Where The Heart Leads is a narrative adventure unlike any other I’ve played through. There is no doubt that there has been an influx of narrative-based games, and great ones at that, but Where The Heart Leads effortlessly pieces together its weaving narrative.
The game starts out peculiar enough. There is a giant storm. A sinkhole swallows up the family dog, and you must make a decision as to how to save him. This is where you will get your first taste of decision making in Where The Heart Leads It’s a pretty lite version to get you acquainted with the few systems that will carry you through the game. The starting sequence, while introducing the systems, does a huge disservice to just how deep and interconnected each decision is to the overarching narrative.
An Almost Perfectly Crafted World
Where The Heart Leads has a real painterly-papery feel to it. As you build, things animate from the ether and splash down into place. As you walk by NPCs you hear a sound of shuffling paper. Where the graphics are truly gripping is when entering buildings. It takes a sort of diorama approach and essentially removes a wall so you can see a cross-cut of the area. Having the ability to zoom the camera in and out allows for you to really take it all in.
Whether it be towns or the wilderness, every area is filled with life. The orchestral soundtrack also did well to perfectly complement what was going on on-screen. It never stood out on its own, but always worked to elevate the scene instead of detract from it.
There were a few times where the foreground elements obscure the player’s view and makes traversing an area slightly cumbersome. Luckily, the speed at which the player moves makes this a tiny (tiny!) complaint. The only other navigation issue I found was when trying to initiate a conversation with NPCs. Sometimes it was hard to trigger the indicator to begin speaking with characters. Again, not a huge issue. Just an issue that would see your character sort of having to run around an NPC to trigger the conversation.
A World Full of Character(s)
Throughout your 12+ hours, you’ll run across a large number of characters, and they are all so expertly crafted. Coming from a small town, there were certainly parallels to people in my actual hometown. Each character had a real part in that section of the story, and choices made within that section often carried to others. The only thing better than how well the characters were written, is just how well they interact with one another. Of the 10+ characters, there are three key characters that absolutely deserve a spotlight.
Sege: It’s kind of a cop-out since Sege is your brother, but the growth between Sege and Whit is perfect. There is always that struggle between acting as a brother and giving him some tough brotherly love when needed but also to live out childhood dreams with him. The writers so succinctly crafted him to be the “hurdle” character since he is the school-hating artist with some serious mommy and daddy issues. The character is the perfect inflection point for family drama which we’ve all experienced to some extent in our real lives.
Rene: Your significant other. Your rock. I think I attached to Whit and Rene’s relationship so much since it was a close reflection to the relationship I have with my wife. Just the way the two would interact and grow together is my wife and I to a T. Their shared struggles and personal triumphs drove this story home. As much as Whit is the main character, Rene is the spark that sets all important story beats in motion. Her sturdiness and willful soul helped to pull the most out of all of the characters you’ll come across.
Maddy Virginia: In story-oriented games, you absolutely have to have a Maddy Virginia. One that provides comedic relief in one set of dialogue, but also has wisdom well beyond anyone else in the story in another. The interesting thing is just how many lines of dialogue she had when she wasn’t really a key cog in the main story. She certainly had her part to play, which is developed deeper as the story nears conclusion, but her best moments are those of levity. Be sure to talk to her as much as possible because she has some absolutely hilarious things to say along the way.
Every single time I play a game where choice is a huge factor, I always have to fight with myself on how I should play. Do I make choices based on how I think that character would make them? Or, do I make choices as I would make them being the character? I almost always go with the latter, and doing so worked great here. The characters and the various struggles they go through with one another is just so real. There wasn’t a single line of dialogue that didn’t seem plausible. Yes. Even the fry cook that invited you to a seance. In many cases, I have faced some pretty similar, yet a tad less fanciful decisions in my life. That is what’s so engrossing with Where The Heart Leads.” With no real “action,” need for physical struggle or any other bombastic way most games get you to care about characters, Where The Heart Leads grips you into their world and never lets go through everyday choices.
That is not to say that this story is all sunshine and rainbows. Early on, you’ll learn that there isn’t really a “right” or “wrong” dialogue option. The urge to save scum is certainly there, but I think the best way to playthrough is to be confident (or at least somewhat confident) in your answers. There is massive replay value since even some of the smaller choices ripple through to the end of the story causing quite a drastic difference in key plot points. The idea that the choices aren’t black and white really gives more depth to all characters involved. You aren’t trying to fill out an arbitrary bar, nor are you thinking you are answering a certain way, and Whit responds in an entirely different way. It’s one of the more realistic multiple-choice dialogue options I’ve come across in games.
It is true that almost all of your time is exclusively spent running around and talking to people, sometimes people with a whole lot to say, and making choices via the dialogue system. The dialogue and choices are played out through speech bubbles, with supplemental items in your inventory with zero voiced characters. Having no voiced characters was a non-issue since your current dialogue within that person is recorded down in your inventory and there is a running dialogue that you can pull up on the left hand side of your screen. The first ¼ of the game did start a tad slow, but when it opens up, it really opens up.
Small Connective Tissue
Throughout the game you’ll run into areas where you have to pick up items for people and deliver/build things for them. Early on, you have to pick up leftovers for Rene (your significant other). I thought, as is often the case in dialogue heavy games, you can grab the leftovers and your mom will drone on about you having to pick up the leftovers. That is not so here. Instead, the dialogue changes to Whit explaining how he’s already got them. This happens often when you “complete” objectives before an NPC explicitly tells you to do so. It’s a small tidbit, but it pulls the world further and further together. The interesting thing is that this isn’t even tied strictly to objectives.
In one sequence, if you take the hill route vs the stairs back to your house, your wife will comment on how you made it up. This will then lead into a further dialogue path about how she feels like the hill just keeps getting steeper. Again, not a huge eureka moment, but it truly brings the word to life. It’s those small tidbits of NPC recognition that makes Where The Heart Leads so special.
A Story Book (ending)
The overarching story is one of which many of us go through, and one that hits the full gamut of emotions. Growth. Love. Pain. Redemption. Success. It is one of the most cohesive, well-rounded stories I’ve ever taken part in while playing a game. The writers’ ability to have their characters span decades in the game is nothing short of spectacular. The overall cohesiveness of its characters and their relationships form such a strong connective tissue with not a single NPC out of place. I can’t imagine the painstaking effort it must have taken to tie everything so neatly together.
The story’s growth replicates that of a strong novel. Some characters fracture, while others prosper. I never once felt that something wasn’t earned by a character, or that an event happened out of left field. These characters actually take part in the universe they are in vs just being window-dressing for the story.
Where The Heart Leads is one of the most endearing games I have ever played. Not so much for the input provided, but more so from the emotion received. Much like some of the best forms of entertainment, Where The Heart Leads provided just enough time in-between dialogue options to encourage introspection. That quiet time where some might think is a ‘waste,’ is actually a resource.
Where The Heart Leads was an outstanding ~12 hour adventure, and much like its story beats, the game will certainly stick with you well into the future.
Reviewed on: PlayStation 5 (PS4 game via BC).
Time Played: 12+ hours.
Developed by: Armature.