The themes of mental health and depression have come to the fore in recent years. The excellent Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and Sea of Solitude are testaments to gaming experiences that find interesting and profound ways to tackle these tricky subjects. To Leave is a game that has come from a small team of Portuguese developers intent on tackling not only mental health but drug use, working a predominately adult theme that they have cleverly wrapped up in a dystopian fantasy world. Strangely though, it’s a very tricky platformer that reminds of Flappy Bird.
The story here is hard to pin down, but it is intriguing and covers its core subject matter with a fascinating style throughout. You are put into the shoes of a young man called Harm, who is found in his apartment building; a building he has not left for weeks. He writes in his journal, goes on the roof, and looks up at the cyberpunk-type skyline. Other areas in his apartment look like hastily barred-up portals to other dimensions. Harm experiments with hallucinatory drugs and has a task to do.
To ‘cure’ his depression he must operate – in another dimension – a thing called an origin gate. By using a floating magical door he needs to travel to eight different temples in eight different environments, collecting souls that have to be harvested at said temples. It’s an unusual and trippy narrative told through a high-end sci-fi description and the journals of Harm. You’ll probably have to end up guessing the plots of the story though and won’t know what is real and what is in Harm’s confused mind, but even then I think the storytelling and sense of atmosphere, mixing the real world with the unreal, are brilliantly created here. They are certainly among the strongest elements of the game.
The gameplay elements of To Leave are, however, right up there with the trickiest, most challenging and, at times annoying bits of the game. It’s all divided into two sections whereby in the first you wander around your location looking at journals, exploring your flat and the rooftop view. In the next part, you arrive at each temple location, left to perform some complex platforming.
With each level you have a route through to the end, shown in a mini-map. Harm can press a button and he’ll be found holding onto a magic door. Your job is to guide this door through a maze as shown on the mini-map. You do this by pressing a button in time, or holding it down or pressing RT to go faster. This is where my Flappy Bird similarity comes in as it feels energetic in its gameplay as you try to keep something aloft without hitting anything along the way. You have several safe points to get to on each level; these giant rocks with astonished expressions. You also have a limited amount of flying power, whilst glowing orbs found scattered through the levels help to boost the power gauge.
The problem is that in the second half of To Leave, it all just gets too difficult, leaving you dead countless times. In fact, it’s here where you die so much that it takes you out of the story and the atmosphere of the piece. The power gathering and running out of juice also feels like a strange mechanic to include, becoming nothing but annoying after a short while.
This is a shame because in the visual department To Leave is stunning. It employs a hand-drawn animation style that is gorgeous and beautifully coloured. The animation of Harm’s home, the strange worlds, and dark temples are unbelievably good, so much so that at times it all feels like a cross between The Artful Escape and Angry Birds. The cutscenes are outstanding as well.
Sound-wise it has a very good, yet strange and uneasy, soundtrack running underneath the action. This works well, however, I had a slight problem where the effects and soundtrack would switch off, requiring a pause of the game in order to give it a nudge in the audio settings before it kicked in again.
To Leave is a game of two halves. The visuals, the story, and the overall ambiance of the game are all lovely, but frustration occurs thanks to the challenging and – at times – infuriating platforming. Depending on how you are looking at things, To Leave could well be an important game – much like a prog rock mega album, you might just be able to forgive its flaws.
To Leave is on the Xbox Store