Winter Voices is a role-playing game, but you won’t find any orc-slaying or galaxy-saving here. As a rule, RPGs deal with high adventure on an epic scale, but fledgling indie developer Beyondthepillars seeks to challenge that assumption at every turn, using familiar gameplay mechanics to tell an intimate, contemplative story about one woman’s struggle to come to terms with the death of her father.
There are skills, stats, experience points, character creation and turn-based battles, but in the icily beautiful world of Winter Voices each is given a novel spin. There are no mages, knights or rangers, and attributes like strength, fortitude and stamina have been replaced with a more idiosyncratic range of options. My character, Persephone, for example, is a “Weaver” with high Intuition, Perspicacity and Humour, and the mere fact that I’m able to write that sentence at all gives me an undeniable thrill.
The enemies your woman must fight aren’t the traditional array of rampaging monsters, either. They are manifestations of her troubled psyche; painful memories and emotions in the form of floating orbs and shadowy figures. Similarly, your armoury isn’t composed of swords and guns, but skills derived from various approaches to coping with grief.
Does your character assuage her pain by seeking solace in her friends, or does she simply erect a wall around herself to block the world out? Does she meet her emotions head on, or does she run, trying to stay one step ahead of the eventual reckoning? As you fight the battles and earn XP, these are the sort of questions that will guide the way your character evolves, and again, the very fact that an RPG requires me to consider such ideas is a cause for celebration in its own right.
But there’s a problem, and unfortunately it’s a fairly enormous one: Winter Voices simply isn’t that much fun to play. When you’re free to roam the frost-bitten landscape, meeting its residents and absorbing the wonderful music and deliciously overwrought dialogue, Winter Voices is a bewitching experience. But when the combat starts the cracks really begin to show.
In terms of execution, the skill animations are agonisingly slow, making even the earliest encounters feel unnecessarily protracted. This isn’t helped by the lack of attention paid to educating the player in the gameplay’s intricacies. Even as you’re being charmed by Winter Voices’ presentation and quirks, there’s a nagging feeling that you’re flying blind, and sure enough, as the battles become more complex and challenging a handful of deaths is all but necessary to figure out exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.
And that’s the bitter irony of Winter Voices: it might be brimming over with innovative ideas, but a general lack of finesse when it comes to the basics makes it a difficult game to love. However, it’s a compromise I can live with, because games you can stand back and admire are simply too rare to dismiss, and with several more reasonably-priced episodes to come there’s every chance that Beyondthepillars will address these issues over time. Ultimately, a few pounds is a small price to pay for such original thinking.