looking games of the year, but of all time too. That being said, its pacing and gameplay issues did tarnish my experience a little and made large parts of my ten-hour playtime feel like a drag.

Jess played Harold Halibut on PC with a review code.

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