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Where the Water Tastes Like Wine

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Adventure
Publisher: Good Shepherd Entertainment
Developer: Serenity Forge (EU), Dim Bulb Games (US)
Release Date: Feb. 28, 2018


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PC Review - 'Where The Water Tastes Like Wine'

by Cody Medellin on April 3, 2018 @ 12:50 a.m. PDT

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is an adventure game, inspired by the folk tales and folk music of America, about traveling, sharing stories, and surviving manifest destiny.

There's a fine balance that needs to be achieved with the narrative adventure — or walking simulator, if you prefer. It's a genre where story is the game's focal point, and while fans of the genre are interested in that above all else, there still needs to be some semblance of gameplay to prevent people from wondering why a different medium wasn't selected for the tale. Despite the number of games in this genre, it isn't easy to find a title that excels in both gameplay and story. Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is the latest title to try and accomplish this, and there's a bit of hope that it can pull it off since one of the creators of Gone Home is behind the effort. Unfortunately, it gets one part right while failing to deliver on the other.

Right off the bat, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine reels you in with an interesting premise. The tale is set in the 1930s during the Great Depression, and you play the role of a nameless vagabond who's trying to eke out a living. One night, you stumble upon a shack where some people are playing poker. Things are going well until you go all in against an opponent and lose. That opponent turns out to be an anthropomorphic dire wolf, and you now owe a life debt to him. To pay off the debt, he orders you to traverse the United States, pick up stories, pass them on to others, and see how interesting the tales can get along the way.

You're a walking skeleton that no one can seem to run away from. You travel from state to state and hit up hotspots to pick up all sorts of tales. The stories aren't long, with most of them barely being lengthy enough to be the subject of idle conversation. Those stories do cover a variety of subjects, however. You may run into a fancy Parisian woman in a small town, and she may keep an interesting scar covered up. That's followed up by a man who notes that the fishing town he resides in may not survive another year due to the low fish count in the area. You may run into a bunch of vagabonds who are looking for a safe cave to camp in for the night. Those kinds of stories aren't limited to small towns, as larger cities tend to have stories of their own, like overhearing a couple being forced to separate due to lack of work or handling the odd job of rustling snakes.

While the stories can seem rather mundane at first, you begin to see their potential for depth when you encounter the same story being retold into different areas of the country. A good example is the story of a boy who drowned, a sad tale that becomes more gruesome when others portray the father as a child killer. You can try to steer a tale back to its original version, but it feels futile since the story always transforms, and in some cases, the tone of the tale changes dramatically. In a way, it becomes a study of how entertainment can win out over truth if the idea catches on. The game doesn't judge, but it's interesting, since the game includes around 216 stories, and they can all transform in different ways.

The real meaty stories, however, are from 16 specific vagabonds who are travelling the country just like you — minus the skeletal appearance. You'll run into them at various campsites, and you're given a set amount of time to tell them any of the tales you've collected thus far. Fulfill their requests of hearing sad or funny tales, and they'll begin to open up to you, and this is where their stories get told. Unlike the other tales you pick up along the way, these offer much more detail with a wider range of emotions, so they're well worth the effort of tracking them down.

The stories are the reason why you'll stick with it, but the gameplay does the title no favors. Having to figure out which stories go well with the requests is a nice touch, and the categorization of some of these tales helps, even if the categories are rather vague. It would be nice if the game would provide more than a one-sentence summary of each tale. This is especially true when you consider how many stories there are to hear and how often they can change as you progress through the country.

Where The Water Tastes Like Wine also throws in a few stats you need to manage, like your cash, health, and sleep levels. Gaining cash in cities is amusing, since you get little anecdotes from doing so, but it's disappointing that you can't use those anecdotes in your tales. Otherwise, the cash is simply used to buy train tickets for better travel across the land or purchase items the stave off hunger and sleepiness. Let any of those values drop, and you die. It isn't that bothersome, since you simply return to the last city you visited with all of your accumulated tales intact. The stat management feels more like needless work and actively detracts from the story as a result.

The most annoying aspect of the gameplay, though, has to be the traveling from one area to another. Your walk speed is too casual, so it feels like a slog to go from one small state to another, let alone traversing the larger states on the West Coast. You can decide to hold down a button and play a matching minigame to marginally speed up your pace, making it another piece of busy work. You can speed up the process by using a train at designated spots, and while hitchhiking is a viable option, you'll miss so much by doing so that you won't use it more than once unless you've completely cleared out an area. The game is billed as a lengthy experience, but the slow travel speed takes up so much time that boredom can set in.

One of the hallmarks of a narrative adventure is that it has to look striking to grab the player's attention. The game accomplishes that with an art style that looks like a mix of basic pencil sketching with charcoal; this style is evident when you look at a vagabond or watch the scene that accompanies the tale that you've picked up. The limited color palette provides the game with a stark look that sticks with you even if the scenes feel rather pedestrian. When traveling, however, that art style is muted since the details of cities and farmhouses are barely there. The game also has an issue with pop-up for various buildings and roads, which is a shame since the day and night system complements the map so well.

The soundtrack will remind you a little bit of The Flame in the Flood thanks to the folksy, country atmosphere of the songs. The game does a good job of partitioning a few songs to each region, but your slow walking speed means that the collection will loop several times over, relegating their charm to forgotten background noise. The voicework is exceptional in drawing you into the many narratives and keeping you there until the last word is spoken.

Your enjoyment of Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is completely dependent on whether you value story more than gameplay. That element is second to none when it comes to enjoyment, due to both the writing and your evolution as the simple stories grow into complex tales. As a game, that section doesn't hold up. Movement is slow, and the different meters that you have to manage feel rather tacked on. As a whole product, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine can be a drag, but if you're in it for the story, bump up the score and have fun with a game that spins an excellent yarn.

Score: 6.5/10

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