Narrative adventure Open Roads has promise, but a demo leaves us unconvinced

In theory, Open Roads should be an easy sell to someone like me, because I love a stylised narrative adventure game – see As Dusk Falls from a couple of years ago. Open Roads follows a mother and daughter (Opal and Tess) on a road trip after they learn a secret about their recently departed mother/grandmother. What was she hiding from them, and why? Who was she? The promise is an engaging mystery told through slow-burn character development – the kind of set-up that might teach us a thing or two about our lives along the way. Great; I’m all in.

Yet, after sitting through a half-hour preview of Open Roads, I’m left scratching my head about it – because nothing much happened. It was hands-off, I should say, and all I saw in that time was our character Tess, the daughter, walking around a house, picking objects up and talking to her mum. That was it. There was no sense of mystery and no real sense of story. Given the game is out next month, it was a very strange chunk of game to show.

I’m not sure about some of the things I did manage to see, either. To me, these kinds of games run on their performances; they are the engine driving them. It’s doubly true of Open Roads because it has limited character animations and almost no lip-synching, either. This approach can work very well though – again, see As Dusk Falls.

Open Roads is out next month.

But here, it feels flat, and I’m not exactly sure why that is. The actors’ performances seem fine and the sparing animations can be effective, and the artwork is appealing. Put it all together, though, and something is holding it back. It doesn’t help that there’s no discernible audio accompanying it (which may be a byproduct of the game being demoed remotely). All together, it ends up feeling like you’re watching a rehearsal, rather than a final performance.

What was nice to see, though, was the game’s attention to detail. Clearly, a great deal of effort has gone into it. Open Roads is as much a game about interacting with objects as it is talking, and you’ll be forever picking them up and turning them over in your hands. On a related note, it’s also a game about the early noughties – 2003 specifically – and about replicating that era in touchable paraphernalia. There are curvy old iMacs, triangular tamagotchis, chunky high school yearbooks (there’s an obvious American bent with all this). It should take you back.

This beginning section of the game is entirely given to nosing around your grandma’s house, until your mum sends you to the attic to find something. This is actually the only task I saw in the game, finding an attic key – a kind of metal rod – that you need in order to get up there. Once there, you’ll find a suitcase full of memories that will, apparently, begin the road trip.

I like the way the game’s drawn, too – it looks unique. There’s a neat bit of juxtaposition going on as well. The environments are fairly rigid 3D, albeit softened with a thin layer of crayoned nostalgia, but characters are completely different. They’re heavily stylised, as if pulled from an old Scooby Doo cartoon – all bold lines, bold colours, bold energy. And the difference really pops – they spring out from the background.

These characters will run through a series of key postures and expressions as you chat, but otherwise, stay fairly stationary. There are dialogue choices – one example we saw had Tess sarcastically lead her mother on about “ska”, which the mother had clearly never heard of, and it was amusing. And you wouldn’t get that dialogue path if you opted for something else. What the consequences are of dialogue beyond that, though, I don’t know. There’s no apparent web of choice and consequence that I could spot.

And that’s it, really – that’s what I have to go on, hence my reservations and slight bewilderment at not showing a more gripping and intriguing section of gameplay, or simply more of it so close to release. Is that just a bad decision on Annapurna’s part, or is it indicative of something more? I don’t know.

I want to give Open Roads the benefit of the doubt because I like these kinds of experiences, and I’m sure that more time with the game will intrigue me and pull me in. Also, its time in development has been a seemingly difficult one. Open Roads is the game originated by Gone Home and Tacoma developer Fullbright, before co-founder Steve Gaynor faced a staff exodus over his management style and things fell apart. Now, it’s developed by the Open Roads Team for Annapurna. It’s understandable if its road to launch hasn’t been the smoothest. But it hasn’t convinced me yet.

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