It will take you 7 minutes to read this review.
Herald – An Interactive Period Drama is exactly what it says on the tin, but don’t let the bland tag line turn you away from this delightfully immersive experience from indie developer Wispfire. It’s set in a slightly alternate 19th century when trade was still predominantly undertaken by sailing ships, and tackles lofty themes like servitude, colonialism and racism. While perhaps more visual novel than traditional adventure, the first two chapters in this four-part tale drew me in with its colourful art and kept me hooked with its intriguing choice-driven story and compelling characters. It’s not perfect – the voice acting is sometimes off and there’s no challenge involved – but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, even if only half of it is finished so far.
The game puts you in control of Devan Rensburg, a young man of mixed British/Indian heritage. When we first meet him, he’s being held captive after being saved from drowning. But this is no ordinary prison. The room he’s in looks out at the sea and is lushly decorated with plump cushions, flowing silks and intricate ornaments. Devan is being questioned by a mysterious woman called The Rani, who now possesses his journal and wants to know why he was found wearing a blue captain’s outfit.
The blue is significant: it represents the British Protectorate, a superpower that has tight control of the West but is facing resistance in the Eastern Indian colonies where The Rani lives. Devan explains that he was born in the East and has sailed in search of his past and adventure. Working in the merchant navy was the only way he could acquire passage across the sea. Luckily, a ship called the Herald was making the trip, and Devan was granted a position aboard by the second officer, Aaron Ludlow.
From here on out, the rest of the tale unfolds in flashback retrospective, sending players back in time to shortly after the Herald set sail. Devan begins as a low-ranking sailor and is tasked with fetching equipment, helping with the cooking and doing other menial tasks. While it might sound dull, these activities act as framing devices for wonderful character interaction with people from all different walks of life. It’s this multiculturalism, in all aspects like age, class and race, that causes division amongst the crew, and tension is constantly bubbling beneath the surface. As Devan, you must decide how to navigate through all this by making dialogue and action choices. For example, when the sneering Protectorate senator, an esteemed guest aboard the Herald, is condescending to you, do you provoke him or respond politely? When the chef assumes that you must like spicy food, do you agree or challenge him?
Everyone you meet forms an opinion about you. Though the main story beats will always be hit, you can change certain things at micro and macro levels. You can not only alter the course of a conversation, but also the outcome of a couple big moments, though you won’t realise how until the time comes. Unlike the type of choice-based gameplay popularised by Telltale, where your attention is overtly drawn to an important decision being made, Herald is subtler in its approach. When these climactic scenes do occur, the consequences of your earlier choices can be dramatic. Each time they took me by surprise and shocked me because I’d been drawn into a false sense of security; try as I might to regain control, I’d already shot myself in the foot with a previous action. And yet despite being unexpected, they still felt fair in context. Plus, depending on how you act in the moment, you might still be able to make a situation go your way, even if your previous actions make it challenging.
Devan himself is an intriguing figure: quiet, considered, a man who claims he has no time for “silly things” like card games. For the most part I chose to play him honestly and humorously, though not without bite. When Aaron was giving me a sincere tour of the ship, complete with history lesson, I lightly ribbed him for it. But when a young boy spoke out about being mistreated, I confronted the accused despite the potential damage to my reputation. Whether you choose to follow suit or to blend into the background and people-please is entirely up to you. There’s even the potential to say some morally questionable things if you desire.
The protagonist ends up getting involved in all sorts of tasks on his voyage, like helping a doctor tend to someone who has fallen drastically ill, investigating a potentially ghoulish presence, and finding a weapon that’s gone missing. You left-click where you want Devan to move and he’ll stroll at a decent speed, or you can click on what you want to interact with and the camera will swing in for a closer look. Clicking a doorway will send you into that room, though sometimes you’ll automatically be taken somewhere else if the story requires a time jump. You can pick things up along the way, but these instances are few and far between and it’s usually because someone has asked you take something somewhere, so you don’t need to engage with or manage an inventory.
While the pace is often leisurely, I was never bored. That said, if you’re after complexity in gameplay, you won’t find it here. You are always told where you need to go or what you need to do – go fetch some documents, go deliver this food, and so on. Providing you click on all the hotspots indicated by the smart cursor, you won’t get stuck, and if you forget your objective you can always refer to Devan’s journal, which lists your current task. The only difficulty, if it can even be called that, is finding your way around the ship, but you have an in-game map you can open to orient yourself. I enjoy a challenge but don’t require one for enjoyment, so the simplicity didn’t bother me. Instead, I took pleasure in the characters and the conversations.
It’s the dialogues you’ll spend a lot of time exploring, and what a joy they are. Every single person on board is unique, including the secondary characters, and each has their own personality and history. Cornelis Hendriksz is the captain, a controlling and ignorant man but equally able to listen to reason once in a while. Tabatha Veazie, the senator’s well-mannered niece, is unfazed by status and strikes up a friendship with Devan. Cabel Haywood, the boatswain, is brash and combative, though dive deeper and you’ll find out why. They’re all three-dimensional, neither solely good nor bad. I wasn’t born in the 19th century, obviously, but the writing has a charming formality that sounded authentic to me.
The script is complemented by generally impressive voice acting throughout, spanning a wide range of accents. Devan is especially noteworthy, with an air of sophistication but also a certain devious twinkle. Louis Morton, the senator, is brought to life with snooty perfection, and boatswain Cabel’s twang is simultaneously unsettling and enticing. However, while there are no bad performances to single out, there are occasions when the vocals falter slightly. It’s probably down to direction, but sometimes the pronunciation of words or the flow of a sentence is a little off. It’s ultimately a minor quibble considering the overall quality, but it is noticeable at times.
One of my favourite aspects of playing Herald was that I genuinely felt immersed in the setting thanks to the howling of the wind, the creaking of the wood, and light shining through portholes, among other ambient touches. Around you the crew is busy hoisting sail or playing dice. The attention to detail adds to the atmosphere and helps foster belief that you’ve been cast back in time on the open seas. Better yet, you can click loads of things in the environment to have Devan comment on them. These are always interesting or humorous, offering titbits about life on board the Herald (sand is a common ingredient in the chef’s stew, since he can’t be bothered to peel the potatoes) or the people within it (a laundry basket reveals that the senator requests a new napkin after every bite).
This is all presented in colourful, inviting storybook visuals that deceptively belie the often-serious narrative. Over the course of roughly three hours of play time for these first two chapters, a couple of days pass within the game. This means you get to see the deck of the ship at different times of day and in various weather conditions, like being bathed in the warm glow of a setting sun or feeling oppressed by the overcast grey clouds of an incoming storm. It all looks fabulous. So too do the interiors, ranging from the captain’s regal cabin decked in finery to the tiny crew’s quarters with bunkbeds lining the walls.
When you talk to people, they emote slightly in the 3D environment, like a stroke of the beard or wipe of the brow. At the same time, a quality illustration of the character you’re speaking to takes up a large portion of the right-side of the screen, with only their face changing to reflect mood, such as a cheeky smile or a look of shock in their eyes. Animations are generally quite limited and sometimes look a bit stilted outside of conversation, but I never found it particularly distracting. While it would have been nice to see more variety in the hand-drawn artwork, especially some body movement, what we do get is good enough.
Although players will get closure on some of the things encountered so far, there’s still much more to discover, especially after a cliffhanger that you won’t see coming. For a while it looked as though we’d never see the final two chapters in the story, but Wispfire recently announced they’d secured funding to continue development. I sincerely hope they succeed in finishing, as I'm ready to venture back inside that world and am eager to find out more about Devan, the crew and all the mysteries aboard the eponymous vessel. There isn’t much in the way of challenge, but if you’re looking for a gently-paced, absorbing story that welcomes player agency and doesn’t shy away from deeper, socially relevant themes, then climb aboard Herald now, with the promise of more still to come.