Review: Where the Heart Leads – The Game of Life

Armature Studios’ Where the Heart Leads is a narrative adventure game where you paint the life of one man. Where many adventure games fail to offer the players with decisions that actually matter to the game’s story line, Where the Heart Leads challenges this by including a life-changing decision in the game’s prologue to give player’s a taster of how the game’s butterfly effect works. Even the smallest decisions will eventually have a huge impact, and a lot of the time you aren’t even aware you are making them.

When Whit Anderson travels down a sinkhole to save the family dog, Casey, during a horrific storm, he becomes trapped in the cave system below with no way of getting out. At this moment, Whit thinks back on his life and the decisions he has made, considering whether he has made the right ones or not. The prologue of Where the Heart Leads throws the player into the deep end by having them make a tough decision before Whit is even in the cave. When saving the dog from a crumbling ledge, do you risk calling her to jump to you, or take the time to find a safer way? You are given only one chance to make the right decision which will mean Casey lives or dies. On top of this, the game will point out whether you took the time to talk to your wife or children before starting your dangerous descent into the sinkhole, hinting to players that even not checking up with people throughout Whit’s story will impact his life in some way.

Where the Heart Leads plays out from an isometric viewpoint. The graphics are beautiful, expressing a dream-like vibe with the edges of each location usually falling off a cliff face to make it really feel like you’re in the clouds or that the memory doesn’t progress beyond that point. Unfortunately, the camera adds some hinderances onto the game’s appearance and gets in the way of the player’s mobility. For one, it’s not very flexible in movement, so you can’t really adjust it to get a better view if a tree branch or building is blocking the screen. You’ll just have to blindly guess where Whit is and hope he comes into view soon. On top of this, I feel like having a closer-up view of the characters would have been easier on the eyes, as I found myself often squinting to try and make out tiny details.

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You’ll be challenged with a tough decision right from the very start of the game.

Luckily, the option to alter the text box sizes has been added on the game’s release, making it much easier to read for those who find reading tiny text tricky. Unfortunately, the text boxes will appear right where the characters are standing, meaning if a group of characters are spread out, you’re eyes are often darting across the screen to try and make out what everyone is saying at once. As well as this, people will often have conversations in the background, so as well as trying to keep up with the interaction Whit is currently having, you’re also peering off into the distance because someone is chatting down the other end of the street.

Overall, the colossal amount of reading required for Where the Heart Leads can actually become a chore. Without voice overs or narration to guide the player through the story, you’re instead flicking through text box after text box. Where the Heart Leads has an impressive 600,000 word script in total, the equivalent of five novels (or two if it’s George R.R Martin writing them). And although it is incredibly well-written with plenty of thought-provoking scenarios and character-building, it really is a drag to read it all, even for avid readers such as myself. Some voice acting really would have transformed the game by making it much more immersive and an easier experience for a game that’s already treading on thin ice in terms of captivating its audience; a ‘life simulator’ is a bold genre choice, especially when it’s not really in a more imaginative environment. But Where the Heart Leads could have succeeded in this if only there wasn’t the extra added burden of reading five novels in order to play it.

But it’s not just in terms of a hefty reading amount that the lack of voice acting lets down, it also takes you away from the characters who have already been reduced to ghosts in Whit’s memories. Everyone other than Whit is blotted out, so you can only see their outline. It reminded me of Black Mirror‘s ‘Z-eyes’ implants where people can ‘block’ others from their vision so that they appear as soundless blobs, similar to what other characters look like in Where the Heart Leads. Only these are your friends and family, so you’re supposed to be forming relationships with them. I can see what the idea was, it’s a creative way to visualise the ‘ghosts of your past’. But it just doesn’t work when getting the player to bond with characters. It also made it incredibly difficult to find certain characters in a crowd or around the town without walking up to everyone to check their name tag. On top of this, I didn’t even know what some characters looked like in certain chapters unless an illustration of them popped up in the chapter summary. Oh, Sege has grey hair now? I hadn’t noticed.

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The character designs really became jarring when trying to tell people apart.

But what Where the Heart Leads does right is provide the player with choices that genuinely make a difference to the game’s overall plot. This isn’t Telltale where you’ll be left with the same ending no matter what you decide, you’ll be making life-changing decisions without even realising it half the time. This becomes especially evident as you reach the third chapter, when Whit and Rene are now living in an empty nest with their adult children having moved on. It’s here that we truly see where our decisions have left Whit and his family, and it’s our final chance to put things right or at least make them better.

At this stage, I had realised that I had spent so much time perfecting Whit and Rene’s careers, that I hadn’t spoken to the kids once since the game’s prologue. And, although I wasn’t faced with any obvious choices concerning Whit’s children whilst they were still young, even the act of not stopping by to speak to them every once and a while left them both distanced and falling down some life of crime as they hit their teens. Kate had become a hacker vigilante who rarely spoke to her father, this is because I was never firm enough when telling her off for invading people’s privacy, and for not digging in further when she was somehow buying herself books without access to a bank account. Alex also veered off because I never spoke to him as a child, meaning he felt like he could never turn to Whit if something was bothering him, but luckily I was able to repair this relationship in the end. It was small details such as this that really made Where the Heart Leads feel like a true adventure game. No choice felt obvious and each one seemed to come with its own consequences. Although Whit was successful in his art career, we were still consistently faced with tough financial decisions, and the little time he had for his kids put stress on both the children and his wife, Rene who was trying to juggle her own career.

Despite this, there were a few times when the decisions felt misleading. When I was faced with the choice of who to sell the family’s land to so that they could afford a new home, the two options were to accept more money from the town’s business guru who intended to turn the woodland into an ugly shopping mall, or to receive less money from someone who wanted to turn it into a nature reserve. The land belonged to Rene’s parents and was passed down to her, so I initially heard her own thoughts before coming to a decision. She pointed out that the family only needed enough money for a new house, which the nature reserve sale would be plenty for. On top of this, turning it into a nature reserve would make her parents happy. Faced with the decision to support Rene or offer an alternative, I ultimately supported my wife because her reasoning sounded very fair. That was until she does a complete 180 right after you decide to support her, suddenly saying ‘oh yeah, let’s get all the extra cash for the kids’ college funds’ and sells the land to the rich guy. This felt cheap, as though it was thrown in for shock value. And after this, I was guilt tripped in the chapter summary for taking away the kids’ play area.

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Although visually stunning, the isometric viewpoint made it difficult to navigate around the town.

The only thing I would change from Where the Heart Leads‘ adventure aspects is to add in a pathway tree, similar to the ones used in other adventure games such as Detroit: Become Human, so that players can see at the end of the game where they encountered life-changing events. Or even the option to replay from a certain chapter once you have finished the game would hugely benefit the overall experience of Where the Heart Leads by dramatically increasing its replayability, because I’m itching to try a different route and see where I can take Whit in a second playthrough, but the only thing stopping me is knowing how much dialogue I’ll have to skim through to do so.

Overall, Where the Heart Leads succeeds in telling a captivating story with an impressive amount of pathways. However, where it fails is in delivering engaging gameplay in its lack of narration or voice acting to support its hefty script. As a result, some sections will feel like a chore to complete. On top of this, it’s shortcoming of flexible camera controls make it difficult to play and although the graphics are visually gorgeous, the eyesore is sourced from the amount of time you will spend squinting at the screen trying to navigate Whit through the detailed town from an isometric viewpoint, often with the view blocked by branches or buildings. The ending paid off in making me want to play it again.  The only problem with that is I’m reluctant to have to spend another weekend flicking through a novel’s worth of dialogue. At least now I know I probably shouldn’t become a parent.

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