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Dissection of a city district., April 7, 2021
A sick goblin, bleeding from his eyes, is brought into the clinic and dies on the operating table, right before the eyes of Marid, a young doctor in training.
This is how The Weight of a Soul throws you in the middle of the action from the very first scene. Although there are some resting points in the rest of the game, they are few. Most of it is fast, moving from gruesome discovery to action sequence to an impressive and morally challenging finale.
The goblin's death is only the first in a row. Marid is sent out to investigate the cause of the disease and maybe find a way to stop it from spreading. It is the beginning of a journey that will take her deep into the bowels of the Channelworks District.
Into the bowels indeed. The great waterworks installation known as the Hydra Aquifera looms over the district and dominates the gameworld, both above and below ground. Its pipes, channels and canals run everywhere. The city's descriptions conjure up images of bodily fluids, purulent boils and Galenic humours. The city has been laid open on a dissection table with its innards bare.
The writing in The Weight of a Soul is excellent. In most locations, it follows a very standard IF-structure, with a short descriptive paragraph for each location, followed by a list of exits and of notable features. The images in those descriptive paragraphs are however of a rarely seen evocativeness:
---"The suspended mansion echoes with a grandiose hollowness."---
There are tense action-scenes, something hard to pull off in IF. Here they are well guided without sacrificing all interactivity.
The overall story arc was mostly satisfying. It's a great adventure story; I was happy to let myself be swept along. As a mystery however, it did not work so well for me. I was surprised at the scale of the villain's evil plan, but the basic plot, the nature of the disease and the identity of the villain were all clear very soon.
Fast-paced as it is, the game eschews traditional puzzles in favour of story-bound obstacles, conversations and examinations (of the city and of bodies alike).
It rewards the exploration with pieces of character backstory, long and well-written cutscenes and insightful dreams.
During the story, there are many conversations. These are handled with choice-menus. The choices of what you say do not alter the path of the story for the most part, but they do serve as an excellent device for the player to colour in the character of the protagonist in her own mind. The NPCs are many, and they have much to talk about. (I personally found Webster the bouncer a fascinating man.)
Throughout the game, I kept noticing the ambiguous player perspective. Although the story is written in the traditional second tense, I experienced it as somewhere between second and third tense. Whereas I normally use "I" or sometimes "you" to refer to my player character in my notes, here I used "Marid" and "she" almost every time. This testifies to how much I read this game as a book. I must note that this didn't take away from my involvement with the story.
The Weight of a Soul is a great technical achievement. The depth and smoothness of implementation are astonishing in places, so well done that they become almost invisible to the player. In one scene, there are multiple dead bodies in the same room while Marid examines them one by one. The game effortlessly tracks which body she is working on, avoiding many, many disambiguation issues with a graceful ease that must have been a pain in the unmentionables to program.
The polish on the player-help features is so bright it's almost blinding. A beautiful map, a nudge-to-explicit hint menu, a list of the characters Marid has met and the locations she has visited. On top of that there's a journal that keeps track of Marid's discoveries and her current objectives. More than enough reasons to feel safe as a player and trust the game.
When I started playing IF, I always had a strong feeling of excitement when opening a new game. The experience of being there, embodying a character in a strange world and determining her actions was my main attraction to IF. In The Weight of a Soul it is exactly this feeling that serves as the basis of the interactivity of the game. Rather than levering up the sofa to find a bolt to screw into a machine, the interactivity here comes from being a collaborator of the protagonist, looking through her eyes and helping her decide. I found this extremely engaging and immersive.
In the finale, you, the player, must really decide which path Marid will take in a grey moral area. Very satisfying.
This all takes place in a beautifully crafted grimy and gritty fictional world. The phrase alchemy-punk came to mind...
The Weight of a Soul is an extraordinary IF-story.