Platform: PC, Mac
Tested on: PC
Herald: An Interactive Period Drama – Review
Visual novels. A niche genre that’s been gaining popularity this last decade, but is still a tough sell for the majority of players. Fusing the genre with elements from other genres, mostly RPGs, puzzle games and point-and-click adventures can spice things up and make it easier to digest for a larger audience. According to its creators, Herald is a mix between a visual novel and an adventure game.
Herald is the story of Devan Rensburg a young man of mixed-race heritage and steward on the HLV Herald, a merchant vessel on its way to the Eastern Colonies of the Protectorate during 19th century colonialist times. The Protectorate, you say? Actually, the story takes place in an alternate history, though The Protectorate could have just as easily been our regular British Commonwealth for all intents and purposes. There’s something fishy (hurr hurr) going on with this ship and Devan, rising quickly through the ranks, is tasked to uncover the truth. The ship is supposedly on its way to collect a cargo of an expensive dye, but, as becomes clear eventually, production of this dye has halted some time ago. Begging the question what the hell the ship has been dispatched to collect.
Herald isn’t afraid to tackle even mature themes like paedophilia and can be witty at times, but Devan is definitely no Guybrush Threepwood. Since the story takes place almost entirely on a ship, you’ll be confronted regularly with maritime terms. If you’ve always wanted to know what a poop deck is (it doesn’t involve latrines), a boatswain, a scuttlebutt or if you ever wondered what the difference between a regular and nautical mile is, Herald can be quite educative. The story is spread over 4 episodes. The first two are released now, the last two will be released at a later date and at a premium. Development of his second half is already underway, but will depend on the success of this first half. There is a thread spanning all 4 episodes, but every episode also contains its own fully developed plot point. So although the player is left hanging after two episodes with a cliffhanger ending, at least some amount of closure is to be found in what’s there already. A full playthrough of the first two episodes takes about 3 hours, exhausting every dialogue option. Consequent playthroughs, though rather pointless except for achievement hunters, can be much shorter.
Like with a lot of indie titles, graphics aren’t Herald’s strong point but are quite pleasing nonetheless. Everything is rendered in simple 3D graphics (think Playstation 2 Era rendered at a much higher resolution), while characters are represented with beautiful hand drawn animated portraits. These can be quite expressive, but mostly just blink their eyes (preferably every time you try to take a screenshot for a review…). The animation is very basic, but this is to be expected and is perfectly fine. There aren’t a lot of options to tweak, but that does mean the game can run perfectly on very modest computers. It was tested on a Geforce GTX 760 with an almost 10 year old Core2 Quad Q6600 and ran at 1080p without a hitch (well… it’s made with Unity, so perfect fluidity is unobtainable on any system).
It must be said: the voice acting in Herald is excellent. Many triple A titles don’t even have acting on the same level. Professional actors seem to have been cast and if they’re not, they really have to quit their day job. Not a single one delivers a bad performance. The actor for the Brunswick character even sounds like a Bill Nighy impersonator (it even made me check IMDB – it’s not him). Though some accents can be questionable, the performances are stellar and make you want to actually listen to them instead of just quickly reading the subtitles and clicking past them.
The music on the other hand is completely forgettable and disappears almost completely in the background. Granted, this genre doesn’t really need memorable music. A decent mood is sufficient and Herald does indeed deliver this. One exception is a piano piece that’s quite catchy and will stay in your head for a while.
Do not be fooled by its title: Herald is a pure visual novel. Interactivity is at a bare minimum to be even considered a game. During dialogs the player is presented with three possible lines to progress. These range from being almost identical sometimes to being radically different. Unfortunately these seem to only affect the immediate reaction from NPC’s, don’t serve to build relationships with these NPC’s and have very little to no impact whatsoever on story progression. Two playthroughs, one using dialog options a non-socially challenged person would use, one using the “asshole-option” as much as possible, had the exact same outcome. (Slight spoiler alert) – One NPC being shot instead of stabbed was the only real difference. Hopefully these choices will have a bigger impact on the second part of the game, but that remains to be seen.
The remaining “interactivity” consists of menial tasks. Walk to the other side of the ship (undoubtedly the poop deck) and talk with someone (possibly the boatswain). Walk back again. Go pick this up. Bring it there… This adds nothing to the game and it would have been better to either add puzzles and/or more complicated tasks or leave these parts out entirely. It is especially aggravating since the walking speed is pretty slow and there is no possibility of running (admittedly, running on a ship would be dangerous in real life).
So to make it absolutely clear: this is NOT an adventure game, nor are there any adventure elements. Go in expecting them and you will be disappointed.
An engaging story and surprisingly good voice acting save Herald from its virtually non-existent gameplay. If visual novels of the not-really-interactive kind are your thing, you could do a lot worse than this. Do keep in mind however you are essentially buying the first half of the game. This is not an uncommon practice, but needs to be crystal clear to avoid extreme disappointment. It’s also rather short and can be finished in under 3 hours.