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Not for the impatient, April 11, 2021
Perihelion is a well-done game that I admired more than enjoyed. It’s got a compelling, hypercompressed and occasionally poetic prose style that’s really well done, and the aesthetic pleasure is compounded by some neat color-gradient backdrops that do double-duty to indicate time of day. The setting is an elliptically-described alien world with awesome vistas to explore, and there a few gentle puzzles that help give the player some direction in what’s otherwise a fairly abstract story space. Unfortunately, I found my appreciation of it to be held back by the game’s occupying an uncanny valley between the abstract and the literal, and by its overuse of an awful timed-text mechanic.
The opening and closing are the strongest parts of Perihelion. In the beginning, you (some kind of alien – (Spoiler - click to show)I think a sort of air-elemental?) witness a comet breaking up and ejecting a (different) alien, in a sequence that’s compellingly written and prompts you to come up with adjectives to describe how you perceive the novel form of this interloper into your world. In the ending, the viewpoint shifts to that of the interloper, who describes what they’ve experienced and recontextualizes the events of the game.
In the middle sections, you guide the first alien as you decide to help the second – OK, look, this is getting unwieldy, I’m going to call the first alien “Fred” and the second one “Sam”, OK? – you guide Fred as you decide to help Sam return to the stars. Or at least, you decide to do that if unlike me you head first to the Mausoleum-Museum to chat with Sam, rather than saving it for last – I spent much of the middle section wandering around unsure of what I was supposed to be doing, and in retrospect wish the game had opened up free navigation only after the initial sequence with Sam imparted some direction.
Getting Sam spaceborne again involves going to three different locations on Fred’s planet and accomplishing a series of small tasks. These are barely puzzles – you’ll go to an observatory and be told that it’s cloudy, so you need to wait until it clears up, or try to slip into a guarded location and be told you need to do that on a weekend night. Once you’re past these barriers, there’s only one option to take in the different locations (except with the (Spoiler - click to show)lava, where you can choose to do a kinda-risky thing or a stupidly-risky thing), so it’s a quick matter to do everything you need to do.
Or at least, it should be a quick matter. The overwhelmingly worst part of Perihelion is that much of the text is timed. When you move from one area to another, there’s about a five second lag. When you sleep, there’s a similar pause before time resumes and you can act again. This is frustrating enough on its own, but when making progress meant waiting around for half a week to be able to access one of the locations, I wound up alt-tabbing to read Twitter to kill time during the delays, which really reduced my enjoyment and immersion in the story. I’m not a blanket no-timed-text person – I think there are times when, if used sparingly, it can emphasize a really critical point in a game – but its use here is just awful.
My other critique is a little harder to pin down, but I wished Perihelion had committed a little harder to either being an abstract art-game, or a more grounded space-adventure instead. It sits in an awkward middle where key pieces of the situation are under- or un-explained, just alluded to through obscure allusions and complex language, but the player’s primary engagement is still a more traditional model of traveling around a map and solving puzzles. The puzzle-solving is undermined by the player’s weak grasp on what they’re trying to accomplish in each location (I still don’t think I could really explain what Fred actually did to help Sam, on a literal level), and my engagement with the rich, dreamlike language was undermined by having to shuffle back and forth trying to circumvent obstacles. As a result, even though I really liked pretty much every individual part of Perihelion other than the timed text, I don’t think it made as much of an impression on me as it deserved to.