Thanks to the good folks at Wispfire, I will be giving away a game code for Herald over the next few days. Follow VNs Now on Twitter and RT our tweets of this review for a chance to win! (6/23/2017)
I was wrong.
If a critic is honest, these are the three words they have one hell of a love-hate relationship with. When a critic whips this one, either a game is worse than they anticipated or it was better than they anticipated. The former is the unfortunate curse of being human, as we can all get caught in the infernal hype machine surrounding a preferred gaming genre or series, only for it to be released and bring shame to us all. The latter, however, is cause for celebration. There is no sweeter mea culpa in the world than to admit that something you were sure would flop manages to overcome your lowered expectations and stand on its own two feet.
Such is the case with Wispfire’s Herald…at least for Books 1 and 2. Two years ago when I played the demo and came away from it less than impressed. The promotional material and reaction from gaming media pushed Herald as a period piece focused on colonial politics, racism, etc. YET the demo contradicted that completely with a rational rule to maintain order on a military vessel that transports government officials. At the time, I said this contradiction put the game in an awkward position. However, spot light please: I was wrong. The demo was very clear. It was the rest of us that didn’t exactly know how to process it.
Books 1 and 2 goes a long way in clearing that up, as well as putting Herald on track to be one of the better visual novels of 2017. Come on in: I’ll explain why.
Herald is the story set in an alternate universe where Oliver Cromwell’s revolution maintains power and the English Protectorate expands into a global empire. Devan Rensburg, born to an English Father and Indian Mother, decides to join His Lordship’s Vessel Herald on an expedition to the Eastern colonies. However, unbeknownst to Devan the ship is carrying its own mysteries that leads him to The Rani: a deposed ruler of the East who holds him prisoner and makes him recounts his story for reasons unbeknownst to him.
My biggest fear with Herald is that it was going to be extremely black and white; no pun intended. Everything I saw about it portrayed the Empire as evil and racist and because of that Devan, being of mixed heritage, will eventually find himself on the side of the pure as snow rebellion. I’m sure there are people hungry for this type of narrative, but for me it is predictable, dry: boring. The demo threw a giant monkey wrench into that perception that was followed up with the full game breaking that threat; giving us a much colorful world with a greyer morality.
While I’m sure most will gravitate to The Rani and her cause, over the course of both Books you realize that what we see of the empire is flawed, heavily flawed in cases, but not necessarily evil. In fact, most of the crew of the Herald seem focused on ensuring continued good business. To that end, they have strict rules and decorum that everyone is supposed to follow.
Most of the conflicts Devan finds himself centered on those rules and that forces the player to decide what’s important at that moment in time: the order defined by the empire or chaos as defined by a more rebellious inclination? You can rage against the machine, but honestly it is presented and executed as a short-term solution and you will get more of the story by being more patient and calculating. That process puts more audience investment in the choices in front of them and encourages us to think deeper about the situations Devan finds himself in and that’s exactly what I had hoped we’d get out of Herald.
Not only is the audience invested in their choices and Devan himself, but they can also honestly question who exactly you can trust on the Herald and off it. Who are playing with their cards face up, warts and all, and who is being duplicitous? And how do you ensure that you can continue to operate on this ship with that information? That, on its own, does more to put the player in the position of someone of Devan’s heritage during the imperial age than any of the overwrought, historical condescension I feared it would be. This is the deft hand I hoped time would give Wispfire and I’m glad to see them use it.
This grey approach feeds directly into the major narrative thread of the story: its mysteries. Yes, it is framed in an alternate history British Empire, but what keeps everything moving is that there are various mysteries on the ship that Devan is tasked with solving. The first we see is from the demo, but it plays second fiddle to the mystery of the ship’s navigator and cabin boy. Here, Wispfire pieces together its mystery in a way that they know the audience is going to jump to conclusions, then smirks and dares them to make a judgment based on that leap. Only then does the audience realize that what they want to believe isn’t exactly right and the situation is a lot more complicated, yet somehow much simpler, than what our first intuition led is to believe.
By that jumping point, most will already be on their back foot as they realized everything I said about the grey morality and the order/chaos dichotomy running the Herald. But it is Book 2 where things start spinning out of control as the game slowly adds the more of the crew into the mix. They bring with them their own personalities to conflict and contrast with Devan, but they also bring their own secrets which sparks new mysterious for Devan to tackle and resolve. Clearly this is going to require a spoiler feature because I do not want to take away too much incentive for you guys to pick this one up. However, I cannot impress enough how well the various themes of the game began to come together as Devan did his investigation.
One thing I will discuss is one of the more antagonistic characters on the ship: Senator Louis Morton. Morton is, probably, the most openly antagonistic members of the cast. His interactions with Devan for most of the game have the racial edge to them that a lot of the promotional material warned would be present in this game. I was a bit worried that meant this is where the overall great character development would begin to slack, but it maintained itself and managed to craft a reasonable villain out of the Senator. I’m sure we’ll butt heads in Books 3 and 4, but I’m curious to see where the character goes from here and his plans for the colonies.
The best thing about all of this is I cannot tell you what’s going to happen next. The ending of Book 2 only brings out more questions to be answered with the number one question being how exactly Devan ended up in The Rani’s custody. I am fully invested in what happens in Book3 and that is exactly what Wispfire needed to keep the series going: a larger mystery waiting to be solved. Hopefully, it will be able to carry on and grow the narrative moving forward.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
Moving on, the Presentation is fantastic. The artwork takes me back to my gamer beginnings: Windows 95 (don’t lie, for most of you it was Windows 95 too). For a game with that design philosophy, I was pleased to see everything run smoothly. The art style itself is distinctive and vibrant: immediately feeling familiar and distinctive. All the character designs have a fun and unique air to them and this is aided by some solid voice work. I especially enjoyed the vocal work behind the main character Devon and The Rani herself. I also appreciate that it seems that Wispfire went out of their way to get native accents for their various characters. It’s a very nice touch that makes this world feels a bit more tangible.
However, the technical side of the game gets a bit rougher thanks to a few nitpicks. Herald opts for an automatic saving feature that will kick in at regular intervals. However, at least to my knowledge, there are only three slots available and with no way to manual save, there is no real way to go back to a specific point in the game that you may want to try again. This happened a few times in Book2, where I wanted to test a few alternate choices, only to realize the only way to do so was to start the entire episode over again since the game saves once you’ve made your choice. That is admittedly annoying for me as I prefer manual Save/Load, but I wouldn’t say it’s an absolute deal breaker.
It is a bit disconcerting if you start a new file with Book 1 instead of Book 2, though. There is no sequence to try and fill in the gaps and the game just assumes your choices for you. That needs to be checked, otherwise we could go into the next few books with our choices erased and us none the wiser until we get to a critical point that our choices didn’t lead to.
For me, the biggest deal breaker is Herald’s journal system. There was a sequence in Book2 where you absolutely need to use the journal to be in an exact position on a specific deck on the ship to move forward. Up until that point, I didn’t use the journal system that much so I tried to use that to guide me to the point I needed to be in activate this scene. I swear I was running around that ship for a good fifteen minutes trying to use the journal for it and PASSED the point I needed to be in TWICE along the way.
The journal feels incredibly extraneous at this point in the series: only pulling its weight with keeping track of the ship’s guest, crew and current events. At that point, it will depend on how you play and that means you’ll remember most of what the journal keeps track of. Maybe down the line it’ll pull its weight but right now, when you need it, it’s worthless.
I also feel that the Point-and-Click features could use a bit of cleaning up. This comes more into play during Book 2 as well where the game can only progress when you click on something just right and the game doesn’t always recognize your clicks. This is most notable when you must help prepare a stew for dinner and my repeated attempts to tap the sous chef to let him know I got the requested ingredients failed until I was standing in a particular spot for the game to finally recognize was I was trying to do.
Finally, there is a recent update to the game that allows you to use a controller to play it. Don’t use it. The issues I had with the Point and Click elements are magnified trying to use a game controller for Devan. It is too awkward to be reliable at this time, so just stick to your mouse as it controls just as well. Maybe if some of the finer points are ironed out, I’ll try the controller again to see if you get a smoother experience. For now though: no. Just no.
These points are finer technical issues, I know. But, they deserve to be smoothed out all the same. Other than that, I have no bugs or glitches to report now.
Herald currently retails for $9.99. There is no season pass you can buy for the next half of the game on Steam, however you can pre-order the complete edition on the site for $19.99. On one hand, I can concede it was probably a wise move as it eschews the current DLC culture that is creeping into visual novels. However, having some sort of Season Pass is a solid sign that the rest of the game is either complete or will be complete soon enough not to have fans raging. It also gives people on the fence an idea of what the game will cost once it’s completed.
Ultimately, it comes down to how much you’ll likely replay Books 1 and 2 before the release of 3 and 4, and the sad reality is that at least for the moment, I have no immediate inclination to go back. I do want to go back eventually to tie up one small, loose end. But, for now, I’m not in a rush to replay and that’s a red flag for me. And I say that as someone who enjoyed the game overall.
I think that’s because Books 1 and 2 are more concerned with leaving as many parts of its narrative open. While we do get some closure on some smaller mysteries, the larger narrative is still an open book which means there’s no real reason to keep replaying this small piece. It’s the unfortunate negative of episodic gaming where you’re more excited about the future than the past.
For now, I do feel that $9.99 is fair value. You’ll get roughly ten to twelve hours of playtime out of it, but be ready to not pick it up again until the next episodes are ready.
I came into Herald with a good share of reservations and concerns. With the buildup and the previous demo, I was sure that it was going to trip up out of the starting gate. But, as I hinted at the beginning, I am more than happy to be wrong. Wispfire hits all the points they are on record wanting to make about imperialism and European colonialism without bringing an anvil to the party. This also for something that is rare when talking about either of the aforementioned subjects: nuance.
As of this moment, Herald is far more invested in telling a historically-accurate drama than an ideologically-accurate one, and the game is simply better for it. The characters, even the most seemingly basic, are richer and more interesting. Every situation has the audience’s attention and interest and nothing is left to happenstance. Most importantly, I want to see how this story ends. Granted, I may not be chewing at the bit for it. But when Wispfire is ready to continue its story, I want to be there to see what happens to Devan and the crew of the Herald. That type of investment takes time and work and plenty of both have gone into Books 1 and 2.
I hope that the rest of you will consider giving this one a shot. Regardless of what you may have heard, or in my case what you thought, Herald is a rich and complex alternate history tale that is more than worth your attention.