HomeReviews3.5/5 ReviewKnow by heart... Review

Know by heart… Review

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Know by heart… is built on such a simple idea that you wonder why it hasn’t surfaced in a major game before. What would happen if we all collectively lost memories of each other? The realities of it would be devastating, and the concept raises interesting questions of social structures like family, friends and careers when our memory of them has gone. How do they change? Can those relationships survive beyond our memory of them? 

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While Know by heart… begins to tease at its fantastic central concept in the opening scene, it is initially more concerned about generating memories than losing them. The main character, playable over the majority of Know by heart… is Misha, who hasn’t been able to escape his childhood home. He’s stuck in a Papers Please-style job in the local train station, checking visas and typing out their names on a typewriter (which actually plays out in gameplay; a menial task that’s there to highlight poor Misha’s boredom). 

But life gets a bit of its spark back, as a major birthday in the town of Ennui (not particularly subtle), which means that his childhood friends are returning for something of a reunion, including Asya, an unrequited love. As they arrive, one by one, through the gates of his train station, tension and fondness begins to resurface and it feels like the crew are getting back together. 

One of the group, Artyom, has the idea of collecting a photo album together of their favourite moments, and the two main gameplay mechanics of Know By Heart… reveal themselves. This is a game of idle exploration in a reasonably open town, looking for areas designated as memories – circular piles of leaves – that will trigger a recall of some event in their past: goofing around in class, climbing trees, making paper boats, that sort of thing. Misha and friends also travel to the older residents of the town who remember them as children. This leads to jigsaw-like sections where you piece together photos from the past, leading to a dollop of even more nostalgia. 

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The reminiscing is set against a backdrop of a town where something is clearly going wrong. It’s an incredibly slow descent – Know by heart…’s patience is a strong point, as you wonder where the plot is incrementally going – but people begin to forget things. It’s unclear whether this is an invasion of some form (which carries some current poignancy, as this is set in a Russian town that is fearful of outsiders), a pandemic, or something entirely different. 

The two threads running through Know by heart… are cleverly contrasted. One thread concerns itself with reclaiming memories, and it helps to show how powerful memory can be. Through photos and reminiscing, a group of people – strangers for the last decade – can effectively start where they left off. The other thread shows how flimsy memory is, and it puts the original thread in great peril. 

We won’t delve too much into what happens as those two threads intertwine, and you can probably imagine how sad and maudlin things get. Time ticks down for the friends, and it’s one of Know by heart…’s great virtues that it lets things creep to a climax, rather than socking everyone over the head with it immediately. 

In interacting with the wider town of Ennui, you meet its residents, and they offer up small character studies that shine a light on memory, or the simple alienation or drudgery that comes from living in a remote Russian town. Know by heart… is developed by developers Ice-Pick Lodge, who are better known for their Pathologic games, but the writing here is of a high-standard (if occasionally laced with typos and mistranslations). They have a strong handle on the emotional eddies and flows. 

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Much like their Pathologic series, though, there are some weighty technical problems that threaten to critically overturn it. Most significant of them all is movement: in Know by heart…, the cameras are fixed, and you move Resident Evil-style through them (albeit at a much more zoomed out perspective). But Ice-Pick Lodge artfully switches the camera regularly, facing north, then east, then south and so on. But rather than reset the controls so you are always pressing ‘up’ if you want to move into the back of the screen, they are compass-based. What this means is that, if you moved left into a east-facing scene change, you might need to suddenly press right because you are now facing west. It’s bewildering, and we often found ourselves turning our pad upside down, or opening menus to reset the controls. It’s an astonishing decision, and it never stops being a problem, particularly in later moments where doing things at speed is essential. 

Visual bugs and inconsistencies are throughout, too. Characters disappear and reappear. We were sitting in Misha’s room when a random character walked in and then popped out of existence. The wrong dialogue options were often selected, even though we were careful in choosing them. Characters snap in and out of animations. 

How much it will disrupt your enjoyment is hard to measure. We found they were most prevalent at exactly the worst moments: a couple of set pieces involving fire and water were undermined and made incredibly frustrating by bugs, controls and curious design decisions (understanding what you need to do in Know by heart… is often more difficult than it should be), yet they were intended to be the game’s peaks. You don’t want to be pepper-sprayed just as things get good. We can say with some confidence that there would be an extra half mark on the score if they were less of an issue. 

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Know by heart… can be an incisive, sad and elegant game. It’s got its snow-covered mitts on a fantastic idea, and it knows how to wring it for every last emotional drop. It isn’t necessarily subtle at doing so, and the ending could have offered a little more insight or something unexpected, but it’s effective, and we felt everything that the main characters did. Its themes are universal, after all: there is joy and sadness in exploring memory, and we all fear the idea of losing them. 

If only the vessel carrying all of these ideas could have been sturdier. It has a multitude of leaks thanks to various design quirks, bugs and graphical issues, and the controls feel like they are a product of sabotage. It takes constant effort, but if you can overcome these flaws, then Know by heart… is – appropriately – a story that will stick with you for a long time. 

You can buy Know by heart… from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S

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