Where The Heart Leads is a brand new PlayStation 4 exclusive, though not one in the typical “Sony first party” sense. It was developed by Armature Studio, and provides a different and memorable kind of experience.
Armature may not be a household name yet, but the studio consists of people who worked on games such as Metroid Prime. For that reason, it’s perhaps surprising that Where The Heart Leads is a very different kind of experience in terms of pacing, gameplay and emphasis on narrative and storytelling.
In the game, you go through protagonist Whit Anderson’s stages of life as you relive them and get the chance to make different choices – ultimately leading to a dozen different endings as the story branches away from and back towards the choices you initially made. How Whit deals with decisions about family, love and his interpersonal relationships is at the heart of this game, and determines how his very personal narrative is shaped over the course of his life.
Everything starts with a sinkhole that appears in Whit’s yard, which quickly turns into a “life flashing before your eyes” kind of experience as you’re transported back to when Whit was growing up, the time he set out to create a family of his own and moments where he fell in love – or didn’t. The game plays out like a series of scenarios of varying length, but what they all have in common is that they present you with choices you’ll have to make, embrace and/or regret.
As with games like Life if Strange, the quality of the writing can make or break a game like this, and Armature has done very well here. All of the story beats feel very relatable and personal, and it’s easy to become immersed in Whit’s life story because of it. Events rarely feel overly dramatic, but the writing makes sure that even the most mundane of things feels impactful in some way. This is most obvious in Whit’s choices, and when one doesn’t pan out like you wanted it to, it’s a burden that’s felt not just by Whit but also by the player.
Gameplay-wise, Where the Heart Leads is very straightforward kind of game that can be enjoyed by non-gamers as well (again, surprising when you consider the developer’s origins). It’s a game that’s all about the interactions people have in life, and you essentially just navigate between them and experience the narrative by making choices – it’s a choose your own adventure kind of experience, but one that’s firmly grounded in real life rather than fantasy.
The audiovisual style in Where the Heart Leads certainly helps in how it tells its story, as scenes often look like miniature stages on which the actors deliver their scenes. This is especially true for indoor scenes, as outdoor locations feel more open and better showcase the lovely art style. The music complements the game’s gentle pace well with a laid back tunes, but it’s a shame that the game doesn’t feature voice acting and instead relies on written speech bubbles for its delivery.
The slower paced narrative of Where the Heart Leads isn’t going to be for everyone, especially within the console landscape, but it’s a story-driven experience that is well written and worth playing through as a break from the norm and a change of pace.