Review for Half Past Fate: Romantic Distancing
Adventure games by Serenity Forge
Note: Though the article content is the same, the review of Half Past Fate has been published separately with its own individual rating.
Half Past Fate: Romantic Distancing tells a little story of a long-distance relationship in the midst of a pandemic, mirroring the unfortunate situation in our world. I was initially drawn in by the clever title and refreshing graphics, then stayed for the intimate exploration of a relatable modern love story, and I was sad when it ended so soon. Which was why I was over the moon when I discovered that I’d previously overlooked its parent title, Half Past Fate, a series of intertwined relationship stories with six ensemble characters stumbling through life to find love. Taking place pre-lockdown, it’s an easy-going game that unpeels itself like a feel-good movie of the 2000s while laying out the world-building and storytelling blueprint for its eventual spin-off. At first glance the two games seem very much alike, with their charming visuals, excellent writing and likeable characters, but they have much different themes and one is much shorter than the other, resulting in two surprisingly distinctive experiences.
Spilling coffee on a stranger in a café and an unexpected meet cute at a tea festival are just a couple examples of the kinds of familiar romantic comedy tropes you will encounter in Half Past Fate. It is indeed described as a “rom-com adventure,” and represents a fusion between the exploration elements of a point-and-click adventure and a visual novel style of storytelling. Despite its drastically different premise of a new couple forced to deal with imposed separation, Romantic Distancing pretty much runs in the same vein as the original in terms of aesthetic and gameplay, and both titles share a soft, bubbly atmosphere throughout.
Making up the first game’s anthology are Bia and Milo, film major college best friends; Mara and Rinden, tech company professionals with their awkward office encounters; and Jaren and Ana, a sweet duo whose plot continually moves the whole game forward (quite literally). Each ‘couple’ brings something unique to the table, with some being a little more sceptical about relationships, and others harboring years-long feelings. Several of the six characters are related in one way or another, and seeing how they’re all somehow connected together down the line is one of the more interesting aspects of this kind of storytelling.
We’re first introduced to Rinden, an office worker on his way to an important meeting. As he’s about to cross the street he breaks the fourth wall and says to himself, ‘I can use WASD or the arrow keys to walk across the street,’ before following it up with a dry joke about what WASD might stand for. As he looks for his phone and more, we’re introduced to the basic controls with three simple functions: examine, talk or trigger an action (like picking up objects and such), and access inventory. The focus here is primarily on the narrative experience more than complex puzzle mechanics. Usually the challenge lies more in finding the right people or items; once you have, simply use the required objects when needed and you’re good to go. These same mechanics carry over to Romantic Distancing.
With rich details in the environment and lots of interesting NPCs to meet along the way, there’s never a shortage of things to do and investigate. If you’re curious enough, completionists can even unlock hidden achievements by performing certain actions a number of times or interacting with particular items. But to move things along you’ve got to pay attention to what the characters need, because the adventure itself is quite linear with specific plot points to hit in order to progress.
In fact, Half Past Fate is structured as a slow-burning countdown – a series of time jumps to be exact. Every new chapter starts with a timestamp: 12 hours ago or even 8 years and 6 months ago, and that bit of information sets the stage and makes starting every new sequence feel fresh. Each chapter usually stars a different character, so not only do you continually jump in time, but also from protagonist to protagonist. Most flashbacks get closer and closer to the present, building excitement and keeping you wondering what has occurred since we saw these characters last.
Sometimes you’ll see familiar faces in these different times and places, but you’ll also notice subtle changes in their approach to life and relationships throughout the timeline, which only adds to their richness as people with individual backgrounds and circumstances. Some of the main characters are more fleshed out than others, but this doesn’t affect the experience much as you’re busy connecting all the dots together. Still, I wish I was able to learn just a little more perspective and backstory details about the ones given less attention.
One of the more dramatic storylines is when Jaren must try to find the final digits of a phone number and ends up having an adventure all around the city just to arrange a potential date. The whole sequence made me smile, as I was rooting for him to find this little piece of information, performing some old-school sleuthing, doing random favors and even joining a ramen-eating competition, all for the chance to meet the stranger once again.
There is no voice acting in either game, but conversation between characters is written well for the most part and sounds authentic to each character. There are some minor hiccups in the dialog feedback, however. One example involves Jaren finding a lost wallet. Before discovering it, I’d already spoken to someone claiming to have lost his, yet when I located the wallet later on, Jaren says, ‘I should see if it belongs to anybody,’ as if you’ve never met the person beforehand. Fortunately this kind of thing is rare, as most of the puzzles and dialog branches offer logical, consistent feedback.
For the short spin-off Romantic Distancing, the romance in question begins in a computer shop where Stephen, a jock with zero knowledge of computers, gets some much-needed help from the store’s cool cashier, Robin. They hit it off and agree to have their first date, but a city-wide lockdown is issued the next day, and so these two must resort to getting to know each other better online through their phones and computer screens.
Watching Stephen and Robin having to check the internet connection just to make an online call so they can share their days and activities with each other through webcams is all so relatable, especially these days when work meetings and many social exchanges are held through video conference. But all the enthusiasm and fun of a budding relationship soon gets tested as their views regarding safety protocols prove to conflict with one another. This is where the challenge lies, and unlike in Half Past Fate, where the storyline is more set in stone, here the choices you make towards the end will decide the success or failure of the relationship.
Details like the six-feet-apart stickers plastered on the street to keep safe distances between pedestrians, or traditional vendors now selling online through a food app during this pandemic are some of the most notable changes from the original. Such differences are integrated into the narrative as well, as the fledgling couple try to adjust to the new situation. But despite these ominous reminders of danger and the conversations about pandemic-related fears, all the while trying to make a relationship work, Romantic Distancing is not all bitter. It’s a sweet story about new love, hope, and at the same time, creating adult choices. Since I played it before its predecessor, it was interesting to go back and see the two main stars of the pseudo-sequel as minor NPCs in the original. And if you choose to play Half Past Fate first, you’ll welcome the chance to see these seemingly insignificant background characters leading fully fleshed-out lives with their own families, personal interests and living spaces.
While Romantic Distancing is spent largely indoors, exploring the neighborhood, office, and restaurants in Half Past Fate is such a pleasure. There was never a time that a new scene felt exactly the same as the previous one. Not only are they illustrated in lively 3D pixel art, but the amount of detail that has gone into them adds a welcome realism to the lives of these little sprites seen from a bird’s-eye view. Every tiny plate of food laid on tables, every decorative potted plant or shrub, every smattering of office supplies sitting idly on someone’s table adds to the believability of the settings, though most of these items can’t be interacted with. I especially love how the color scheme changes according to its respective place and timeline. Each interior and exterior setting is designed to make you feel certain things tied to the story: perhaps a bit of melancholy with warm browns and oranges of fall, or a soft romantic atmosphere at a seaside bar with various shades of night blue and red. The variety helps to transition between each scenario, especially with the constantly changing characters and their timelines.
The animation also provides some fun interactive feedback. For example, if you’re in the way of a walking NPC, they will stop and wait until you move aside before resuming their course. If you run towards a flock of pigeons, they will scatter and fly away. Minor idle animations for background characters (fixing their glasses, shifting as they hold their phone, etc.) also occur from time to time, which keeps even the indoor scenes from feeling too static.
One small criticism I have with Half Past Fate is that the exact same NPC makes his rounds through the neighborhood in nearly all of the scenes. Once you’ve been playing for a while, you can’t help but notice and wonder what he’s doing in all of the places you visit. It could’ve been fine because background extras are a common thing, but this particular character is given a little bit of screen time in the beginning, which makes him stand out and thus it’s a bit weird to see him walking around everywhere you go. But hey, maybe it’s a small neighborhood! Conversely, there’s a unique NPC who is meant to serve as a running gag throughout the game, continually either getting lost or being unable to meet with a friend, which I always found entertaining whenever I ran into them.
The hand-painted character overlays that pop up whenever a character speaks offer a little glimpse of what they look like up close, and some of them even sport different haircuts and outfits depending on the current timeline. These portraits also add another layer of emotion as the story unfolds; while not fully animated, their expressions change according to the mood of the conversation.
As nice as everything looks, the not-so-secret ingredient of what makes Half Past Fate such a pleasant narrative-driven adventure is the bubbly and cheerful chiptune-inspired music throughout. Not only do they complement the overall feel of the game, they’re also quite catchy and some of them stuck in my mind long after I finished playing. Romantic Distancing has a different set of musical scores, with more sombre pieces in some of the sad scenes and some really fast-paced and lively beats in its more hopeful sections.
As the characters in Half Past Fate encounter their own challenges, naturally they have individual objectives to complete, such as trying to create the perfect setup for a photo assignment, attempting to buy a sold-out movie ticket, or finding a way to get to the front of the queue by doing favors for all the people ahead of them, to name a few. There’s no task list, as there’s usually just one main objective at a time, giving you the chance to explore the whole scene looking for the required objects or talking to people to trigger the next clue. The storyline is pretty much linear, as whenever you try to leave a location or enter a new place too early, the current protagonist will usually say something along the line of, “I can’t leave until I do X.”
One of my favorite puzzles was Rinden hilariously trying to avoid running into someone in a restaurant, going to great lengths and enduring awkward moments to disguise himself just to walk safely to the table at the back. The scene is jam-packed with NPC encounters and silly stories, and the protagonist even ends up helping some of these strangers on the way – in a life-changing kind of way at that!
A lot of scenes in Half Past Fate play out in public areas, so the living spaces of only certain characters are ever shown, allowing a closer look into their home conditions. One lives with roommates and must deal with their various changing activities, and another resides in a quieter house with an ancestor’s shrine. With Romantic Distancing, since most of the story takes place in Stephen’s and Robin’s homes, the quests and puzzles mostly revolve around finding belongings inside their houses, showing their rooms to each other, and so on. You’ll watch them getting to know one another better as the camera pans back and forth between their places. It may sound limiting but it’s actually a strength of the game, as it focuses on the relationship between two characters and their dynamics. This creates a more personal, intimate examination of their love story compared to its predecessor, which is more of a mishmash of humanity crossing each other’s paths.
Although the plots of both titles follow a linear experience, the well-written narratives and the number of objects to interact with create an illusion of freedom, which is a big part of their charm. There’s never a need to rush, and sometimes talking to an NPC several times will trigger a longer conversation that is always a welcome source of mini stories to enjoy. What’s missing is the ability to save mid-chapter; quitting the game will cause all progress in that chapter to be lost (there’s a warning for it) so sometimes I had to push myself to finish the current one, even though I wanted to save it for another time.
I got to the end of Half Past Fate in approximately five hours, but there’s an option to revisit individual chapters of the game to unlock any missing achievements. Romantic Distancing was over in roughly 90 minutes, with multiple endings possible. The first time I got a sad ending, so I went back and redid the last chapter (which was automatically saved), choosing a different dialog option to get a happier outcome. In both titles there’s an extra treat for players during the credit roll, with illustration splashes of various couples shown, each with a short text narration revealing a bit about their lives after the final playable scene.
All in all, the shared world of Half Past Fate makes for a pair of fun, light-hearted experiences, each in its own way. Both games prove that the most valuable adventures in life may just be found in seemingly mundane, everyday events, which is where the core of these titles lies. They also serve as a reminder of all the good things that can come when humans listen to their hearts and try their best. They’re rather different games, but whether you begin with Half Past Fate or Romantic Distancing, both possess a delightful presentation with a similar core of well-meaning stories of human relationships, which is something we can all use a little more of these days.