'The Way' Wants to Be the '90s Adventure Game Classic 'Another World'
Upon finishing The Way, I didn't feel the joy that one does after playing a good game. Instead, I felt a muted sense of nothing.
The WayPublisher: PlayWay S.A.
Platforms: PC (reviewed)
Developer: Puzzling Dream
Release date: 2016-05-20
Another World is a classic adventure game of the early 90s. Due to a science experiment gone wrong, you are transported to an alien world. With only a few actions at your disposal -- jump, shoot, block and run -- you and your buddy (a guy met in an alien jail) have to make your escape. Despite being over two decades old, the game is so modern in its sensibilities that it holds up phenomenally well. The game hints at the world around you rather than explaining it outright. The action remains focused on the elaborate escape sequence that takes up the entire game, yet it grants tidbits of information about the alien world and this civilization's culture as well as creating a trusting relationship between yourself and your fellow escapee. It was cinematic gaming before there was such a term.
It's what drew me to The Way in the first place, as the developers cited Another World as one of their main inspirations for the game. They wanted to capture the same essence of mystery and discovery that Another World did.
Certainly, the lineage is there. The pixel art may contain far more detail, the areas may be far more expansive, and the levels may be far more complex, but The Way has the same basic design set up. Yet, upon finishing the game, I didn't feel the joy that one does after playing a good game. Instead, I felt a muted sense of nothing.
Only a few hours later, I'm writing this, and I find I can't even remember what my initial, instinctual impression of the game was. Another World filled me with wonder and awe at the minutest of details. The economy of storytelling was so compacted that every tiny detail held some great importance in trying to understand what was never explained. When I did figure something out, Another World was like a teacher standing behind me, giving a small smile of pride. I didn't get that feeling from The Way.
Early on, I was taken in by the mysterious wonder and the feeling of boldly venturing into a strange unknown. I was in the wilds of another planet and before I knew it, the alien nature of the game hooked me. Strange man eating plants and enormous flying bugs littered the jungle. It was a challenge to work my way to the mysterious wall where my character's original expedition ended. I found new areas and befriended a tribe of locals after saving them from the local alpha predator.
Yet soon after that, the wonder began to dissipate. You're then tasked with going to three hidden shrines to complete a series of tests by using new powers granted to you by a magical tech orb. Up to this point, the puzzles had consisted of some finicky platforming and environmental observation. Now the game added logic puzzles that are somewhere between the difficulty of Professor Layton and The Legend of Zelda in their construction. And that's pretty much the rest of the game. It cycles between variations of these modes of play for several hours, and it became rote by the end. It's not a good sign when the character sighs with exasperation at having to go to three new places to unlock the next unexpected, arbitrary obstacle, and I'm going: "Right there with you, buddy."
This isn't helped by the fact that the controls aren't the most responsive that I've ever worked with. They aren't too much of a hassle until the puzzles begin requiring precision that the controls cannot consistently deliver. For several puzzles after trying everything I could think of, I felt defeated. I went and looked up their solutions only to find that I had been right. The game just requires split second timing to succeed.
Another World had its moments of requiring infuriating precision, but they were short sections that were often confined to a single screen. For most of the game, the trouble was learning the correct procedure to getting around a problem. If you died, it meant you were thinking along the wrong line or had obviously mistimed an input. It was always clear, which of these issues it was so that you were never confused between the two. I would have been fine with that. If a game wants to be difficult to execute correctly, then let it be difficult to execute correctly, just make that clear.
The general feel of The Way's milieu isn't something that I could get from any other game nowadays, and that makes it worth a lot in my book. It's feels like classic exploration sci-fi of the golden era. It's just that the game is so obvious about itself.
Another World has no text in it. You had to figure everything out on your own. While The Way does that with its puzzles, I can't say the same for its story. There are alien words carved into pillars and walls, and text pops up when you walk by. The character speaks to himself and his alien pet. There are collectible memories that show a short cutscene from the past about the man and his dead wife, the woman he is trying to revive. It's a strange dichotomy when the game expects you to figure out how to proceed by yourself without a safety net, but God forbid that you do not fully understand why all of this is going on.
That's not to say The Way is completely without subtlety. There's a great sequence after defeating the alpha predator when the natives let you into the temple. A cutscene plays out so subtly that I didn't notice at first. Machinery and computers fade into existence in the room, people move about, and when my character got up from his work, he had grown a beard. It was a brilliant piece of direction using the tools that the developers had limited themselves to.
But the game so desperately wants you to know of the story of a fallen civilization that hid itself long ago and of your character's determination and possibly an Ahab level of obsession in a quest for the alien version of the fountain of youth. It tries to cling to the ethos of "show, don't tell", but doesn't hold fast enough to it to fully embrace that philosophy. It always makes sure to tell you this or that plot point, but it never actually explains enough. As a result, the story feels threadbare. Its greatest sin is that it doesn't commit fully to either showing or telling and instead tries to split the difference -- to mediocre results. The Way lacks a faith in its audience to a certain degree that, despite its story reaching for much more than Another World's does, ends up meaning much less. Such a pity.