They say that life is all about making important decisions, which can affect the rest of your life. That’s what Where the Heart Leads is all about. This compelling narrative game takes you on a journey of a man’s life, but it’s not just his journey: it’s also yours. You are the one who gets to make the decisions. You also have the power to influence other people’s lives, for good or bad. With thousands of different options with their own consequences and a dozen different endings you can get, Where the Heart Leads is a compelling game that gives you a different story every time you play.
Created by Armature Studio, who was behind games such as Unfinished Swan, this is their venture into a narrative game, and they did not fail to disappoint. They made sure that the control of the story was solely in the player’s hands, and they gave them plenty of ways to experience what the game had to offer.
Where the Heart Leads is available on PS4.
STORY – YOURS TO TELL
The main premise for Where the Heart Leads is certainly compelling. The story is centered around a man called Whit Anderson. One night, a big storm arrives at his farm, and a huge sinkhole appears in the ground. When the family’s dog Casey falls in, it’s up to Whit to save her, only to fall into the sinkhole himself. Whit will have to find a way to return to his family. Whit doesn’t just find himself falling into a deep pit, but a mysterious one that will take him back through his life.
Not only do you play through Whit’s past, but you also get to experience his present and future. You go through the stages in his life, starting off going back to his childhood, right up to his elder years. In each stage, you’ll experience certain events, such as Whit’s relationship with his wife Rene, dealing with his rebellious brother Sege, and watching his children Kate and Alex grow up.
What’s so great about Where the Heart Leads is that you are the storyteller. The story is in your hands. At various points of the game, you will be given options for what course of action to take. For example, when Sege is accidentally responsible for a fire, should Whit tell their parents or keep it a secret? What you decide to do not only has an impact in that moment but can also affect what happens later in the game. It’s not just Whit’s life that’s in your hands. Whit can also give advice to other characters, particularly those closest to him, which can influence their own lives.
Because there are so many different choices to make and that have their own outcomes and consequences, you’ll find that every time you play through this game, you’ll experience something different. The choices you make the first time you play may compel you enough to play again, to see what else you’ll experience. If you feel you made a bad choice the first time around, you can try and do better a second time by choosing other options and seeing what happens. By replaying the game and making different choices, you’ll discover that it has an impact on a character’s career, relationships, and status.
Whilst the story overall is very compelling, there is something that’s a little puzzling. Why does a sinkhole suddenly appear at Whit’s farm? Why does he go through this strange journey of replaying (and possibly even rewriting) his life? Why him? Whilst Whit does receive letters from his family from “above”, the real reason behind the events at the beginning is a little unclear.
With the overall story and game being roughly 10 hours, you’ll have plenty to work with and see in one playthrough, and you’ll only have experienced a portion of what the game has to offer. A narrative game that has so many possibilities will give you your own unique experience.
GAMEPLAY – SIMPLE YET ENGAGING
As a narrative game, it’s only natural that the gameplay is centered around the player going through the story in a way that’s different from watching a movie or reading a book. By controlling Whit, you get to speak to a whole cast of characters. The game doesn’t have voice actors reading out the lines. Instead, all dialogue (and Whit’s thoughts) are presented in speech bubbles that appear next to them. You can manually move through the dialogue, or by pressing the R2 button, you can let the dialogue flow automatically. You can toggle between auto and manual dialogue anytime.
Sometimes, when you speak to a character, you may find yourself presented with some important choices. The game allows you to pause and consider your option carefully since all decisions have consequences, good and bad. A decision may not be popular with everyone. It’s about doing what you think is right or just seeing where the story takes you. Are you not afraid to take risks, or should you play it safe? That is entirely up to you.
It’s not just people you can interact with. You can interact with the world around you. An eye symbol will indicate anything you can interact with, and it isn’t just for objects but places where Whit can view the scene or reflect for a moment. Whit is very good with his hands and can create or repair structures, as well as unblock obstructions. Buildings and structures and even whole landscapes will quickly materialize (or disappear), thanks to the mysterious surrealness of the world reflecting his life. Watching a building or structure come together is very satisfying to watch.
As you play the game, you’ll come across Memories. These give you information about a character’s backstory, as well as updating you on their current situation, depending on which choices you made. You can also get information on locations, such as a store in town, when you approach the door. Memories are mainly presented in diary format, but you’ll also get letters, photos, books, and flyers. Memories can be accessed at any time, and they vary depending on the choices you made throughout the game. Memories bring the characters and locations more to life. If you want to discover more about a character or place, you’ll feel drawn to explore every area you play in to make sure you haven’t missed anything.
There were times in the game, though, where I wasn’t sure what I was meant to be doing. You really have to pay attention to the dialogue, as they’ll tell you what you should do next, such as speaking to a particular character or going to a certain place. This is, of course, a story-driven game, so following the dialogue is important. Though if you miss an instruction or suggestion, you find yourself wandering around the area, confused as to what you’re supposed to be doing to make the story go forward. There is no task or to-do list to help you keep track of things.
However, if you are lost, you can always speak to that character again, as they’ll usually repeat what you should do. Also, Whit, seen in thought bubbles, will remind himself – and you – what he needs to be doing so you’re not completely stumbling about in the fog.
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO – HAUNTING YET BEAUTIFUL
With Where the Heart Leads telling its story through a dream-like surreal state, it’s only fitting that the music matches it. Whichever stage you are playing, you are immersed further into the game thanks to the beautifully haunting soundtrack, which is soft and gentle and yet so powerful. You really do feel like you’re walking through a dream, something that isn’t quite real yet so wonderful.
To complement the blissful music, the graphics have also been created in such a way that reminds you that what you’re seeing and experiencing isn’t really real, and yet it’s so tastefully vibrant and beautiful. The way the world is presented to you, it looks like a painting that’s come to life, with trees blowing in the wind and long grass billowing. With help from the music and graphics, you really do feel like you’re running through a real town or forest or even at the bottom of a mysterious sinkhole.
One intriguing thing to note was the way the characters other than Whit were presented, silhouetted in an odd translucent way. This was likely to emphasize the fact that everyone around you isn’t really real, but it does present a small problem when you have to locate a character, and the silhouettes make everyone look almost identical, which is hindered further because the camera is usually zoomed out a distance. The only way to identify a character is the name tag that appears over them when you approach them.
Another minor issue was with the camera. It wasn’t a consistent problem, but there were times when there was something blocking Whit from view, so you couldn’t see where he was going. There were also moments where something would obscure the camera, such as a tree or building. There was some limited control to adjusting the camera. Fortunately, this was only a minor issue and didn’t hinder gameplay.
Where the Heart Leads was played on PS4 with a key provided by Stride PR.