I’ve never before been faced with a game that I enjoyed playing and yet still can’t quite bring myself to outright recommend to anybody but the most niche gamer. The unusual else Heart.Break() puts me in precisely that situation; bearing a title that left me entirely nonplussed until the game’s final moments is merely the beginning of a one-of-a-kind experience that you’ll probably either love or hate.
Though not perfect, else Heart.Break() does several things that are wholly unique. For starters, it combines the story-driven approach of point-and-click adventures with the open-ended freedom of a sandbox game. In doing so, it lets you pretty much set your own path while characters (and events) around you adhere to strict schedules as time ticks through the game’s day/night cycles. Far more impactful, however – and I suspect this will be the game’s make-or-break moment for many – it requires players to learn how to read and write the game’s actual code in order to be successful. I’ll go into more detail about this later, but suffice to say that those without a prerequisite background in programming or lacking a highly logical mindset will struggle through many of the game’s key sections.
The story starts out pretty mundane, and remains that way for at least the first half of the game’s 12-15 hour length. Sebastian is your average 20-something guy without much direction in life at the moment. So when he gets a phone call offering him a job as a salesman for a local soda company, he accepts despite the catch that he has to pack up and travel to the town of Dorisburg. Immediately after arriving and getting off the boat, it’s clear that this town is… different. Working-class citizens and quaint yet comfortable buildings share space in a world with computerized flower gardens, doors that malfunction and lead to rooms they aren’t connected to, and mysterious suit-and-tie-clad men in black who look like something out of ‘80s espionage fiction.
After simply trying to learn the ropes of his new job (and getting his bearings in the town’s confusing geography), Sebastian eventually makes friends with an enchanting young woman in a night club, who introduces him to a group of underground hackers whose purpose is to waylay the machinations of the “evil” Ministry who controls all computer activity in town. The trouble is, you basically have to take this information on good faith, since there really isn’t very much actually happening to that point (and nothing at all relating to Ministry, underground resistance, or anything). The game purposely bombards you with banal day/night cycles early on, during which your only objective seems to be to sell some soda to Dorisburg’s citizens. And for all its obvious mysteries, I honestly couldn’t muster much of an interest in many of the characters, including the potential love interest. Characters often don’t really matter outside of their designated role of either “information provider” or “space filler”.
But while the game lacks much impetus during these beginning hours, I was still impressed with how the developers arranged for key events to play out in flexible ways, depending on your actions and where you decide to go day in and day out. For example, if you aren’t present for a vital piece of information at a certain moment, a messenger may come and seek you out to deliver the info that way. Or you’ll receive an invite to a party at a local club, but if you choose not to go (or sleep right through it), you will miss out on some important news, which you’ll later receive in a different fashion.
You have the run of (almost) all of Dorisburg right from the get-go, and secondary characters will follow their own schedules, so you will miss out on things now and again. In one instance I had to choose between attending a date with the girl of Sebastian’s dreams or sneaking into the local radio station to smuggle out an important item for the beleaguered DJ being investigated by the Ministry. Most of the time, else Heart.Break() offers multiple ways through its narrative, so you shouldn’t become stuck or at a loss too often.
Despite the best-laid plans, I did experience a few occasions when a plot thread wasn’t tied up or a conversation referenced something I clearly should have been party to but simply wasn’t due to the nature of the open-world sandbox gameplay. Though noticeable, however, these moments don’t detract greatly from the overall experience – you just accept it’s the nature of the beast and move on. Things do become quite a bit more streamlined during the second half of the game, once you’ve joined the underground resistance and have picked up your very own hacking device, at which point the game ditches all pretense at reality and proceeds to shove players down the rabbit hole.
Although else Heart.Break() resembles a traditional adventure in its controls, this similarity does not extend to the type of puzzle-solving many of us are used to. While you can pick up many items around town, very few are actually usable (finding a cigarette to offer a character asking for a smoke, for example). The majority of items consist of floppy disks you’ll find strewn across town whose contents can be read, though that’s the extent of their use. In a strange move, inventory space is limited so I started designating certain rooms and areas around town as “dumping grounds” for disks I’d already read and needed to get rid of. Since inventory-based gameplay is in short supply, the game prides itself on throwing a whole new type of “puzzle” at you: the hacking and recoding of objects in the gamespace.Continued on the next page...