Where the Heart Leads on PS4
Where the Heart Leads is a victim of its own ambition. Attempting to create an experience where you feel as though the choices you make truly matter, the game hooked me in with its intriguing premise, but failed to keep me interested throughout its duration. It has a multitude of endings, but the narrative drags its feet at times, making engaging with the story feel more laborious and a ‘one and done’ deal, rather than something I want to play through over and over.
The premise here is simple. You assume control of Whit Anderson, a loving father and husband who’s always trying to do the best for his family. Waking up in the middle of the night to a strange noise, Whit and his family head out onto their land to find a massive sinkhole, and their dog somewhere inside it.
As you survey the sinkhole and try and formulate a plan on how to reach your beloved doggo Casey, Whit has the option to rescue her on his own, or speak with his wife Rene about his plan. This initial decision gives you an idea of the kind of choices you’ll be making throughout the game. Those that aren’t necessarily clear-cut in their obvious outcome, but instead play a part in shaping your relationships with your family and those around you, which in turn, affects how elements of the story play out.
Alas, Whit manages to rescue Casey, but at his own expense, falling to the bottom of the hole. You’re then tasked with guiding Whit out of the hole, back to the bathtub he used to winch himself back down in the hope he can use it to reunite with his family.
From then on, Where the Heart Leads flits between the present-day Whit as he ambles around the different ‘levels’ of the sinkhole and continues to ascend out of it, and flashback scenes that recount significant stages of his childhood, young adulthood, parenthood, and so on.
I actually really enjoyed getting to know Whit and shaping him into my own vision of a good father and husband. He let bygones be bygones when it came to his wife working with a former flame (trust is key!) and did his best to provide for his family while keeping the kids happy. He looked out for his brother, and always put other people’s needs before his own.
Even getting to know Whit’s immediate family and friends was intriguing enough. His daughter, the ever-inquisitive soul, or his brother — the stoner dosser trying to get his life back on track, or Rene, his rather demanding but well-meaning wife. Each one of them had a distinct personality that became more and more evident as I navigated these memories, and thanks to the strong writing, I felt like I knew each one of them by the time the credits rolled.
It’s in these conversations that Where the Heart Leads really engages you with its insightful commentary on life. It’s a tale of sacrifices and trade-offs. The idea that some dreams are worth giving up on in order to allow someone else to pursue theirs, or to simply pursue another.
A lot of the enjoyment here is going to come from following the story, as the gameplay is pretty light. You’re making decisions and often walking around town going from one place to another to talk with someone or interact with an item. Sometimes you’ll build things, but it’s distilled down to simply pressing and holding Square until the wheel fills.
Given the narrative is interesting enough, with some unexpected twists and turns throughout Whit’s life that’ll keep you on your feet, I have no complaints about the actual narrative itself, more about the way in which it is executed.
Generally speaking, the pacing just seems a little bit off. While it’s clear that the developers have spent time trying to highlight the significance of Whit’s relationship with his immediate family and his beloved wife, it meanders far too often, slowing down the pace. It often led me to question what the significance of something as menial as repairing a tractor had in the grander narrative. Sure, it helped smooth things over with the neighbors (and Rene’s parents), but there was no immediate consequence to my decision, leaving it to feel a little pointless in the moment, and made me question the significance of future choices I’d need to make as a result.
It’s not just the lack of immediate consequence, but the amount of time spent on conversations that are there for no other reason than to pad out the runtime. I often found myself rolling my eyes as the game instructed me to go and speak to someone else, only to end up in a minutes-long conversation about a random going-on around town.
The chapter with the tractor during Whit’s early years, for example, lasted upwards of an hour, only for a scene that followed showing Whit and Rene reuniting after being away from college, which lasted a matter of minutes.
All of this is to say that Where the Heart Leads felt like it needed cutting down in places in order to make the narrative feel like it flowed more naturally throughout. In doing so, it would also help alleviate one of my main issues with the game — that its big selling point, the various endings and consequences of your decisions, can only all be experienced by starting the game over multiple times.
The sheer amount of choices and branching paths for the story is certainly impressive, but it only made me realize how sluggish and laborious playing through the game can often feel. It took me about 9-10 hours to finish a single playthrough, interacting with a few optional people along the way, but am I invested or interested enough to play through it for another 9-10 hours to see the pay-off of making different decisions? Right now, no. Who knows if I’ll feel differently in the future, but I’m not hopeful.
It’s this which disappoints me most about Where the Heart Leads. The consequences of your major decisions often only come clear at the very end of the game. The final chapter which goes through your decisions and how different family members and storylines concluded is fascinating and hooked me back in, but it all felt too late. If things had been condensed a little more in the middle chapters to make that pay-off come a little sooner, it’d make the experience far more replayable and enjoyable overall.
Where the Heart Leads frustrates me. It has some really moving and thought-provoking dialog. The kind of conversations that’ll stick with me, and maybe one day make me a better father and family man than the one I’m likely shaping up to be now. But they’re washed away in a sea of unnecessarily long conversations and dialogue, and it’s all presented in a way that makes the game so difficult to really sit down and stick with for long periods of time, which I’d argue is the best way to experience the story so it’s all fresh in your mind.
Whit talking to his son on the phone about the troubles he’s going through having moved away from home, for example, after finding out he was talking to Rene’s former flame, Robert, instead of him about them. The fact that Whit took the moment to absolve his father of his worries and regrets about their upbringing, or explaining the harsh realities of life in a child-friendly manner to his daughter Katie. These are beautiful, emotional conversations that not only resonated with me, but also enabled me to put my own footprint on the story by allowing me to decide how I went about them.
There were a few minor issues when it comes to presentation, too. For whatever reason, be it a glitch when playing on PS5 or simply a design choice, any glass surfaces radiated a night-blinding white light. It obstructs your sight of doorways you can pass through, collectibles that may be on the floor, or simple on-screen prompts for talking or interacting with someone. It didn’t add anything to the look of the game, and was just an annoyance from the very beginning.
Given the game is also very dialogue-heavy, having typos and grammatical errors was a little disappointing to see, and they cropped up a little more frequently than I’d have expected. While we’re on the topic of dialogue, there are a few moments where, during a conversation, the camera will zoom out to give you a grander look at the environment.
It’s a nice idea, except for the fact that the game doesn’t increase the size of the speech bubbles and text in them from the conversation that’s taking place. I could just about make out some of the text at times, and other times had to physically move closer to the TV in order to see it. They’re only minor issues that I’m sure could be resolved in future updates, but they’re disappointing all the same.
Where the Heart Leads is a fascinating and heartwarming narrative-driven story. That cannot be disputed, but what can is its pacing and rather lengthy run-time for a game that’s designed to be replayed and experienced multiple times. What you’re left with is a game hindered by its own lofty CYOA ambitions and desire to provide as much context — both necessary and not — to you about Whit’s world. I’m glad I got to experience it for its intriguing portrayal of life, but it may not be a journey worth taking again.
- Strong writing makes Whit and his family relatable, likable characters.
- Highlights the strains and stresses of family life in an insightful, thought-provoking manner.
- The number of branching paths and choices is impressive.
- The pacing just feels a little off, and the consequences of your decisions are only truly felt right towards the end.
- Needed to be a little shorter to suit its multiple endings and replayable nature.
- Some minor presentation blips and issues with text tarnish the experience a little.
July 13, 2021
Armature Studio LLC