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An interestingly-lumpy lump of coal, April 16, 2021
Here’s a bit of Wintervale’s backstory that illustrates some of what makes this fantasy Twine adventure distinctive, in ways both good and bad: so the setting is a town in the icy north, which was founded after a wandering adventurer killed the dragon that was threatening the region. You’d think the town got its name since it’s cold and probably located in a valley, right? Nope – turns out the dragon-slaying warrior just happened to be named Wintervale! Good thing he wasn’t named Arthur Warmbeach, that would have really confused the tourists. The fractured D&D aesthetic behind Wintervale (the town) also animates Wintervale (the game). It’s a mix of overly-familiar, boringly-presented tropes and surprising left-turn choices that might not always make sense but are definitely intriguing. A decided lack of polish makes getting to the good stuff harder than it should be, but there’s more here than you might at first suspect.
Let’s talk a bit about that first impression. From the get-go, the player is hit with a high density of typos and confusion about the title (the initial screen appears to refer to the game as “When Time Converges”, and there’s soon a mention of “Windervale”). The opening narration wears its worldbuilding heavily, with the paragraph about the people of Wintervale including specific links for more than a half-dozen races that when clicked disclose enervating details like most orcs being construction workers because they’re strong. This wonkiness extends into the game proper, as you’ll see things like “(if 0 > 0)”, an event titled “EVENT”, and typos and malapropisms galore, while even characters the protagonist has appeared to know for years go by their occupation rather than having a name. And the setting – a tavern you own – is often described in about the most generic terms imaginable.
Once past this frankly off-putting beginning, though, I found Wintervale started to grow on me. The story that’s playing out in this played-out setting is actually more interesting than you’d first imagine. It’s a horror-inflected Groundhog Day scenario, with your tavernkeeper protagonist noticing stranger and stranger occurrences in their bar – suspicious blue-cloaked figures, a secret entrance cut into your storeroom, intimations that one of your employees is keeping secrets – before being repeatedly killed and waking back up at the beginning of the day.
The investigative bits of the game play out via a solid structure where you can move between parts of the tavern and speak to different people in whatever order you please. Early on, you also get access to a nifty bit of magic – a monocle that allows you to see temperature changes – which provides a neat perspective on this oasis of warmth amidst the cold, and which is used to open up a few needed options. Everything seems fairly linear; there are choices to make but no real puzzles to solve as far as I can tell. But I felt like there was enough for the player to do to draw me through Wintervale’s 45 minute or so runtime.
The other thing that makes the game surprisingly grabby is, funnily enough, how confusing much of the writing is. I’m not sure if it’s by design, but I spent most of the game off-kilter, never really sure exactly what was going on. I found a magical shard of glass that seemed to go missing when I wasn’t looking, people kept killing me but I wasn’t sure who or why, I got a mysterious note that the protagonist resolutely refused to read for a long long time, characters came in and out with no real rhyme or reason… And it’s not just at the level of plot and secrets, even what should be simple physical descriptions are skewed and unnatural. Here’s the protagonist remarking on a pile of broken glass:
"From a distance it’s not too significant, though after comparing it to a nearby broom its probably a good 2-3 inches tall."
This is not how human beings talk or understand the world, so at some points I was wondering whether there was some kind of mystery tied to the protagonist’s identity? But as far as I can tell, no, there isn’t. Regardless, the overall effect somehow wound up being intriguing as well as frustrating, in a David Lynch does AD&D sort of way.
Ultimately I reached an ending – a bad ending, though I’m not sure whether others are possible, or what I could have done differently. Nothing was explained: not the source of the time loop, what was up with the mysterious albino woman, where that shattered glass came from, or what the deal was with my receptionist. I can’t really recommend Wintervale on the basis of my experience with it, but while it’s not a diamond in the rough by any means, it’s at least a lump of coal that’s lumpy in a sufficiently odd and idiosyncratic way to make it stand out from the others.