When I look upon our beautifully diverse collection of history, it is a let down to see the same areas being walked over in our medium. This only becomes more apparent when you look at alternative history narratives, often creeping into one of two scenarios: “What if the Axis powers won WW2?” and “What if the Cold War escalated?”. So what a change of wonderful pace to not only see Herald dig into a relatively rare era, but also give it a twist I’ve never heard of. With it being halfway through the planned season, I was intrigued to see what they would do with the material. In the end the potential is there and the narrative feels loaded with enough gunpower to decapitate with a trusty cannonball, but enough missteps dull what could have been a sharp narrative.
Herald: An Interactive Period Drama is a four-part series by Wispfire, with book 1 & 2 released so far. Gameplay is the classic form for an episodic drama series: You stumble around poking things, while occasionally making choices that backfire in expected or unexpected ways. Yes it will sometimes be as simple as (to use an example not in the game) “don’t goad the crazy person with the knife, they will stab you”. However, sometimes it is as subtle as “maybe don’t leave the knife on the table, because many scenes later a crazy person may spot it”.
In this familiar genre popularised by a developer that rhymes with the advice to brokers “yell sell”, the first question that often gets raised is “how much choice do I have?”. The best word I can think of to describe it is the ever-vague “some”. About three or four times per two hour episode you’ll be able to drag the narrative in a new way. That said, sometimes I found the game believing I had behaved in one way when in reality I behaved another (e.g. being yelled at for being slow, when I purposely ignored the environment and did what I had to do as quickly as possible). The choices present themselves in the manner that while the core story follows along obediently down a path, how you reach there may take a slight turn to check out different scenery.
Before we get into the meat of the matter, I’d also like to talk about voice acting. It is a mix trick-or-treat bag of chocolate, apple slices and dog feces. The stand-out is Connor McKinley who voice acts Louis Morton, an arrogant agent of the government. While similar to Alan Rickman in speaking mannerism, it is different enough to still feel interesting. You also have Bas Sligting as Captain Cornelis Hendriksz, while noble and trying to enforce order onto the ship, does remind the audience there is a human being behind the position with their own thoughts and feelings.
That said, there are some pretty dull performances. Creso Filho as cook’s help Daniel Barros was just flat. Gideon Da Silva’s portrayal of American Caleb Haywood could have done with more brushing up on the accent as it felt off. However, the most peculiar delivery was Jim Sterling, who seemed to chew the scenery as anxious sailor Robert Stoxan. While his prior work on more cheesier and silly projects like Jazzpunk worked a treat, here it just served as a jarring moment of hamminess. Overall though, across the board, the voice acting was enjoyable with only Sterling being a memorably strange addition to the voice acting cast.
However, let’s be honest between you and I, the star of the show is going to be the narrative. Even with the developer who rhymes with the mobile phone version of one of the FF8 characters, Cell Zell, decreasing length and agency people examine the writing on show more than ever. So let’s tuck in.
The narrative of Herald follows the adventures of Devan Rensburg, a biracial sailor who is prisoner to a figure only known as “The Rani”. She has one demand of him: To read from his journal. A journal that chronicles his adventures on the merchant ship Herald that was destined to take him from where he was raised by adoptive parents to where he was born in the hopes to track down his biological parents.
The most apparent part of the narrative, and a part I mentioned in the intro, is just how unusual the setting is. Imagine a world where the Royalists didn’t slink back into power after Oliver Cromwell and his son’s reign. Imagine if additional countries became controlled by the Cromwellian Commonwealth, countries like France to only be considered as provinces within the colonial superpower: the Protectorate. Imagine this still existing in the 19th Century, where you play a biracial sailor in an era where slavery still exists. This is where I became really interested in Herald. There is not only a lot of interesting oddities to play with but a great amount of creative breathing room as it is alternative history so there’s no “this is how history progressed” to stick to.
Coincidentally, it is where my two-part main criticism for Herald comes from.
The first part is for a title boasting such an interesting concept, there is a distinct lack of environmental diversity. The overwhelming amount of the game is spent on a boat travelling to the colonies as you interact with the crew on board. It just seems like such a shame to have such an original narrative idea just left as background noise to the events on the ship.
The second part is I’m not particularly sure I’ve seen a plot in a game offer such low stakes beyond the ship you’re on. Whatever happens (or doesn’t happen) on the boat doesn’t feel like it amounts to a whole lot. You already know you get out alive as the naval narrative is set before having to explain it to your captor, so there’s no fear of danger. In addition, at least up to the end of Book 2, there’s never any indication that your actions will have far-reaching consequences that extend from the boat. It just ends up hard to get invested in the overarching plot or feel any tension for your actions.
Combined together, sadly it feels like the prequel to a significant event. This is not in the sense of seeing the precursor to a major moment, but rather like seeing normality before an important occurrence. The best comparison I can conjure up is it is like experiencing the day-to-day life of Frodo as he has to deal with a noisy neighbour or wildlife eating his turnips, and then half way through Lord of the Rings begins. At best it makes for a slow-burn to something captivating happening, and at worst it feels like the stakes are so low as to struggle for sympathy.
However, that can be fine depending on the cast. It can make for an enjoyable character-driven adventure that slow-burns. This is especially true as major moments occur on the ship for the people involved. Except, well, I admit I have a hard time garnering much sympathy for others onboard.
The captain comes across as the closest, being someone who means well and has his own perception of things (even if I disagree occasionally), but seems to get angry with Devan for being slow no matter how fast you are. The others range from manipulative or lacking presence all the way to arrogant and grumpy. If the ship sank and there was room for the crew in the lifeboat, I’d have to really think of a good reason not to just lock the crew quarters and Morton’s chambers and sail away with just the captain with the knowledge that nothing valuable was lost.
In total, well, perhaps I’m being a bit cruel-sounding towards Herald‘s story. It isn’t that it is full on bad all the way to the core, but more sets up background lore that I’m let down doesn’t get fully utilised. Instead, you have an overarching plot that only begins to be revealed at the end of Book 2 (which is half way through the series) and a collection of characters who I admit I didn’t really empathise with. It all lead to an inoffensive humdrum time out at sea.
However, before I close up, I really would like to talk about twists. For me, a good twist is a balancing beam. You scatter small hints of what could be or mysteries it could answer for, but to make it so subtle as few people are able to guess it straight away. In the same way you might add salt or cayenne pepper to a broth, enough to add to the final form but not enough to recognise on sight. However Book 2 ends on a twist that is so left-field and random as to approach absurdity. Perhaps more watchful individuals saw the small flickers of hints here and there, but for me it just left me with a bamboozled “wait, what?” that felt as unfulfilling as it was out the blue.
The final score for Books 1 and 2 of Herald is a 6 out of 10. For all my excitement for the possibilities of an alternative history in a colonial era, it never quite feels like it strikes the potential there. While you do get a chunky 2 hours per episode at a nifty £6.99 price, along with a few impactful choices, it is the narrative the drags it down. I wanted to care, I really did, but the lack of an apparent over-arching plot or engaging characters leaves me let down. This is only made worse by a voice cast who at times breaths comedy into a straight-faced drama and other times delivers with the same emotion one reads a shopping list; although this is saved by a couple of voice actors who humanises their subject or delivers something rich to the character.
This is one of those times where you’ll know if you want Herald. If you’re one of those nuts, like me, who enjoys narratives you can poke your way through, then Herald is a cheap enough time to scratch the itch you might have. You’ll have four hours of inoffensiveness that is merely okay. However, if you need something that plucks on your heart-strings like a harp or sends your pulse racing with tension via it’s writing, then the naval life is simply not for you.