The afterlife is one of the biggest mysteries of all time which nobody, no matter how spiritual, can ever really answer for sure. What happens to us after we die? Is there really a Heaven and a Hell? If so, what will these places be like? Not knowing the answers doesn’t stop people from believing, however, and the indie developers at Genesis Works have spent what they claim to be a decade making a showcase of Heaven as described in the biblical book of Revelation. To add a little adventure to this visit to paradise, they also gave the appropriately-named Heaven some puzzles for newcomers to solve, but this is where the game falls off track in a big way. Heaven is a very pretty place, but I sure hope the real thing isn’t as boring as this game suggests.
One of the major issues of Heaven is its lack of any substantial plot. Basically, you are a young astronaut named Joshua who was raised by his loving (and now deceased) grandmother to believe and trust in the Lord. The game’s main menu is actually the cockpit of Joshua’s spaceship as it hurtles through a deadly asteroid field. Alarms sound and collisions shake the screen as you select the option to start a new game. At this point, Joshua “dies” as his ship is carried by angels into the outskirts of Heaven.
It is here that Joshua meets his guide, the only interactive character in the entire game. You may have seen the screenshots that show a buxom blonde with collagen lips, high-heeled boots, and enough cleavage to make Jenna Jameson feel envious. The idea of having a woman who looks more like a porn star than a holy figure is strange enough in a game that has strong Christian overtones all throughout. But that oddity goes straight to disturbing awkwardness when she smiles and announces that she is, in fact, your grandmother. I wish I were kidding about this.
Grandma makes you feel right at home by introducing the locations you'll travel through, such as the golden road and the crystal forest, on your way to finally gaze upon the throne of Jesus himself. And this, sadly, is all the story the game has to offer. From your start on Paradise Island until your audience with the big man himself, nothing else really happens. Joshua never even speaks, leaving your ever-present voluptuous guide to provide all the commentary Heaven has available.
This wouldn’t normally be a problem. After all, many adventure games have silent protagonists, particularly first-person titles like Heaven. But Grandma has a fairly one-track mind. When she isn’t vocally praising Jesus, she’s talking about how mind-numbingly beautiful everything is. And then every once in a while she’ll say something that makes it impossible to ignore how blatantly dogmatic a game this is. Her mentioning that “millions” of people live in Heaven may have been a slip of the tongue, rather than a subtle allusion to the vast majority of humanity apparently burning in Hell, but it’s hard to excuse away moments when she says things like, “This place is beautiful, but many will not see it. Only those bathed in the blood of the Lamb will enter here.”
To be clear, I don’t think it’s wrong to emphasize particular tenets in a game that’s so overtly religious in nature. But do be forewarned that unless you are a part of the branch of Christianity that believes in eternal damnation without accepting Jesus as Savior, this game is going to strike a lot of unwelcome chords. There are such varied perspectives within Christianity, and so many humanitarian principles that even non-religious people can relate to, it's shame Heaven focuses so definitively on the most exclusionary aspect of this faith. However, that appears to be the point, as the game's predominant theme is the eternal reward we have to look forward to if we follow these specific religious guidelines. Which is fine for a Sunday sermon, but not so appealing in a game, even if you happen to share that belief.
Putting doctrinal beliefs aside, let’s explore the gameplay itself, which is really what's important. Through Joshua’s eyes, the game offers the ability to fully view the surroundings of each spot where he can stand. At the center of the screen, a cross acts as your cursor. By panning with the mouse, the cross will shine brighter if you hold it over a place Joshua can travel to, and will glow with a rainbow halo if you move it over something Joshua can manipulate, or over Grandma if she has something to say or is needed to proceed through a puzzle. There’s no inventory, and all puzzles are solved by using various mechanical devices located around Heaven.
It’s unclear if everyone who comes to Heaven has to earn their way to Jesus by solving these puzzles or if it’s only Joshua. In fact, the game offers no real explanation why so many devices in Heaven need to be activated at all. Regardless, none of them are very difficult. The first one is so unbelievably easy I started to wonder if the game was designed for children, a question I’m still debating even after finishing. In this first challenge, Grandma turns a dial on a machine to a specific symbol. You are sent to an identical dial which you need to turn to the exact same symbol. This is already brain-dead simple enough, but then your guide's voice literally sounds off on each turn of the dial, saying “just a little further” until finally declaring “I think that’s right” when you’ve reached the correct symbol. Grandma helps while you walk around as well, saying “not that way” when you hold your cursor over any direction other than where you need to go next. Unlike the help with the first puzzle, however, this input is actually appreciated, as many of the locations look quite similar.
If you plan to play Heaven, I hope that symbol puzzle sounded intriguing, because the game makes you do it a whopping six times in a row before you proceed. Adding insult to tedium, Grandma chimes in again saying things like “you’re doing a great job! You’ve already activated two control stations and you’re working on your third!” Unfortunately, the redundancy continues throughout the entire game. Most of the puzzles have multiple parts that are basically the exact same puzzle over and over again. In one case, you need to track down and click on Grandma for each and every one so she’ll get off a bench she’s lounging on to come help you for the fifth or sixth time in a row. The puzzles themselves will take most people about two minutes to solve, but expect to spend ten to fifteen minutes going through the motions of putting the pieces in place.
On the other hand, if all you want out of the game is a pleasant stroll soaking in the majesty of Heaven, this game more than provides it. The graphics are gorgeous. Everything, from the clouds to the lens flares off the shining buildings to Grandma’s alpha-omega belt buckle, is breathtaking. The grandiose architectural style may seem a bit garish at first, and you’ll see so much gold that it’s almost a relief to briefly revisit the green of Paradise Island, but it’s hard to fault the artists for aiming to make Heaven as visually impressive as they could. Most of the environments are static, but this doesn't stop the scenery from being a very pretty picture. The occasional animation like a waterfall does make the afterlife feel a little more alive, and you’ll get to briefly ride a flying horse, though the landscape seems surprisingly devoid of heavenly creatures otherwise. The game’s final cutscene is equally exceptional; its stunning visuals making it an entertaining watch even if it doesn’t really offer anything more to the story.
Sound is another area where Heaven excels. Birds chirp and serene music plays during your travels, which fits the mood and theme of the visuals perfectly, the light orchestrations featuring an emphasis on harps and symbols. Towards the end of the game, you might also notice the hymn “Amazing Grace” being played. Grandma’s voice acting sometimes sounds a little stilted, but then her character overall doesn’t have any real depth to convey.
Overall, Heaven is a clear example of style without substance. The machinery sounds realistic, but the puzzles they offer are simple and dull. The locations look amazing, but there’s no real reason to explore them other than to “make your way to the throne of Jesus”. Grandma is easy on the eyes, but a wildly inappropriate choice as a spiritual tour guide. The heavy-handed religious message, meanwhile, will perhaps appeal to like-minded Christians, but will almost certainly put off everyone else. And at a surprisingly hefty price tag from the official website, the game is simply far too short, clocking in at only a handful of hours at best. Though many may be called, few will find Heaven worth buying for the gorgeous visuals alone. Hopefully the real Heaven will have better games to play.
|Worldwide||September 1 2009||Genesis Works|