The rise of easily available 3D engines like Unity or Unreal, as well the cheap art assets for those engines, has led to an evolution of adventure games. These titles, such as Myst, are often (and sometimes derisively) referred to as "walking simulators."
Games like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and What Remains of Edith Finch have established the conceit of a limited environment where players move about and solve simple puzzles in furtherance of the story. When done right, these games involve the player in a way that bridges the gap between video game and gripping dramatic cinema. Unfortunately, The Suicide of Rachel Foster doesn't get it right.
Players assume the role of Nicole Wilson, a young woman who has just inherited a ski resort from her recently deceased father. Nicole hasn't seen her father in over a decade after leaving the lodge abruptly right after Christmas, in the wake of his affair with Nicole's friend, the titular Rachel Foster, being revealed. From what we learn through playing the game, Rachel disappeared and was found weeks later from an apparent suicide. A posthumous letter from Nicole's mother directs her to visit the resort in preparation to sell it, and Nicole dutifully drives to the mountains of Montana to start the inspection.
From a visual perspective, the Unreal engine is well used in The Suicide of Rachel Foster, helping to create a good atmosphere, as well as creating the "frozen in time" feel of the Timberline Lodge, the resort where Nicole spends her entire time. The game is set in the mid-1990s, but the decor of the Timberline seems to date back to the early 1960s, and the developers should feel proud they managed to split the difference so deftly. There was a little texture cracking in some spots, but overall, the environment was neatly put together. A number of items had knockoff labels of actual products which look correct for the time period, a fine detail which adds a note of verisimilitude to the experience.
It is a little jarring, though, that we never get an opportunity to see Nicole in any of the mirrors. Under other circumstances, it would be understandable, but it feels like an oversight in this case; something the developers didn't think about or properly consider. Another oversight seems to be a duplication to certain textures for items such as audio cassettes and VHS tapes.
Aside from that, we're treated to some decent "environmental storytelling" through the various books and objects which Nicole can pick up and examine, giving us a better idea about Leonard McGrath, Rachel's father, as well as Nicole's life before leaving. Nicole's mother Claire, however, doesn't get as much visual exposure.
Audio plays a big role in Rachel Foster, as we mostly only hear Nicole's voice and that of Irving Crawford, an unseen FEMA agent who keeps in touch with Nicole through a modified cell phone as she explores the resort. The sound designers did an excellent job of creating the right sort of creepy atmosphere, whether it's the creaks and groans of a large building battered by a winter storm, or the eerie sounds Nicole experiences as she probes the nooks and crannies of the building. The musical score is low key and appropriately moody. As for voice acting, it's generally well done, though the writing for the dialogue could be a little better and the direction could have emphasized a slightly more nuanced tone. As it is, the actors veer a little too wildly at times.
So, if the game looks good and it sounds good, it should follow that it plays good. And here we hit the major failings of The Suicide of Rachel Foster.
First off, the mechanics are badly simplified. Certain items do not become active until you reach a particular point in the story. This wouldn't be quite so bad if you didn't know they were potentially accessible in the first place. Rachel Foster uses a very obvious fixed cursor. Some objects have descriptions of what they are, generally obvious but occasionally snarky as a nod to Nicole's point-of-view. But there are some items which a player's meta-knowledge of adventure games would suggest they try to pick up, and the inability to do so can be frustrating at times. Worse, there are items which a player might suspect exist given the dialogue, but never turn up. Compounding this frustration is the fact certain dialog segments don't trigger until you cross a specific threshold at a certain time. You might be wandering aimlessly around the environment for a long time on your first run, or you might be having to scoot back and forth to trigger the next step in the chain on a subsequent playthrough.
That assumes, of course, that a player is willing to subject themselves to a second playthrough anytime soon. Rachel Foster has the virtue of being short, but the storyline does not engender a desire to see what you missed. While the game puts up a warning that it deals with issues of suicide, sexual abuse, and grooming, it really only touches on that first point in any significant fashion. The entire plot feels like it was cribbed from any one of a number of "Lifetime Original Movies," something which is big on histrionics but short on substance.
The developers at One-O-One Games were apparently so busy looking to "raise awareness" that they failed to do any basic research. If they had, they would have found that the age of consent in Montana is 16, which means that there wasn't anything necessarily illegal in the affair between Leonard and Rachel, however faithless Leonard might have been. It's a point of fact which I wasn't aware of, and one which so radically affects the appreciation of the plot that it utterly sours all the good work in the other areas of the game.
Had they kept that single point in mind when writing the story, they could have delivered a far more powerful experience. Instead, we get a cut-rate "spooky" story which badly fumbles its transition to a ham-fisted psychological thriller with a weak revenge veneer on top. There's so little information about the actual timeline of events before Rachel's death that any attempt to portray the behaviors the game warns about is completely meaningless.
The game's final chapter (set on the ten year anniversary of Rachel Foster's death) absolutely drops the ball. Things are definitely not as they seem, but I'll refrain from spoiling the ending, since it's not nearly as shocking as it could have been. Character motivations flip over to "Welp, best nip off and kill myself," rather than any serious examination of mental deterioration or the developmental progress of suicidal ideation. There's no satisfaction, no catharsis, nothing which leaves the player feeling like they had a meaningful experience. One could charitably describe the final moments of the game as cheating the player of anything moving, or even relatable.
The Suicide of Rachel Foster is likely the nadir of "walking simulators" so far. The overeager earnestness with which it tries to convey a message fails to properly counterbalance the clumsy narrative, uneven characterizations, and frustrating gameplay roadblocks. It's especially disappointing given the excellent work which was brought to bear on the visual and audio aspects. There are better titles out there in the genre, and this one only serves as a cautionary tale about how not to make one.