Not every story needs to revolve around sex, murder and zombies to be enjoyable. Likewise, not every story set on a Colonial trading ship needs to feature drunks & debauchery, which was something I only recently discovered upon the release of Herald, an interactive visual novel chronicling of the life of a rugged sailor … on his best behaviour? Sorry, my mistake, being a total lying scumbag … hey how about both? Because in this game, you tell whatever side of the story you want, how the crew of the Herald came to be is completely up to you.
Herald: An Interactive Period Drama is a tale of treachery & mystery on the high seas, with the first of 4 books available now on PC, Mac & Linux. Set during the Colonial 19th Century, you star as Devan Rensburg, a young sailor who seeks to discovery his roots & heritage, and in doing so boards the great ship Herald heading to his hometown. Months later Devan is dragged to shore and imprisoned by a mysterious woman who demands to know what happened, and armed with only a uniform and journal to your name you decide what she needs to know. How Herald’s story unfolds and how Devan’s life unravels relies solely on your decisions and how you interact with the cast, after all you’re the one telling the story, things can always play out differently. Think of Herald more like a TV show that you can play along with rather than a point & click adventure, as gameplay takes a back seat and an intriguing, tea time narrative takes control. Herald has been split into 4 parts (or books in this case), and the guys at Wispfire have been kind enough to hand me the first 2, so let’s find out together whether the final half of their epic tale will be worth waiting for after this.
I won’t go into grave detail about Herald’s story for worry of robbing gasps from you, but underneath all the sea fairing and shanty songs is a powerful voyage into racism, sexism and any other social division that was all the rage at the turn of the 19th century. Considering that you’re playing as a young sailor of mixed race working on a ship below a band of dominant rich white men, it certainly contributes to the choices you make; it also gives the game far more integrity for making you feel a little uncomfortable about how you’re being spoken to, ultimately making it a much stronger, deeper narrative like most period dramas that grace our TV screens. Speaking of depth, Herald gives you full reign on how the story is told, and with each conversation going 1 of 3 ways, how you answer each question from your colleagues & superiors will affect the unfolding story, opening up new opportunities and revealing more secrets in your wake. It’s tough to determine exactly how much of your input directly affects the narrative as not everything you say or do will make an impact, but the 4 or so decisions you do make that will drag the story down an alternative path should give you enough push to sit through it again and see what could have been. There may a few twists and turns scattered throughout that will engage players, but realising that you know Devan to be alive and well by the end of it suddenly makes Herald’s drastic attempts at swerving its audience a bit pointless. As a gamer who relies on a strong narrative and invigorating storytelling, it’s fair to say that there are points in Herald that are a little bland and characters that you simply won’t care about, however I strongly believe Devan’s story isn’t as black and white as it seems, so here’s hoping that come books 3 & 4 we expand on the story that is now beginning to unfold as it certainly has the potential to sing an exciting shanty. Herald may not have the most exciting of narratives nor may the consequences of your actions be as catastrophic as others you’ve made, but this is an interactive period drama, and for the period drama that it is it’s a very consistent and driving story that’ll encourage you to think about your actions and uncover the truth behind the crew’s apparent demise.
For a cheap game and especially a project that was crowd funded, Herald actually has a healthy and talented band of voice actors behind it. From the brash, undermining tone of Senator Louis Morton to the Mcconaughey-esque southern twang of Boatswain Heywood, most characters aboard the luxury liner are well performed, diverse and interesting to say the least. The majority of your time in this alternative reality will be spent trotting back and forth across the Herald’s decks, with little more than the odd crew member climbing the rigging or the sun in the distance for company, which unfortunately makes any part of Herald that doesn’t involve chatting rather tedious. That being said, graphically the game is bursting with vibrant colour and gorgeous detail, and though not the most stunning nor sharp character models you’ve ever seen, you can greatly appreciate the lush environments and boat on which your adventure takes place on.
Herald isn’t just an interactive period drama, it’s also a rather decent one that is just starting to pick up an exciting pace. It’s bright and delightful graphics mixed with a predominantly strong voice cast make it a difficult story to turn off, however its inconsistent narrative and lack of visual variety may make your brain turn off a little instead. Having the choice of what parts of Devan’s story make it to the surface is a great and exciting responsibility, and though I can’t determine exactly how much and how often your choices directly affect the story, it will definitely encourage you to give it another go to find out. Book 2 ended on a rather farfetched but tremendously intriguing cliffhanger, making me immediately excited for how it all comes to an end, so by that standpoint as a narrative man, Wispfire have certainly done a good job. Herald won’t be everybody’s cup of grog because there’s very little playing and nothing outrageously exciting happens on board, but for those that can appreciate a good story and the freedom to write their own should consider giving this little treasure a crack.