Tale of Tales, the Belgian game development studio responsible for The Endless Forest and The Graveyard, just released a new game. It's called The Path, it costs ten bucks, and it bills itself as "a short horror game inspired by older versions of Little Red Riding Hood, set in modern day."
It's also, at least at first glance, not very good.
I've spent the better part of an hour playing around with Tale of Tales newest game-that-isn't-actually-a-game- except-it-is-a-game-when-it-suits-our-purposes-for-discussion, and, while it's markedly different from their abysmal last work, it still smacks of the sort of self-indulgent condescension that pervades the studio's other games (and, subsequently, my critiques of them).
There's no demo and the game itself is DRM'd by either Steam or a required serial key, but you can check out the official site if you're so inclined and decide whether or not the game is worth your time.
Or, you can hit the jump as I try to argue that it isn't.
I wouldn't consider any of this an official review, or a legitimate critique, or even a particularly well-informed rant -- I've only spent about an hour with the game and haven't seen even a hundredth of what it has to offer.
This, in itself, is one of my main problems with The Path.
The Path is an intentionally slow-paced game: each of the several female protagonists moves at something close to a regular walking pace (in other words, very slowly) and the game discourages you from running by moving the camera to a quasi-bird's-eye-view perspective everytime you sprint so you can't see in front of you, in addition to removing the visual highlights on important objects and locations. The focus on slow moving is, ostensibly, meant to encourage introspection and build mood; "The Path is a slow game," the game's official page proudly declares. And I don't have a problem with that -- The Marriage is slow. Passage is slow. Shadow of the Colossus was slow. But those games were also interesting.
While crawling through a forest at two miles an hour, I wasn't filled with introspection, because occasional text poems popped onscreen everytime I found an item and did all the thinking for me (not unlike The Graveyard's lyric-heavy music video). I wasn't filled with a sense of mood other than boredom, because I found so little of legitimate interest off the beaten path. Upon seeing a bright, shiny item hidden among some shrubbery, I initially thought I'd stumbled upon something truly meaningful, that might give me something to ponder or would slightly alter the gameworld. Instead, my character stooped down, picked it up, and was rewarded with a visual pop-up: "1 of 144 collected."
One hundred and forty-four trinkets to collect. After twenty more minutes of playing, I'd found three more.
Feel free to accuse me of having a short attention span or of not giving the game enough of a chance, but when any game asks me to collect 144 of anything, I have to wonder why. The Path had no real answer to offer me. It's not as if the items in and of themselves are meaningful, because they're just randomly scattered around and do absolutely nothing when collected other than lowering the number of items you've yet to find. They're just there, presumably to encourage exploration, which seems redundant at best; the game effectively tells you to explore the forest by intentionally providing nothing else to do.
Upon starting the game, the player is told: "Head to grandmother's house. Do not stray from the path." If you follow these instructions to the letter, you will, after about three minutes of walking, reach grandma's house, sit on her bed, and be told by a post-game score tally screen that you have "failed." The only way to have a legitimately interesting experience, the game suggests, is to disobey the sole game rule and stray off the beaten path into the surrounding forest.
This isn't as interesting a conceit as the game seems to think it is. The Path just switches out one stated set of rules for another -- being told that you've "failed" by going directly to grandma's house is no different than a text prompt telling the player, "move off the path or you lose." There's some window dresing about obeying authority and following the road less traveled by that one can glean from the premise alone, but the gameplay itself doesn't really support such an idea given how uninteresting and barren the forest tends to be.
Again, I feel like I understand the design philosophy at work -- it is more interesting to explore without a goal and not constantly find new stuff in order to make the few things you do find more rewarding and earned, and most games are really fast-paced so why not make a slow-paced one -- but an uninteresting environment is an uninteresting environment. I didn't need to be confronted with robot ninjas to fight or puzzles to solve or anything like that, but the game focuses more on providing a large and user-unfriendly game world (the map only appears once every hundred meters your character walks, and only for a few moments) than in actually showing me anything visually, intellectually, or mechanically interesting for all my trouble. I'm chastised as a player for wanting to run from place to place, rather than walk at a snail's speed, and then condescended to once I actually discover something in the form of the aforementioned explanatory text poems.
Playing through many parts of The Path feels not entirely unlike listening to a lecture from a self-important University professor: you get the basic idea of where he's going and his delivery is dull, but if you try to force him to get to the point quicker he'll just get angry and go even slower than before. Again, I don't mind the idea of an exploration-based game (I spent a good few hours just exploring the Forbidden Lands in Shadow of the Colossus for no reason other than the sheer enjoyment of discovery), but meager rewards one gets for exploring The Path don't match up with the ludicrous amount of time and effort required to achieve them.
I'll try to spend a little more with the game over the coming weeks, because I'd legitimately like to enjoy a Tale of Tales game. As it stands, however, I feel like I'd just be willingly allowing the developers to waste my time.
It is quite pretty, though.