Red Stewart reviews Half Past Fate for PC (Steam)…
When I was in college, I took a journalism class that frequently had group discussions. During one of these meetings, we got to talking about how difficult it was to interview or even speak to our neighbors these days. One of my fellow students was a young woman who had immigrated from Iraq, and she noted how surprised she was about the level of isolation in America- back in her hometown, it was commonplace, she claimed, to know everything about everyone in one’s neighborhood within the first year.
It wasn’t always this way though. People born to the 2000s generations may believe this to be the norm, but my fellow millennials will no doubt remember the early days of our childhood: when we weren’t afraid to go trick-or-treating alone; when entire communities gathered together to greet newcomers or mourn the passing of existing members; when it wasn’t unusual to meet someone down the street for the first time and immediately invite them over to your house. I’m talking, of course, about the time before the tragic September 11 attacks: the day that started the end of the ’90s and the beginning of increased seclusion, caution, and general weariness of those around you.
I know it seems strange to open this review on a bleak nostalgic tangent, but playing Half Past Fate, the latest release from developer Serenity Forge and publisher Way Down Deep, I felt like I was entering an anachronistic echo chamber; a regressive time-capsule if you will. It’s a video game that is so desperate to hearken back to that era of innocence, but can’t help coming off as a Gen Y kid jumping up-and-down with his fingers plugging his ears. But even with these narrative flaws, an irate gameplay loops prevents it from being enjoyable- that’s the short answer. If you want the longer answer, read on.
Given that I began by talking about the story, I should expand my thoughts on why I feel it was a mistake. See, Half Past Fate follows six seemingly random people who come together over the course of eight years. I say seemingly because the degrees of separation between them are so minimal that you can almost call them an alternate version of Modern Family.
As far as slice-of-life tales go, this isn’t a bad concept, but where it falters is in its dialogue and character interactions. For most of its playthrough, Half Past Fate treats the world you live in as this paradise of civility, where the majority of the populace is either happy, willing to help you, open-to-be-preached to, or in a slam-bang mood for conversation.
In the first level, for example, you’re trying to get ahead of several people in line at a coffee shop, and wouldn’t you know it, all of them are willing to step aside without much resistance- try and do that in the real world, I dare you. In another scene, you’re asking random people in a district about this girl you’re looking for- who, in their right mind, would give two hoots about some random guy’s quest for love? And yet another part has you, the boss of a company on the verge of a major meeting, politely dealing with a set of incompetent employees: one has abandoned his barking dog in the hallway, another has come in sick and selfishly sabotaged the thermostat, and another mistakes a complete stranger for the clientele- yeah, you try doing any of that at your workplace and see if you’re not immediately reprimanded or outright canned.
Now, I stop myself short of making an absolute statement because, in the last third of Half Past Fate, the story finally starts to take on a more realistic front. We get a greater diversity of NPC personalities who resemble the type of humans you would expect to find in any given location. However, considering you have to spend a significant amount of time arriving at that point, it makes it a little moot. The fact is, of the twelve chapters, all but three of them are so drenched in this type of syrupy wholesomeness that it doesn’t feel natural.
And I know people will tell me that video games are meant to be escapist forms of art, which I wouldn’t disagree with, but when the cloying factor is this much in your face it can’t help but be criticized. I’m not saying the writers needed to inject a vial of cynicism into the plot, but what I am saying is that, when you set a title in a semi-real world setting, you have to have a balance. Even in Animal Crossing, one of the most relaxing franchises of all time, you have hardship-facets like paying taxes, spreading of contagions, handling debt, and dealing with bothersome fellows. In Half Past Fate, someone can get coffee and wine spilled on them multiple times and still be willing to apologize to the perpetrator.
Maybe I wouldn’t have minded most of this had the verbal exchanges been outstanding, but unfortunately the end result is a mixed bag. Half Past Fate is a 2D walking-sim, meaning the core of its enjoyment rests on good writing. However, the conversations you get into with other NPCs don’t feel like natural confabs. I noted above that the folks you encounter are willing to help or just chat with your character, and that inherently lends their words an overly-optimistic cover. Despite hitting up an individual for the very first time, they’ll divulge you secrets, answer your out-of-place inquiries, or even explain something about the particular locale they reside in. It rarely feels naturalistic, instead pandering to the notion that cheeriness exists wherever you look.
There are times when the script actually gets tongue-in-cheek: wherein it acknowledges that what you, or someone else is, doing is out of the ordinary. For example, one section has a sales clerk giving you cash to buy him a burrito from the food truck nearby, prompting your avatar to question why he would trust a complete unco with his money. There are a number of moments like these sprinkled throughout the narrative, but they’re too sparse to make it the intent of the developers (i.e. it being a self-aware title).
It doesn’t help that the cast of protagonists aren’t three-dimensional beings either. I said before that there are six of them, though it should be noted that two of them are only playable in one level each. First up is Rinden, a hopeless romantic who tries to see the good in every day moments; next is Jaren, a happy-go-lucky weab gamer; then there’s Bia, a nice college student hoping to become a photographer; Mara the workaholic founder of an energy company; Ana, an independent-minded young woman who doesn’t know what she wants to do in life, and finally Milo, a quiet yet deep-thinking fellow aspiring to be a documentarian.
As you can tell, these are all archetypes we’ve seen in some form or another in various media, like Rinden being the pathetic idealist popularized by Frank Capra movies or Jaren the pop culture-loving nerd you’ll find in any Shounen school anime. Of course, originality these days doesn’t come from the invention of new ideas but the reinvention of existing ones. The writers evidently wanted to take the Love Actually premise and combine it with the time-moving scheme of When Harry Met Sally…– show various couples destined for each other having multiple encounters before ultimately fulfilling their fate. In Half Past Fate’s case, it’s Rinden x Mara, Jaren x Ana, and Bia x Milo.
This type of storytelling is hard to pull this off in a movie given the short run time, but video games theoretically have more leeway since you are dedicating extra hours to the endeavor at hand. However, in spite of Half Past Fate taking me over seven hours to complete, no one was given extra attributes. The issue here isn’t that there is no room in this narrative to flesh out anyone, it’s that the format isn’t used very well. So much effort was put into making all the protagonists likable that the writing team forgot to give them flavor: they’re bland.
Expanding upon Ana’s relationship with her parents, for instance, could have lead to some interesting developments, especially when it’s hinted that she grew up stuck in traditions. Nothing of the sort happens. Of the six people at your disposal, only Milo showed some depth: a conversation Bia has with him down the line reveals that he secretly hates his work because he fears the effects it’s had on impressionable viewers. But because the writers felt it was better to have him mumble and talk in short, withdrawn phrases his whole life, we don’t get enough of those glimpses throughout his various appearances.
What hurts the story, more than anything, though, is that it just fails as a tale of multi-paramours. Rinden and Mara’s relationship flat out sucks- its central focus revolves around Mara pursuing Rinden in the hopes of having a financial partner for her business, which makes her come off as both creepy and desperate at the same time. Bia and Milo’s had the most potential since we would hypothetically see two close friends realize they’re right for each other over the course of years, but because of massive timeskips, we don’t ever see that friendship elaborated on outside of small reflective conversations between the two, making it inherently feel like something is missing. Jaren and Ana come out looking the best courtesy of theirs being a semi-real time, meet-cute, however Jaren turning his search for her into some grand odyssey was just….odd? It has its moments for sure, but your mileage will vary depending on how much you perceive the level of irreverence in the tone of Jaren’s delivery.
I know I’m being a negative nancy, so let me end this section on a positive note- if there is one spot where the writers excel, it would be with the item interplay. When you receive a new item in your inventory, you are able to show it to an NPC: 99 percent of the time, this yields a unique text blob from them, most of them humorous. Occasionally you’ll get a generic, pre-rendered response, but this is the exception not the norm. I honestly found myself backtracking throughout the worlds whenever I got a fresh trinket, just to see how prior characters would react to it. When I kept handing tire-repair parts to a nearby arborist, for example, he would crack car-themed jokes! Without a doubt a sign of true dedication from the staff.
Item interactions make a good segway to the gameplay category. I’ll repeat, Half Past Fate is a walking sim, meaning there isn’t much here. The goal is to progress from the beginning of a level to its end by talking and helping people out. Regrettably, Serenity Forge decided that the best way to set their title apart from other games in this genre was to incorporate a fetch quest format for each section, and I honestly don’t know what they were thinking by doing this. Every single level drags out beyond enjoyment because you’re spending the bulk of your time helping people with the most-contrived tasks you can think of.
Want to find out Ana’s real name? Oh sure, all you got to do is get this chick’s love interest’s boss to leave the building he works in since he conveniently hates HER boss and will only depart if his spicy ramen challenge hosted by the nearby noodle shop is topped (why the two lovebirds don’t just talk outside of work is beyond me). Want to sneak by Mara in the restaurant? Sure, all you got to do is get a fedora from a guy who will only give it if he gets a date with an intellectual woman, and wouldn’t you behold, there’s an art history teacher conveniently dining at the same place who was conveniently stood up by the student she was supposed to tutor there (what kind of disturbing professor would even want to teach a pupil at a fancy restaurant?).
I could go on but I don’t want to give away too many spoilers. The point is the scripts here are really bad. It would at least be tolerable if things were presented in a satirical format, like some lines of dialogue are, but most of it is taken seriously by the protagonists. Now, the situations do temper out in the last third of Half Past Fate, as I said before, where you start to get more sensible circumstances, like Jaren passing the time by helping Milo with a flat tire, but it’s too little too late. When a game makes you yearn for Wind Waker’s (GCN) Triforce quest, you know it’s done something wrong.
Thankfully, the levels themselves are at least beautiful to roam in, and this has to do with the palette. Half Past Fate is, without a doubt, one of the few games I’ve played that has been successful with multi-chroma aesthetic, with color upon color filling the screen. From the streets to the architecture to the nature outside, all the hues blends so well together. And people have to understand that this is not an easy thing to pull off- look outside your window and you’ll see that solids rarely exist in either the floral or manmade worlds: colors inherently mix together so organically that we don’t take a second glance since it’s universal. Green leaves have strands of yellow and red marking the stem veins in them; roads have bits of white and grey strewn inside the asphalt material; wood and bricks on buildings are a weave of brown, maroon, and black, and none of this is even taking into account the precious metals that live inside everything.
I note all this because Half Past Fate manages to feel like a pixelated representation of a photorealistic world; that, despite the sheer number of them filling up the screen, the pigments aren’t distracting. It’s a testament to the craftsmanship of the graphic artists.
The art style itself is an interesting thing. It’s as though a 2D environment was shot with a 3D camera: characters and most objects inside are flat, but the way places open up as you move around or inside them appear whole if that makes sense. Imagine the Paper Mario series, but instead of everything looking wafer-thin or transitioning with folds, there’s a roundness to them, as though they are an entire stereoscopic entity.
One other graphical feat I have to lavish extreme praise on are the shadows. How an indie company pulled off great shadow mapping is beyond me- every singleton on screen, whether it’s the protagonists, an NPC, or even an object in the foreground, has a shadow that moves in-sync with whatever they are doing, right down to even hair flow! And when you enter the silhouette of another body, guess what? Your shadow disappears as simultaneously as you want it to. I was absolutely impressed by this and glad that Serenity Forge took the time to incorporate this aspect.
Unfortunately, the soundscape operates at the other end of the quality spectrum. There’s no voice acting, leaving music and sound effects, and both are not good at all. The score, attributed to a composer named Max Messenger Bouricius in the credits, is banal. Based on the chip quality, it sounds like something you’d hear in an old-school NES game like Harvest Moon with all those high register pitches and notes, which isn’t intrinsically bad, but given the amount of low-price or even free music software out there, I don’t know why anyone would resort to this outdated condition outside of maybe wanting to recreate an older harmony. Regardless, there isn’t much of it- I heard maybe 3-4 tracks during the entire game, one of which only played during specific emotional beats, and all of them were obnoxious. They play too loudly, don’t match up with the atmosphere or mood on-screen, and are ultimately distracting.
I emphasize the vociferous quality because the sound mixing is terrible- I had to go into the settings and turn the music down past 50 percent just to hear the SFX, though it’s not like you’ll miss anything significant by doing so as the audio is even more generic than the score. Everything you’ll hear, both ambient and marginal, is some stock noise played on a loop, from the wind, dog barks, and bird flutters to beeps and boops, whistling, and guitar strings. The worst offender, however, are the footsteps. Not only does everyone’s walking sound the same (despite everyone wearing different footwear), but the footstep noises aren’t even synchronized with the player movement!
So, in conclusion, I sadly can’t recommend Half Past Fate. The basic idea underlying could have been enjoyable, but hamfisted writing intent on showcasing unrealistic cordiality ruined it from the get-go. Combine that with amiable yet undistinctive characters, a gimmicky timeskip blueprint, and tedious fetch quests galore and you have something that isn’t a fun experience. Though I always say support indie developers, I can’t approve a game I didn’t have fun with. Even if I did, you’ll only get a little over 7 hours worth of enjoyment from a $20 product, which falls under my $1 : 30 minute ratio.
+ Elegant and creative looking levels
+ Great shadow effects
+ Likable characters
– Faulty story
– Mediocre score
– Horrible SFX
– Fetch quests in EVERY level
Rating – 4/10