When the Past was Around is a game built around its story of love and loss. While it might not have the minute to minute excitement of other titles, it succeeds in telling a deeply emotional tale. Even though the theme of grief has been covered extensively in other games, this one creates a unique experience; the combination of wonderful hand-drawn art and a perfectly-timed soundtrack serves to heighten the player’s feelings at every turn. And, although the puzzles may sometimes feel overly complex, they never last long enough to break up the mood. All in all, it’s worth every second of its relatively short run-time.
Story – Deeply touching
The premise for this game’s story is relatively simple: a young woman must cope with the loss of a lover. And, while this may seem too generic a concept to drive anything gripping, Eda’s story was engaging until the end credits. Somehow, the game finds a way to connect the player with her, allowing you to feel her joys and melancholy. This may be through the simple nature of the plot: everyone has encountered loss in some form, and that helps you to identify with the emotions that she experiences throughout the game’s chapters. Now seems a good time to mention that the lover is shown as an owl in the game; this lack of a human face makes the owl feels much more like someone the player knows – rather than a character, they’re a figure representative of any loved one. Together, this ties the player emotionally to the story, making it meaningful despite its brief length (roughly two hours).
The story’s actual structure isn’t chronological. Instead, the first chapter after the prologue begins with Eda grieving at a graveyard. However, the game quickly goes back to the first meeting between the two lovers and continues to jump back and forth in time throughout. However, this never becomes unclear or confusing – rather, returning to the present serves to show the impact of Eda confronting her own memories. By jumping between key moments, the game can tell a long story within a short space of time; it condenses an entire relationship to a couple of hours without losing the poignance of each scene. Nothing feels rushed, and the game’s use of small cutscenes gives each exquisite moment some extra weight.
Gameplay – Some fun, some frustration
When the Past was Around‘s gameplay is comprised of point and click puzzles, which, surprisingly, are pretty entertaining. Trying to discover hidden secrets in each room or area is never boring, as you can interact with a surprising number of objects in the game. This also works nicely with the story in some sections; later in the game, knocking over plant pots and books made some of the tense moments even more frantic. The difficulty curve is very manageable, and by the final few chapters, you’ll be breezing through some pretty tough challenges. Some of the best puzzles have you going back and forth through connected rooms to find solutions; realising that items in different rooms were connected was hugely satisfying.
However, there are some puzzles where the solution is a bit too complex. In these cases, spending ages thinking about the solution can break up the atmosphere of each scene. The game combats this with a hint tool: players can hit the triangle button to show every object in a room that they can interact with. In some of the later stages, this can be a huge help; often, in particularly cluttered rooms, it became tricky to see what to try and click. The hint system also works because of how it helps you. Instead of simply suggesting a solution, the game only shows you what you have available to solve a puzzle – ultimately, figuring it out is down to the player.
The only other gameplay element worth mentioning is the musical sections. With the game’s strong emphasis on sound, there a number of times where you can pop music notes that appear on the screen. While this is sometimes just a little extra for players to do, it does add another level of immersion. Players themselves end up adding to the backdrop to some emotional cutscenes; personally, I found myself more attached to the characters and story because of this. While you don’t have to play the notes in time with the soundtrack, you miss out on connecting with the game by rushing through these sections. Although it’s not a key part of the gameplay, playing along to the music feels like a wonderful addition to the overall experience.
Graphics and Audio – Perfect through and through
Visuals and music are two of the game’s greatest strengths: its combination of a wonderful art style from Indonesian artist Brigitta Rena, and a simple but varied soundtrack, is key to the emotional depth of the story. The art always manages to perfectly capture the feelings of characters; from moment to moment, players can see exactly what Eda, or Owl, are thinking. Moreover, Rena’s art style is incredibly appealing to the eye. Every item in every scene seems meticulously crafted, from coffee cups to clothes on a washing line to ice cream stands at a beach. This beauty helps to keep the player focused on the game; a less good-looking game, with the same story or gameplay, would fail to hold your attention in the same way.
The music deserves just as much credit as the art in adding to the overall experience. In a game where the concept of music is very important, various motifs are used in different ways throughout the game to evoke different responses from the player. Each piece of music has the ability to be both joyful and melancholic, and all of them would be worth listening to just as music on its own. This excellent soundtrack adds the final touch to an already excellent game.
When the Past was Around was reviewed on PS4, with a key provided by Brown-Betty.