Armature Studio has been around the bend helping with a lot of games through the years. They’ve aided the likes of Warner Bros. with Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate, Comcept with ReCore, and even up to and including Epic Games with support Fortnite. However, their latest effort is a solo venture, and a splendidly surreal one at that. Where the Heart Leads is a walk through time, focused on a simple rural family and the choices they’ve made along the way. It’s quite a bit slower paced than other Armature Games, but it has an extensive and interesting family narrative aided by the power of beautiful watercolor-like visuals, emotional swing, and the resounding echo of the choices you make.
The heart, she sinks
Where the Heart Leads kicks off our journey on what is seemingly a simple countryside farm in the middle of a storm, but it’s only seconds in that things get wild. Whitney Anderson and his family awake to tremendous rumbling to find that a large portion of their land has turned into a sinkhole pit with seemingly no bottom to it. When the crumbling ground threatens the family dog, Casey, Whit springs into action to save their animal pal and it leads to him falling headlong into the depths of the pit.
By a sheer miracle, Whit survives his fall and the task then becomes escaping the vast depths of the sinkhole alive to get back to his family. The danger and dreariness, along with the myriad odd buildings and junk Whit finds on his journey through the sinkhole, eventually lead him on a trip down memory lane. His journey takes him through memories of times gone by, of his father, mother, then-girlfriend, her family, and the matters that they had to endure.
The gameplay loop of Where the Heart Leads might be considered a bit of a walking simulator. You are seemingly never in any real danger of harm or a losing condition. Rather, you wander around as a character through a colorful mix of the present situation, sprinkles of past memories, and some times fullblown trips into those memories and their events. Whit will often find other characters, whether real or a figment of his memory to converse with, coming up against choices that he makes about those situations.
Choice is a powerful thing in Where the Heart Leads. It starts with the mentality you have about your dog and saving them, whether it’s that the dog is troublesome and you’re only going to try as hard as necessary to save it, or whether they’re family and you’re going to do anything to save them. This expands heavily as the game plays out. There are a lot of choices that have hefty implications in Where the Heart Leads, whether immediate or far down the line.
This web of choices can lead memories to play out in very different ways. Will you tell Whit’s folks of his lazy brother’s hideout he built? They will remember it when it has implications in a far more weighty event. Will you side with your dad or your girlfriend’s dad in the dispute over a tractor accident and who should pay for it? No matter who eats the bill, they will remember how it played out and your part in the decision. The impact is there, and the more I realized the weight of my choices, the more I gave each seemingly big decision deeper pause. Where the Heart Leads is nothing if not effective in conveying the power and consequences of your decisions in both immediacy and over time, although I will admit, not every one is riveting. Deciding whether or not to take leftovers to your neighbors is a choice you can make. That’s pretty much that.
The ghosts of days gone by in a painted world
Where the Heart Leads isn’t just a series of decisions. It’s carried by a striking visual design. Much of it is a lush, watercolor menagerie of landscapes, warm and cold. The visuals are always rich, whether you’re wandering around the farms and countryside of Whit’s memories in vivid greens of grass and bright yellows of sun and crops or trying to find your path in the underground blues and blacks of the sink hole. This truly does feel like a living painted world throughout in the style Armature has put together for it. The music that accompanies it also lets the visuals do the work. It mostly plays to the background in a subdued and minimalized way.
Fellow characters in memories are also interesting in their portrayal. Rather than acting as persistent, solid characters, they appear as ghostly presences captured in disjointed moments. You might be tasked with finding Whit’s brother to try to convince him to aid their father in farm projects, only for the brother to suddenly appear on his bike some distance away, continually caught in advancing snapshots of trying to lose Whit on his bike and escape his responsibility. All characters in Where the Heart Leads' memories have this way about them. It might be jerky and simplistic, but it’s also just kind of feels like a normal part of foggy memories, recalling only bits, pieces, and snapshots. Even despite the fact that no one is voiced, both fully animated and snapshot memory characters have enough emotive quality to carry the words through their actions.
I think the only thing that bothered me about this style of interaction in Where the Heart Leads is that there were occasional times in which objects appeared in the world with the same ghostly presence as characters, and sometimes I could poke at them, but nothing happened. It seemed for sure like they should be interactable, but for whatever reason, some scrap pile (I think) hanging out in a corner just had nothing going on at the moment, though it didn’t stop it from making a jingle like I was interacting with it when I’d poke it. Fortunately, issues like this were few and far between and didn’t ever upend the game or put me at a dead end for any reason.
The heart weighs heavy with the past
Where the Heart Leads does well for what it seemingly aims to do. It’s the surreal narrative journey of a family through years of happiness and sadness with the connective tissue of a disastrous event tying it down to the present. Putting the puzzle pieces of memory, decision, and consequence together as you go takes this game in a number of directions. Not every direction is riveting and there are some definite lulls, but there are also deeply difficult moments to choose between with consequences for the choices made and the paths untaken. If you’re looking for a chill and often lackadaisical journey you'll steer in meaningful ways, Where the Heart Leads is a narrative-heavy series of roads you may be inclined to explore again and again.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 digital copy supplied by the publisher. Where the Heart Leads will be available on the PS4 and PS5 on July 12, 2021.
Where the Heart Leads
- Intimate and long story of a family's joys and sorrows
- Choice drives the narrative in both short and long-term ways
- Various endings and outcomes of choice provide good replayabillity
- Gorgeous visuals blending past and present in surreal style
- Some long, slow parts in the story
- Some interactables occasionally didn't respond
- Little gameplay beyond wandering and choice