Sitting somewhere between an escape room and the artful puzzling of Gorogoa comes Heal: Console Edition, the latest from publishing house Ratalaika Games. Known more for their visual novels and retro-platformers, this is something of a departure, but it ends up a welcome one.
You play an unnamed older gent, sitting mournfully in his armchair before – almost reluctantly – getting up to face the day. You’re then exploring a room which is presumably the old man’s, but everything is deteriorating, and shadows groan on the periphery. The door out is locked, and a series of puzzles are the key to opening it.
Anyone who’s experienced an escape room will find something familiar here. The puzzles are tactile things that you can pull, poke and rotate to try to understand what they want from you. Mobile game series The Room has made a living off these kinds of situations, and there are similarities here. Then you’re trying to solve the puzzle boxes, so that they – as they most often do – give you a fragment of a solution to another puzzle, probably the one that opens the door.
These puzzles are consistently good, and are the best bits of Heal: Console Edition. Some are a little too opaque, pushing you to the internet to get you started (a mid-game puzzle requires you to light up a 3×3 grid of lights by connecting them with a limited number of wires, but doesn’t explain that you can connect the wires to the fringes of the game screen, not just the lights), but they are the exceptions. Most have that cracking two-stage approach to them, as you are pulling levers and twirling knobs to get them started, and then engaging the brain for a solution.
They’re not conventional, either. We’ve played our share of Laytons, hidden object games and escape rooms, yet there are puzzles here that feel entirely unfamiliar. One asks you to navigate a ball through a maze by programming it beforehand, guessing the commands that will get it there. Another shows you a series of circles that rotate around each other, and buttons change the axis of rotation, so you have to match the pattern that lies beneath them. We were regularly surprised by something new, but still understood immediately what was needed of us. That’s no easy marriage.
A caveat comes in the form of the controls. While ‘Console Edition’ is there in the title, Heal can often feel like a direct port of a PC title. Everything is manipulated by mouse-like cursor controls, which is fine for most interactions, but clumsy for others. A rotary phone becomes failure-prone when using an analogue stick, and moving the older gent around becomes anachronistic when you are clicking where he needs to move. There’s no real reason why he couldn’t have been moved with the analogue stick, outside of consistency with the puzzles.
There are seven or eight puzzles per level, and there are seven levels, so this isn’t a massive game; you’re probably looking at two to three hours of play. But Heal: Console Edition fits that time snugly. The story never outstays its welcome and delivers the needed closure. Like Gorogoa, which Heal: Console Edition clearly admires, concise games often do the business.
But while the story nails the length, it feels like it misses the tone that the developer, Jesse Makkonen, is aiming for. It wants to be haunting or unsettling, with moments where you hide beyond boxes and something malevolent makes itself known, but we were never sure what these frights were, whether they were threatening, and what relevance they had. They were bumps in the night that were more a distraction than anything.
The same is true of the emotional heart of Heal: Console Edition. It clearly wants you to feel its longing, sad story very deeply, but we don’t get into the head of the old man, the story moments are too thinly sketched, and the puzzles don’t reflect his journey; they’re puzzles for puzzles’ sake, when they could have told us more about what the old man is healing from. For a game called Heal, we expected introspection and feeling, a mental or physical process of healing, and for the game to map to it. The closest we get are some chapter titles like ‘Desolate’ and ‘What Remains’, and little else.
It’s what stops Heal: Console Edition from being a strong recommendation. This is a compendium of well-designed puzzles, but with nothing truly connecting them, and that’s a missed opportunity. An ending tries to tug at the heartstrings but only finds air, and the writers clearly imagine a To the Moon-style emotional gut-punch, but we arrived at the end without a sense of what the writers were trying to say.
The aesthetics could have supported that kind of storytelling. While being a little on the drab and colourless side, Heal: Console Edition is also an attractive-looking game, somewhere between paper puppetry and watercolours. You could certainly imagine a sequel with more confidence in the story it’s telling, and the emotional heft would come with it.
Heal: Console Edition on the Xbox works best when it commits to being a series of escape rooms. You’ll be manhandling some tactile little puzzle boxes that are surprisingly original, and feeling the glow of solving them. It’s the bits between the boxes that are flimsy: stodgy controls, limp scares and a lack of an emotional thread can’t quite coalesce into a strong structure. Treat it as an evening’s puzzle break, rather than a late night story, and you’ll find yourself right at home.