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Where the Heart Leads

Platform(s): PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5
Genre: Adventure
Developer: Armature Studio
Release Date: July 13, 2021


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PS4 Review - 'Where the Heart Leads'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on July 14, 2021 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Where the Heart Leads is a surreal narrative journey through one man's past where he will reevaluate a lifetime of important decisions.

Where the Heart Leads follows a family man named Whit Anderson. A terrible storm ravages his home and causes the ground to crack open, leaving his pet dog trapped above an endless pit. Whit manages to free his dog but ends up falling into the pit. Rather than crashing down onto terrible rocks at the bottom, Whit finds himself in a surreal landscape that seems to be comprised of his memories — and even glimpses into a future that has not yet happened. Whit must navigate this dream world and find a way back to his family.

While there are some mysterious and perhaps even paranormal elements to the game, it's mostly set dressing for the core theme: the idea of choices that you make, whether you'd make different choices if given the chance, and what truly makes you happy. In that sense, the game is largely successful. Whit is a fairly likeable character, but Rene, Whit's wife, was a standout for me. The interactions between Rene and Whit defined the characters and made both the happy and sad moments stand out much better.

If I have one serious complaint, it is that the time frame of the story veers a bit too hard into the surreal, which takes some impact out of decisions and choices. It's neat to see things instantly reflected, but when it's treated as part of a single day, it detracts from the sense that choices have consequences. It feels less meaningful to decide to build your kids a treehouse if you make a Disney Land Park Ride and still have enough time to craft a giant sign and build a garden before dinner. It fits the surreal nature of the game, but when the idea is to evaluate choices and their potential long-reaching effects, it feels weird to occasionally have instant outcomes.

The idea of choices having consequences plays out well. You're not going to see an entirely different game, but there are a lot of things both big and small that impact how the story plays out, and you won't be able to see everything (or get every trophy) on a single playthrough. It adds some thought and tension to every conversation and every choice. Will choosing to keep your brother's secret help him shape up, or will it encourage him to act out? Do you go for the job that makes money or spend more time with your family? Is trusting someone going to open you up to heartbreak down the line? It all comes into play and lends itself well to the narrative.

The core gameplay is simple, as the bulk of Where The Heart Leads takes place in "cutout" segments that represent a time in Whit's life. The farm where he grew up or the nearby town of Carthage may change based on Whit's decisions. You control Whit and wander around, talking to people to gather clues and memories, which can influence later decisions. Once you've done enough, the game progresses to the next set of memories until you reach the next cutout.

These segments are not linear, and some can even be like little puzzles. For example, in the second area, Rene is upset at Whit's couch potato brother for leaving his extremely dangerous sculptures where her kids can get into them. You need to figure out a solution, and there are plenty. Do you convince him to rent an apartment? If so, how can he get money, considering he's very much a "retail isn't for me" free spirit? You can push him toward taking money for art instillation or work-for-hire or even to sell his sculptures for money. There isn't necessarily a "right" answer, but each one has an impact down the line. You can even miss entire plotlines if you're too mean or too much of a pushover.

If I have one complaint, it is that the game does try to push a certain mindset. Early on, you find an instruction manual for a board game that emphasizes some of the positive behaviors promoted in Where the Heart Leads, such as sticking with choices that you've made, being honest, supporting others, and asking for help when you need it. It can sometimes feel like a choice between right and wrong, but that decision isn't always clear. For instance, something that may seem to be the right decision in the short term may have long-term, unintended consequences. It's not a huge flaw, but I did feel pushed toward certain directions.

Overall, Where the Heart Leads is a nice little narrative adventure title. It has puzzles that aren't too complex and accentuate the atmosphere more than twist your brain. It's very much the kind of game you "experience" more so than you min-max, but some of the trophies encourage you to figure out the optimal solution to puzzles (or occasionally to mess up big time). It's a very relaxing game and encourages you to be relaxed while playing it. Sometimes that's all a game needs to be.

The overall art style for Where the Heart Leads is quite nice. The landscapes are surreal dreamscapes made of stitched-together parts of Whit's memories that almost make sense (but not quite). Everyone except Whit is presented as a semitransparent outline that only adds to the dreamlike atmosphere, with characters "moving" by disappearing and reappearing throughout the environment. The music is well done and atmospheric, and it helped me enjoy the moments of trekking back and forth through the woods for the 10th time in a row.

Where the Heart Leads is a comfortable game about choices, family, and appreciating what you have. "Comfortable" is really the best word for it. You can pop it on and relax for an hour or two as you guide Whit through the strange landscape that is his life. I don't think it's going to change anyone's mind if they're not fond of narrative-driven titles, but it's a good example of the genre. If you're looking for the game that's the equivalent of sitting down with a cozy book, then that is exactly what this is. Often heartwarming, sometimes depressing, and frequently thought-provoking, Where the Heart Leads is worth a playthrough if you enjoy these sorts of titles.

Score: 8.0/10

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