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Excellent if slightly lacking in avoirdupois, April 14, 2021
I played the Weight of a Soul in two sessions Ė itís a longer game than Iím used to seeing these days. After the first one, I was already working on this review and planning to lead off by saying ďthe only thing wrong with Weight of a Soul is that it slowed down the previously-torrid pace of my review threadĒ. Now that Iíve wrapped it up, I have a few more caveats, but this is still a really impressive and enjoyable piece of parser IF, with strong characters and a lovely world in which to get lost.
So Iíve tipped my hand that I think WoaS ends weaker than it begins, but it begins REALLY strong. The opening is in medias res, and showcases the paciness and quality prose on display through the rest of the game. Hereís the first full paragraph, as the player-character Ė a doctor-in-training named Marid Ė grounds herself to deal with an emergency:
"He was healthy not a day before, or so he said when he stumbled into the clinic just minutes ago. You should have seen the signs ó the shivers, the black stains around his eyes ó but the shadows were long in the hour of night, and in the darkness you couldnít see, you couldnít seeÖ"
As Marid works with her mentor to try to save the patient (a goblin), details establishing the world and characters are skillfully woven with escalating tension and prompts for the player to assist in the treatment. Then after the crisis is past, thereís a breather for Marid to clean up, return to her home, and unwind with a drink. Itís a bravura, well-paced sequence that draws the player in, establishing the themes and narrative stakes of the story. It also fills in just enough about how the world works Ė weíre in a steampunk type setting where alchemy is the dominant science Ė to allow the player to get their bearings, without overburdening the introduction with dry exposition.
Indeed, the light-touch worldbuilding is a major strength of Weight of a Soul. It reminded me of a dozen different settings Ė the Dishonored immersive sims and the Zachlike Opus Magnum probably most directly Ė but itís got its own spin on things, and the game has answers for all sorts of questions about how society, infrastructure, science, and politics work in Furopolis (admittedly the Greek-and-Latin linguistic slurry behind the terminology might not be its strongest suit). Critically, none of these details are rammed down the playerís throat Ė throughout, descriptions are short and suggestive, conveying what the player needs to know to act and a little bit more to excite interest, without getting flabby. My notes are scattered with delightful coos over things like the paired cold-closet and stove, how the char-golems work (and are named), the dignity of the bemasked mutant bartender, and the individual descriptions of the statues making up the Chorus Metallis, a personified pantheon of alchemical substances. The card-reading Ė which I think is a completely optional sequence Ė was also a major highlight. I will say that my suspension of disbelief was a bit shaken by the line of dialogue suggesting that the underclass goblins toiling away in a hellish foundry have access to bereavement leave Ė probably thatís just due to overfamiliarity with how awful U.S. labor law is thoughÖ
Another immediately-noticeable strength is how well Weight of a Soul manages being a big game. To help the player deal with the scope, there are plentiful supports, including a dynamically-updated journal and list of characters, and a beyond-gorgeous map. But I actually barely touched these, because the design itself is careful never to be overwhelming. There are a lot of places to go, but theyíre laid out in a big loop, and you canít stray too far from the beaten path without reaching a dead end and going back to the central artery. Locations have a good amount of scenery, but not too much that it feels exhausting, and the number of characters and objects who can be interacted with is actually relatively modest. Itís generally quite clear why you should be talking to a particular person Ė and even if youíre a bit fuzzy, either Marid or her interlocuter will make it plain soon enough. And since the game is based over multiple days, the plot mostly progresses not by opening up massive new areas Ė though it does this a few times Ė but by changing the existing geography and providing new motivations or roles for characters youíve already met. This meant that on my first trip out into the Channelworks District I behaved much like a tourist, gawking at every new sight, but quickly grew familiar with it and was able to pick out what was different on subsequent visits. I usually prefer a game go deeper in a relatively smaller set of elements, than sprawl out with more, shallower ones, and thatís especially important in a larger game Ė Weight of a Soul nails this.
I havenít talked much yet about what you actually do in the game. This is good too! Youíre tasked with investigating the mysterious plague that afflicted the goblin you treat in the opening. So you beat feet to explore his haunts, talk to his associates Ė and then, as the disease inevitably spreads, the scope of Maridís investigation expands as well, taking in physical evidence-collection and some light puzzling. Really, though, most of what you do in Weight of a Soul is talk. The author has a good ear for dialogue, and these menu-driven chats unsurprisingly do a good job of establishing the characterization and voice of the supporting cast, while striking a balance between offering up a list of topics to be lawnmowered through one by one, and actual choices that allow the player to proffer their own interpretation of Marid (she is very much a fully-drawn character herself, though, so this is more about putting a bit of spin on her already-established traits).
The reliance on dialogue also opens into how well-done the technical implementation is here. Because thereís a lot of talking in this game, it adopts a visual-novel style approach where after each line or two, the player needs to push a button to advance. I typically find this interface slightly annoying, but here itís well-chosen, because otherwise the player would be forever scrolling up and trying to find purchase in massive walls of text. This same careís been taken when it comes to other potentially-tricky bits of the implementation. In one sequence around the mid-game, for example, you need to examine four different cadavers, including looking at different parts of their bodies and their clothing. Once I realized what was in store I had visions of the disambiguation hell to come, but instead it was seamless, with commands like X EYES automatically cueing off of the last person examined.
I did mention up top that I found Weight of a Soul grabbed me less as it went on, though. Much of this is down to a slight mismatch of expectations on my part, but the butter-smooth implementation of the first two-thirds of the game does start to break down a bit in the last few sequences. Itís still very good, donít get me wrong, but I did find myself wrestling with the parser when trying to exit through a window, unlock a hidden door, or even trying to shortcut talking to Maridís mentor by typing TALK TO DOCTOR. I also ran into a run-time error in the code generating background events on Day Three.
I also found the dialogue and writing strayed a notch too far into melodrama for my taste as the stakes got higher. Weight of a Soul is I think operating within YA conventions Ė youíve got a teenaged protagonist taking on a problem the grown-ups are powerless to solve, a somewhat trope-y love triangle, and after poking at a bunch of small details Iím pretty sure itís even set in a post-apocalyptic world. This isnít my genre of choice, and I think heightened emotion is very much part of what folks who like it enjoy, but things like Doctor Cavala declaring that Marid is the one person whoís made all her work worthwhile sometimes took me out of the story.
In terms of gameplay, I kept waiting for things to get a bit more puzzle-y. Since the first half is focused on world-building and investigation, I didnít mind that there werenít any real obstacles in the way. But as the climax neared, the few puzzles that did appear were nothing too special (the two main ones being (Spoiler - click to show)outwitting Carnicer, whose solution is telegraphed with what I thought was a very heavy hand, and the (Spoiler - click to show)piston-pressure puzzle, which is just an exercise in trial and error). Many players wonít mind that there are only a few, easy puzzles Ė but given that they are there, itís a shame that thereís less creativity on display than in the rest of the game, especially since the alchemypunk world sure seems like it would lend itself to interesting challenges (I was itching to get clever with the Metallic Chorus!)
Finally, for all that I really dug the characters, world, and plot of Weight of a Soul, I didnít find its themes to resonate that strongly. Maridís central struggles are definitely legible to the player (letting go of the past, figuring out how to be a healer given the inevitability of death) but theyíre very familiar ones, and often felt a bit too abstract, or too tied to the details of the fantasy setting, to land strongly. Iím significantly older than the protagonist, which could be reducing my ability to relate to her journey, but I do think some of the gameís narrative choices wind up short-changing the themes Ė for example, having the only patient we see Marid treat be the goblin whose awful death kicks off the plot undermines the playerís ability to appreciate her late-game reflections on the grind of serving the same people, day-in and day-out, as they slowly decline. Sure, I intellectually understand that thatís her experience Ė but my experience as a player is different.
Compounding this slight feeling of abstraction, I was underwhelmed by the final reveal of the mystery, which ideally would have tied Maridís internal and external conflicts into a unified whole. Iím going to put all of this behind spoiler tags: (Spoiler - click to show)I only really understood Justinianís plot (that is, the motivation behind it, not what he was doing and that heís a baddie since that was pretty clear early on) like the third time he explained it. It seems to depend on the player noticing some pretty subtle bits of world-building, like the fact that this is a post-apocalyptic world with the population squeezed into overcrowded cities, which I think is only alluded to if you examine second-order nouns in an incidental mural. And even with the background granted, I thought there was a really substantial mismatch between Justinianís stated aims Ė radically change the world for the better, somehow Ė and means Ė culling the population of the poor so they donít have so suffer so much. Iím happy to accept him as a delusional psychopath, but Marid seems to think what heís doing has some logic to it, and not I think just because of her puppy-dog crush. And since the major plot felt like it reduced to ďeh, dudeís nutsĒ I didnít experience much catharsis around Maridís final choices. Oh, and while Iím being spoiler-y, I also thought Carnicerís actions didnít make any sense (she was a hired hitman, paid to knock off Doctor Cavala but not a member of the conspiracy Ė so what possible reason would she have to freelance on an unpaid gig trying to kill the person her patron specifically told her not to harm?)
Again, though, I think like 75% of my criticisms here are pretty much just down to me wanting a slightly different experience than Weight of a Soul is offering up Ė if youíre in the market for a YA-style adventure with dialogue-first gameplay, I donít think thereís anything else remotely as good. And most of that remaining quarter would be pretty easily addressed with a few nips and tucks before the next release. Even in this Brobdingnagian review, I havenít managed to even name-check everything that delighted me in Weight of a Soul (let me squeeze in a final pair: the undead pigeons, and the way youíre introduced to Horatio standing by a bridge). This is a game that Iím quite sure folks will still be recommending ten years from now, and Iím excited I got to play it when it was brand new.