As one giant of the video game conference world, E3, announced it was being cancelled for yet another year (and possibly, permanently), I attended a much much smaller in-person event – W.A.S.D. in London. Centring mostly around indie games, though with some regional exclusives too, the three-day event had plenty to pique an adventure gamer’s interest. There were three games in particular I learned more about at the conference that you should definitely be adding to your wish list…
A Highland Song – inkle
Think of inkle, the team behind 80 Days, Heaven’s Vault and Overboard!, and verbose branching narratives with intriguing plot twists and deftly written characters probably leap to mind. You don’t tend to think of rhythm-based platforming and light survival elements. But A Highland Song, which the team is hoping will be out late summer this year, will contain all of these things – yet still feels firmly within inkle’s wheelhouse. In this 2.5D side-scrolling adventure you play Moira, a teenager who lives in the Scottish Highlands with her mother, but who runs away when she receives a cryptic letter from her Uncle Hamish asking her to come visit him in his lighthouse. Joseph Humfrey, the game’s creator, told me that the story was partly inspired by growing up amongst the Highlands himself, and a particularly hairy incident where he and a few friends got very lost and luckily were picked up by a helpful deer hunter.
To emphasise the feeling of being alone in the middle of the never-ending wilderness, there isn’t a proper map that Moira uses to get around. Instead she’ll get by with fragments of information she learns about the environment around her as she progresses. For example, she remembers the shape of a peak that contains a pathway she needs to cross, so from her doodle of it on a scrap of paper, you have to move your cursor across the landscape to where you think it might be, and that’ll be the next bit of your journey to travel to.
The platforming comes in because you’ll naturally need to scramble up rocks and jump small gaps on your journey, but people unfamiliar with this type of gaming need not worry, as it’s all very forgiving. There might be a health bar but you’re unlikely to see it depleted too much, and even if you do, Moira doesn’t die a horrible death on the hilltops; you’ll just have to go back to an earlier checkpoint. What makes the platforming bits even more joyous are the basic rhythm elements that pop up now and then, in which you have to tap the jump button in time with the beautiful evocative folk music, which swells up as you leap and bound across the landscape. I can’t wait to play more of these sections in the full game.
But fans of inkle’s more traditional work have nothing to fear either. Whilst there are things like basic survival elements (like deciding whether or not to pass some time sheltering under a tree to survive a storm), you do still have to make decisions in the game too. You’ll choose what Moira remembers of her uncle through dialogue options, which pathways she explores, and what objects she picks up along the way. And even though the landscape is desolate, you’ll come across some characters to interact with as well. That means the branching narratives and different endings of the studio’s previous games will be present here as well, all voiced in appropriate accents. In particular I loved the actor behind Moira’s beautiful Scottish brogue. So, whilst inkle appear to have taken the road less travelled with A Highland Song, they’re still mostly treading the familiar terrain they do so well, just with a few extra entertaining diversions along the way.
Old Skies – Wadjet Eye
Much fanfare has already been given (and rightly so) to Wadjet Eye’s latest project – a time travel adventure that sees you play as Fia Quinn, a time agent who helps people who want to sightsee in the past. It’s set in the same universe as Unavowed and the Blackwell series, and will once again feature an original score by Thomas Regin, but it’s the studio’s first game with hi-res graphics and will take place across seven eras of history, ranging from the Gilded Age to the Prohibition era to the eve of September 11th.
At W.A.S.D., Dave Gilbert, head of Wadjet Eye, showcased a slightly less talked about mechanic that players will be using a lot over the course of the game. Fia can (and will) “die” during her adventures, but due to the nature of her business, that’s not the end of everything – instead, time will simply rewind back a few minutes to when she was alive again. Crucially though, she retains the information she learnt in that previous runthrough. This is going to make for some fun puzzle solutions in the game!
For example, Dave showed me a jewellery heist set in the 1920s in which Fia needs to learn the combination of a safe. She’ll only be able to do so if she goes through a series of different dialogue options with various characters, which unfortunately each end up getting her shot at with a Tommy gun. However, they also give her different numbers for the safe, which she can finally join together and use to open it herself after several rewinds. And yet all this not dying does have an effect on Fia, Dave noted, giving her an understandably apathetic view towards the world and her life. It’ll be interesting to see the arc she experiences to regain some of her humanity in the full game, which looks like it’ll be getting released on PC and Switch sometime in 2024.
Nighthawks – The Curiosity Engine
Old Skies isn’t the only game Wadjet Eye is currently involved with, as it will also be publishing The Curiosity Engine’s Nighthawks. It may be more RPG than a straight adventure game, but there are plenty of clever and darkly comical interactive novel elements in this vampire tale that are sure to get fans of games such as Disco Elysium and Sunless Sea intrigued. The deal is that you’re a vampire, but you don’t have to hide away in the shadows any longer. Vampires and humans now live alongside each other, albeit with some difficulty.
First you choose your stats, and there’s plenty to make your character stand out, from your past (are you a warrior? or a scholar?) to what vampire gift (or perk) you start with. Crucially though, you never need to choose a gender or race – the game doesn’t want to restrict your imagination that way. The story then sees you try to take over a failing nightclub as your centre of operations in the city, all the while building friendships (there are several companion characters you’ll meet, and you can decide which one joins you on each of your various quests), and probably making quite a few enemies along the way too.
The action is mostly performed through dialogue choices and skill checks, though there will be some fight scenes where you’ll need to click at the right time and place to avoid getting beaten up – suffer four serious injuries and it’s curtains for our vampire. Most importantly, that written dialogue is in very safe hands, with Richard Cobbett of Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies penning such succinct witticisms as “he had the look of a model but the intelligence of a model train.” All these bon mots will be fully voiced too, making Nighthawks, which is set to release later this year, something I can’t wait to – you guessed it – properly sink my teeth into.