November 20, 2011 9:19 PM | Cassandra Khaw
Girl with a Heart Of is a special beast. An awkwardly named 'interactive narrative that explores concepts of human rationality and recursive self-improvement', it is both compelling and tedious, an odd experience that I can neither condemn nor recommend. On one hand, I found it impossible to play for extended periods of time. On the other, I couldn't help but want to see it to its end.
Set within the Underfoot, a subterranean city peopled by the Dark Race, Girl With A Heart Of tells the story of a somewhat precocious 11-year old, the people around her and the perennial struggle between Light and Dark. Yes, in many ways, it's as cheesy as it sounds. There's a dying parent, the obligatory love triangle (the little girl is thankfully not directly involved), a titanic struggle between forces outside our ken and even a seedy-looking sorcerer who serves as the child's teacher. To aggravate matters further, the characters occasionally seem to, well, break character. From time to time, speech mannerisms falter; a dignified sorcerer can occasionally sound like the dude next door. The protagonist is especially guilty of this. Some of Raven's lines feel better suited for a well-educated adult. Needless to say, immersion can occasionally get smashed to the ground.
Is this where I tell you to run screaming from Girl With A Heart Of and to never look back? Surprisingly, it isn't.
To evoke a time-honored cliche, Bent Spoon Games' inaugural production has a heart. Flawed as it might be, this charming piece of work is emotive and endearing. It will tug at your heart strings. The people, strange and foreign-looking as they might be, are easy to empathize with. Take for example the rotund blacksmith in the game. Trent is awkward, clumsy and in the throes of unrequited. Do you tell him to give up or do you ferry his gift to his lady love? Do you ask him to cease and desist or do you encourage him to persevere with his affections? As you take on all those mundane errands and watch the results unfold, it's easy to be lulled into fondness. You want them to live. You want them to be happy. But Girl With a Heart Of is quick to remind us that reality doesn't always work out that way. Not everyone will come out in one piece.
It's a recurring theme throughout Girl With the Heart Of. Decisions made can never be undone. As Raven slowly learns the implications of her heart (hers was somehow removed at birth and replaced by a creation of the nefarious sorcerer), she must deal with her duties, her lessons and her family. Do you tell everyone of a secret you've found? Do you betray one person's trust to benefit all? Do you prod further at an aching heart or do you let them be? As one might have imagined, some of the most poignant moments in this interactive narrative revolves around your encounters with Raven's mother. I'm not going to spoil it for you but I am going to say that it may cause a few tears to well up.
As a game, Girl With A Heart Of is simplistic. Most of your time in Underfoot will be spent moving from one conversation to another, something that can be painfully tedious at times. The space bar is used to initiate conversations and interact with objects, the directional keys to move left and right. As for the number keys, they're used to select dialogue options. It's pretty straightforward. What little combat in the game is also engineered along similar lines; you won't find yourself hard-pressed to win them. At a glance, this doesn't sound all too bad but Raven is slow. The simple act of moving from one level of the Underfoot to another can be a study in frustration. What makes Girl With A Heart Of unique is that over time, you'll find yourself coming across essences that can be utilized. Each night, when Raven falls asleep, you get the option to allocate points to her imbuing, magic, lying and insight. I wasn't too impressed with the first two but I rather liked how points placed in the latter would open up dialogue choices even further.
Overall, Girl With A Heart Of is .. unusual, to say the least. After finishing my first play through last night, I found myself spending a considerable amount of time pondering another run through the game. What if I make a different decision? Who would I have been able to save? The fact that Girl With A Heart Of has me pondering this so intently in spite of my issues with the plodding pace says a lot about the narrative's strength (or my obsessive-compulsive need to find the best ending).
If you have the money to spare and you're willing to sit through the game's flaws, there's something genuinely special here. If not, you had best move on. Either way, I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what else Bent Spoon Games has to offer the world.
Official website can be found here.