Spoilers ahoy. I recommend you play this game before you read this review.
A choice based game, Erstwhile took me around one and a half hours to complete. The blurb does a good job of setting the scene – you have just died at a party and are now a ghost – you need to find the killer.
Cue a complex plot full of surprises, intrigue, reveals and, potentially, werewolves. I loved it.
More about the plot later, because the first thing that struck me was the strength of the game’s central interactivity mechanism.
It reminds me somewhat of Color the Truth a game that uses a similar mechanic, but in the world of the parser – in which the player reveals topics and can link them to create new topics. In Erstwhile, the player can both watch the characters in the game and actually go inside their head to relive memories – once you do, you find clues, which get added to the list of clues – these clues can then be linked to reveal new clues, which in turn can be linked and so on…..
The success of this mechanism relies on one critical thing : Do I, as the player, have enough cues in the text to enable me to logically deduce the links without resulting to brute force?
The answer in the main is …. yes. Any links I missed were as a result of my own inattention to the text as opposed to the text itself. I was stuck and had to resort to the walkthru once. When I read it, it was a slap my own forehead moment. The clues are all there in the text.
This mechanism is excellent, well thought through, brilliantly implemented (I found no bugs at all), and gives a real sense of agency and achievement to the player. I have one suggestion – once the clues start to build up (and they do, they really really do) it would be extremely useful to have some way of notifying the player of which clues are new in the list – once I return from a long passage of text, eventually back to the list, it can be difficult to remember what I have and haven’t clicked on. Nothing too much – maybe new clues in bold/different color or something until they have been clicked for the first time. I, personally, would have found that useful.
The plot, revolving as it does around the ghostly investigations of the deceased, is built up well. What is particularly interesting is the way that the various characters motivations are gradually revealed – this is handled very well by the prose. The motivations themselves felt real. If I had a criticism of the writing it was that the protagonist lacked real sustained reaction to the reveals – it would have been interesting to see further how Mort’s personal perception of himself changed as he saw what these people really thought of him.
Also, the prose tends to fall out of ‘voice’ a little through the course of the narrative. Mort is a middle aged, middle class guy – president of the RA. It is, for example, doubtful that he would use the word ‘Welp’ – other examples stuck out also.
In general, though, these are minor criticisms in a well-written, well structured and highly engaging murder mystery.
But…..aaagh…..I’m a little frustrated. The central murder plot, the gradual reveal, the mechanics for the player to link clues together – all of these are excellent and make a really good game experience. BUT. BUT. There is potentially so much more to this game – something that would have moved it from a ‘really good’ game into the realm of the truly great – and we are only given flavors of it. Without giving too much away, in this small neighborhood, it’s all secrets and lies. Each character’s lives are interwoven in some way – we are given snippets and clues to hidden layers and backstories – jigsaw pieces that show glimpses of these peoples lives.
I understand what the authors have done – as readers we can fill in the blanks ourselves, but it still feels like a missed opportunity.
Intolerance, bigotry, sexuality and magic all simmer just under the surface. Had there been a way of building out these sub-plots similar to the main plot, this would have really elevated this game into something special. The murder mystery is interesting. But the lives and secrets spinning around it are even more so.
Even so, this is an excellent game, superbly implemented. 9/10.