Content warning: The article below discusses themes related to sexual assault.
When I played the demo for The Other Half back in September, I thought it was a violent, fun beat-em-up set in a dark fantasy world. After playing the full game now, I realize that The Other Half is much more than that.
In this adventure RPG, you play as The Hunter, who fights with a never-ending amount of fire. You are summoned to a nameless mountain by an intellectual named Daniel. It's unclear what your relationship to Daniel is, but it's immediately apparent why you're there: because you're a freaking demon slayer, and demons have infested this mountain that Daniel calls home.
He requests that you meet him at the mountain peak to take care of the source of the problem. Along the way, you meet his close friend, Annalise, a doctor in the town, and Carleton, the snarky mayor and Daniel's friend. As you climb the mountain, Daniel and Annalise's voices accompany you, telling you the story of their friendship. In the first thirty minutes, The Other Half establishes itself as a classic RPG grounded in the warm-fuzzy themes of friendship and romance.
At least, this is what I thought at first, before things took a turn for the worse. The monsters I encountered towards the beginning of the game seemed normal. I came across hordes of grabby-handed creatures and even oversized wolves ready to take a swipe. I relished in slaughtering them with my smooth, circular flame attacks. But as I progressed, I came across creatures that were... stranger. One monster attacks with a long, phallic extension, attempting to stab the Hunter when he crosses its shadow. It releases a disgusting, raspy moan as it does this. Alarmed, I looked at this monster as I set it aflame, and thought, Is this... is this creature attacking me with its penis? I shook it off. No, it's just some gross-looking porcupine; kill it with fire.
But then the phallic symbols became more difficult to ignore, and when modern furnishings suddenly populated the wintry medieval landscape, I realized that my first impressions were entirely wrong. As Daniel's narration continued, I understood the true nature of the game. I was not listening to some love story, or even a tale of friendship. I was overhearing a man's descent into madness, and how one woman's feelings for him dissolved from trust to fear. It horrified me to hear Daniel's voice just as much as it did to hear the wicked screams of the demons. He accuses Annalise of playing hard to get and how her attempts to set boundaries only frustrated him, because he only wanted to "make her happy." He ignores how she says that she just left a dysfunctional relationship, and needs time for herself before jumping into another romance. Daniel solely sees her as a conquest in his delusional pathway to happiness.
At the point when he assaults Annalise, Daniel's ramblings intensify. "I'm not a bad guy," he insists as he continues touching her inappropriately. When Annalise is too shocked to protest and he keeps going, Daniel comments that if she was really upset about this, she would tell him to stop. Daniel's failure to understand consent is painfully familiar to me. I've dated people who tell me that they "don't want to push my boundaries" as they repeatedly ask me to spend the night or engage in sexual activities despite the multitude of times I politely but firmly said no. It doesn't get any less sickening, heartbreaking, or frustrating in real life, and that truth is reflected in this game.
By this point, it becomes clear that your goal as the Hunter is to free Daniel of his demons, and make him see his wrongdoing. The game will give you no option other than this. When you get to the end, Carleton tries to defend the actions of his friend, but no matter what options you pick, the truth remains: Annalise isn't at fault. Writer and creator Fred Yang makes it clear that what happened between Daniel and Annalise was no accidental misunderstanding, but an action of malicious intent on Daniel's part.
Out of all the excellent things I have to say about this game, I'm most enthusiastic about the sound effects. The swooping roar of the fire as you slash your way through enemies is unbelievably satisfying. The sickening wet screeches of the monsters as I slaughter them sends chills down my spine. And later, the way that Daniel and Annalise's voice become the monsters' distorted voices - "I'm not a bad person," "No, please stop, you're hurting me" - contorted my stomach in every way possible, and these sounds all contributed to the demolishing of the game's fantastical reality.
Normally - and I don't say this lightly - I despise top-down games. This is because I'm unable to see the characters' faces, so I struggle to connect to the game on an emotional level. What could be an intellectual and profound work reduces to little more than a boring beat-em-up in my eyes. But not The Other Half. While its choice of perspective is inherently limiting, the art of The Other Half is surprisingly detailed. You can see the shadows cast by The Hunter, scraggly individual lines in wooden floorboards, the folds and movements of the smallest bits of fabric. Despite its wintry setting, there's a sense of warmth wherever you go in The Other Half, knowing that the artists involved in making this game clearly put in a lot of love and effort. Unlike other top-down perspective games I've played, the world feels less nondescript, and more like a cozy home I'd be motivated to protect. Additionally, the charming voice acting contributes to my ability to connect with the game.
In terms of gameplay, most of the mechanics work well. It's best to play The Other Half with a controller, as playing with a keyboard and mouse like I did can be difficult at times. Still, its easy to get a hang of it after a while. What I more had difficulty understanding was the implementation of items and armor pieces in this game. They didn't seem to have any discernible impact on my gaming experience whatsoever. Some armor items boasted stats of +4 damage or +5 cold resistance, but I still got my ass handed to me in battles, and I still fought off hypothermia when trudging through blizzards. Annalise requested that I gather herbs for her medicinal garden along my journey, and I did get a few, but they didn't have an impact on my relationship with her or my overall gaming experience, as far as I could tell.
For the most part, I would say that the items serve no purpose aside from contributing to Daniel's disintegrating idea of reality. The first armor pieces are pretty normal, such as Surveyor's Leggings and Townsperson's Boots. But each time you return to the shop, things get subtly stranger. You purchase items like Armor of Repression, which states "repressing the demons' validity allows one to rid them more easily." The final time you return to the shop, you get pieces of armor like I Wasn't Malicious, whose description reads, "miscommunicated intentions make one impervious to wrongdoing." Through your armory, you learn a lot about how Daniel tries to justify his actions and fortify his resolve. But does it help you in battle? Not in any discernible fashion.
While The Other Half, for the most part, addresses its theme of sexual assault with clear conviction, there are times where it missteps. More specifically, with how it focuses on Daniel. As the game progresses, it becomes clear that Daniel is the true aggressor, and Annalise is the survivor of a horrible crime. After I came to understand Daniel was the problem, I thought that the game's perspective would change: that perhaps the narrative focus would switch to Annalise. After all, I was far more motivated to help Annalise than I was Daniel. Instead, I heard Daniel lament what a horrible, selfish person he is, which is something I already know. So, who is the voice missing in all of this? Who is the person I'm supposed to really care about at this point? Annalise. The game doesn't explain how Annalise will receive justice, or what kind of justice she wants. Daniel vows to take responsibility for his actions, but I don't see how he does.
Annalise's voice is left out at the most crucial moment, and that disappointed me. I can forgive it somewhat: since Daniel called The Hunter to the mountain in the first place, he is the one who set the story in motion and is the main character. The game is technically about an internalized hero fighting Daniel's demons. But in a narrative about sexual assault, the most important voice is that of the survivor, not the perpetrator, no matter if he realizes his wrongdoing or not. And I don't quite understand what his punishment is. Is it that he ruined his friendship with Annalise, and violated her? Is there supposed to be justice in this story, or is that the point of the ending: that there is no justice for survivors? If the latter, it's unclear in its portrayal.
Despite the ending, there are a lot of other things that I think this game did masterfully well. Its beautiful artwork, brilliant use of symbolism, and skillfully implemented sound effects make an excellent RPG narrative. Even in the moments where The Other Half falters, it remains as graceful as the flickering flames I lit along my pathway up the mountain.