America - Front
America - Back
By Lee Mehr 23rd Dec 2022 | 3,288 views
In a state of confusion and delirium, a young woman wakes up in a hospital bed. After unplugging an IV and momentarily struggling to walk, she eventually saunters down a deserted hospital hallway. The details of her past – even her name and occupation – are initially fuzzy, but the level’s assortment of recycled gurneys & monitors will guide you to more answers. Naturally, it follows that several early flashbacks and collectibles will inform you about Mia Lorenson’s current situation and why Edengate Hospital has been abandoned. It doesn’t follow that any of it will be interesting, though.
Developer/Self-publisher HOOK’s first game is for all intents and purposes a third-person walking sim with a light sprinkling of banal puzzles. But such a title so focused on narrative should at least do a decent job of ensorcelling the player. Such a workable premise, also seen in 28 Days Later or The Walking Dead, feels so soulless and disengaging here.
EDENGATE’s core loop is about exploring a linear path and grabbing glowing collectibles scattered about, with smoking items triggering an important flashback. After a few rough spots, Mia’s egress from the hospital shows the desolation has expanded throughout the town. Your main roadblocks are these nasty, fleshy roots that practically stalk you while maneuvering through the world. If you see a well-lit door at the other end with a conspicuously-placed red floor texture nearby, it’s easy to predict what’s coming next. Then the task either becomes crawling around it or burning it away with a spotlight – yet somehow overhead fluorescent bulbs do nothing to slow the spread.
That’s the design's entire theme: predictable obstacles with the most boring of means to surmount them. If lights need power, go sort out the generator nearby; issues with turning it on, find the instruction manual set a few angstroms away. Whether from Mia’s monologue or bright directional arrows on the floor, you never have to worry about processing a solution by your lonesome. Even the ‘best’ puzzle utilizing the periodic table gives you less than five seconds before Mia meticulously spells it out. The most you can do off the beaten path is find a random collectible or open a few drawers.
These non-hurdles are further harmed by little mechanical annoyances too. Mia’s attempt at running is little more than a light jog; regardless, if she exerts any energy beyond walking she’s panting harder than a chain smoker in a marathon. I understand limiting her stride for the sake of stretching runtime, but that’s ridiculous. While not as annoying, the very act of moving spotlights feels so rigid and laborious. It's funny how even for such a mechanically-limited title, HOOK can’t get the details right.
EDENGATE continues stepping on rakes with its narrative as well.
To its credit, at least writer/director Matthew Senji Burns avoids being exploitative with the subject matter. Given how early collectibles presage Mia’s work at a biomedical research facility, it’s easy to see how tempting COVID-19 would be as a backdrop for cheap frills (looking at you, Songbird). While still touching on a virus or mutation, the different creative avenue taps more into something like Stranger Things until altering course towards the end.
The issue is less of one big catastrophe and more of a desultory structure that never finds its footing. Before even finding a stride, the writing’s already going out of its way about Mia; you discover her name and that she was right about “something big” happening before knowing about that something. She’s also the standard over-worked, distant-to-her-boyfriend intern that’s still wrapped in cellophane – nary an exciting mark nor blemish to be found. There’s another character within this diseased world (not just in flashbacks), but feels so underutilized. There isn’t a tangible tension or drive propelling the story forward. Outside of the scenario writing (i.e. roots blocking your way), storytelling consistently hits the “and then this happened…” pitfall.
Perhaps there’d be some intrigue with better presentation. Ellie Heydon swings between somnolent and excessively annoyed to wild degrees, while the rest of the cast aren’t that great at disguising their multiple roles. To Heydon’s defense, there is a thematic purpose for some of her emotions, but it still didn’t quite click for me. Despite the voice acting not hitting its stride, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Laryssa Okada (Manifold Garden) composed the soundtrack – it's easily EDENGATE’s most consistent quality. I’m torn about how critical to be with noticeable asset-flipped environments, especially because of those rare occasions of quality atmosphere. I’m certain HOOK was dealing with a straitened budget, but part of me feels more still could’ve been done.
Even with value considerations of $7 for a 2-hour walking sim/semi-puzzler, EDENGATE: The Edge of Life is among the most creatively stunted games I’ve recently played. It’s not wholly absent of fair qualities – and I don’t recall major technical issues, but whatever decent trinket is here does so little compared to its aggressively bland foundation. Whether there’s a code to crack or tight corridor to shimmy past, the design is trying its damnedest to pull your arm ahead while drinking in a limited atmosphere and underdeveloped story. Ironic how Mia’s tale begins in a hospital, given how quickly my interest flatlined.