“All the stories and songs start somewhere… with a seed.” – The Dire Wolf
Developer: Serenity Forge
Released: 18th February 2018
From the very beginning of our time, stories have been passed from generation to generation, describing both the pleasant events as well as the hardships of our history. What we tend to neglect, however, is the fact that the people who tell the stories are just as important as the stories themselves because they give them power and a voice that does not fade away. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine pushes this concept even further, serving as a great storytelling adventure with a deeper meaning that stumbles greatly in the more mechanical aspects.
A faceless wanderer sits at the poker table, ready to challenge Lady Luck. In front of him, names and voices echo in the distance. But one of them turns out to be unique—a standout musical note that overpowers the chorus of the crowd. After a couple of rounds of good strikes, the wolf with the dangerously sharp smile looks into the eyes of his opponent. He laughs and states, “All in…” and that is where the contract is sealed, a debt that requires payment in memories.
The premise of the whole game is to gather tales and stories from different places in the United States. Those stories vary from thrilling adventures to happy or sad encounters; some are narrated, while others are voiced by different individuals. It is an amalgamation of micro-tales and macro-tales about loss and happiness during Depression-era America, mainly revolving around challenging concepts of that time such as the tragedy of the Native American tribes, the hardships of the black communities, the aftermath of wars, and the sad realities of addiction and depression. The main narrative heavily relies on symbolism, allegories, and invocations that thread every piece together into a mix of depressing and charming stories that leave a heavy punch in the gut.
With the purpose of creating an immersive narrative-heavy experience, besides carefully crafted plot points and intriguing characters, you need to have an equally entertaining baseline, which is something that is lacking in this particular scenario. After all, it is not the goal but the way there that matters, and the more immersive the way, the more worthwhile the journey.
The Tarot of the Divine
Each story has a different background, and some have a different meaning, but every one of them can be put into a category, and here is where the tarot card system is getting handy. Like the common playing cards, the tarot has different suits depending on the emotion a tale describes. For that reason, each story you collect is turned into a vignette that is included in one of the five main categories: funny, scary, thrilling, hopeful, and sad. Although the classification system seems simple, in practice that is far from the truth. Some tales that, by logic, would normally be placed in the scary category, for example, a grotesque murder in the streets of Brooklyn, are perceived by the game as sad or thrilling, leading to confusion. The only way to uncover their nature is to use them during NPC dialogues, where you have to share memories according to the mood of the conversation. Most of the time, since you cannot possibly understand where the thin line lies, the choices that you will make will lead you to failed attempts that infuriate you, and many encounters will transform from a pleasant interaction into a nerve-racking experience.
The Road of the Fool
In such a diverse country as the United States, a person needs more than their strong will and determination to traverse the harsh lands. Consequently, you are offered a respectable amount of choice in terms of travel and traversing, but to what extent those means are useful in any way is for you to decide. Walking will be your basic tool; it is among the most annoying options in your arsenal since the speed is slow and it can be only accelerated through whistling, another game mechanic that requires you to complete a simple minigame where you press the arrow keys in different directions. In case you want to avoid this excruciating endeavor, you can try hitching, but if you decide to use this option, remember that the car can leave you almost anywhere on the route, which can cause some problems. There are also train stations, from where you can buy tickets or legally trespass the premises, with the former choice costing money and the latter putting you at risk of injury. Last but not least, you can also use keychains, items that are provided upon fully completing a NPC storyline and that teleport you immediately to the place of your first encounter.
The Lackluster silence
In contrast to the wonderfully crafted stories, the mindless walking sim proves to be annoying at best. In order to collect tales, you have to traverse hundreds of meters of uninspiring land on a 3D overworld map that, even though it looks beautiful at the beginning, falls flat after some hours due to its lacking features. There are no random encounters on the road, nor are there any interesting events whatsoever that will transform the act of simply walking into an engaging side hustle. The stories themselves cannot be considered the driving factor of your struggles, especially when the main characters relocate even four states away from their current location upon completing their first act, not to mention the numerous nuisances that you have to endure while walking towards them. Most, if not all, car roots, for instance, are heading west, thus forcing you to walk all the way towards an X or Y location where train stations are absent. On top of that, the map is always misleading, as certain waterways and roots have not been properly pinpointed, and some hidden stories can be absent from the areas they have been shown. To add salt to the injury, constant glitches have become a commodity, with the character frequently being unable to move after an animation.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine’s world is unique, enchanted by colorful brushstrokes that resemble paintings. Each vignette and story are intertwined with complex portraits that masterfully depict the emotions of every tale, with some of them even reinforcing the idea that the given memory belongs to a specific category. Every state can be differentiated from the others thanks to some striking characteristics, including mountain ranges, and ranchos, but as mentioned before, they pale in comparison to the amount of effort put into the creation of the stories.
Similar to the visual setting, each region also comes with a distinct soundtrack, from Mexican ballads to country and blues tunes that keep you company during the tedious journey. As far as voice acting is concerned, there is nothing more to add than that it is flawless. The narration truly charms the audience, thus making each sequence more memorable.
Serenity Forge celebrates different ways of telling stories, but despite this, the game’s numerous bugs and poor mechanics undermine those efforts, giving the impression that the developers poured their hearts into crafting stories that are aesthetically pleasing but lack any sort of topping or serving.