When it comes to videogames the biggest internal debate I have is typically regarding the classic Story versus Gameplay dilemma. How many times have we had to sit through boring dialogue just to get to some explosion-packed action? How many times have we had to get through the lame gameplay just to hit the next story beat? While the former certainly outweighs the latter, it’s easy to point out hands full of games that are still rated well yet suffer these same burdens.
Which brings me to my unconventional two part review of Freaky Creations’ To Leave. As this is a game that deals with the debilitating aspects of depression and suicide, it wouldn’t be fair to simply grade it on gameplay alone – though I’m tempted. Honestly, I wasn’t intending to split it up in this fashion, but the more I played, the more I felt compelled to offer curious readers two separate opinions that should hopefully coalesce into one.
I’ll start with the game’s strengths, which are so strong they were almost enough to sway me to the green… just before the inevitable crash and burn into deep crimson reds. Speaking of colors, the stunning art style is a real highlight, with vibrant and colorful backdrops perfectly illustrating the dread of monotony throughout.
To Leave explains right off the bat that everything available in the game is there for very specific reasons. It also explains how it deals with depression and other heavy topics, even going so far as to recommend seeking help if needed – because playing the game itself isn’t an alternative to real therapy. More of that later.
You play as Harm (I told you) as he sets out to go through something he calls his “Plan”, simply because the love of his life suffered the same fate. You set out on an adventure to harvest souls from a magical door inside your bedroom that leads you to different areas, all with their own sets of challenges. In fact, I got a slight Braid vibe with To Leave, as the game likes to introduce new mechanics as you move along to new areas. While the game is heavy-handed, it never feels like it’s going for pure chock value. It genuinely feels like they are promoting awareness and not just trying to be edgy.
Speaking from experience, the game generally handles emotional distress and mental issues very well. Depression is something that not everyone experiences the same way, affecting everyone differently. This variance is what makes it difficult to work with as there is never one singular way to quell these brain patterns. For the most part, Freaky Creations handles all of this with a very precise, albeit heavy, hand. They’re trying to be completely blunt with its drug use, themes of a “Plan”, a.k.a. suicide, and general anxieties of those afflicted. I appreciated this, as gaming is a medium sorely lacking brutal honesty in all the above areas.
While the honesty is welcomed, however, it can be a little on the nose at times, specifically with in-game journals available at your desk. These can feel very angsty and emo, though very much realistic as they pertain to his personality. You do feel kinda bad for the guy.
After harvesting souls, you’ll find yourself slowly lumbering toward your door back to your room. The way they visually show you inching your way back so succinctly demonstrates that drained feeling associated with depression. Everything about the game oozes with a unique style that makes it stand out.
Two interesting terms in video games have come about in recent times: Ludonarrative Dissonance and Ludonarrative Consistencies. I won’t explain either in great detail, but the quick version is Gameplay vs Story and how both relate to each other; dissonance being the two butt heads and consistencies meaning they gel completely. To Leave certainly excels in the latter, more than any game I’ve seen in many years. It could be due to the extreme bluntness of the mental themes, but every enemy type and every mechanic can be perfectly explained with its story.
There are plenty examples, but I want to touch on one enemy type as it is the crux of why I think the game is simultaneously brilliant and utter train wreck. There are blocks that have mechanics similar to other video games – one type repels as you get near and the other moves toward you gaining momentum. The blocks that repel away from you are feminine – which simulates how women always seem to retreat as Harm comes close. The blocks that come hurtling toward you are aggressive – representing masculine traits that seem attack Harm, despite him just only being there doing his own thing.
Little details like these speak to me on such a level that I know exactly how Harm feels. They so perfectly encapsulate those feelings of anxiety and dread that I couldn’t help but ache and right alongside him. Unfortunately, these blocks are introduced late in the game, just about the same time it all starts to fall apart.
Which leads me to the second and final part of the review: The Downfall.
Immediately after being touched by the sentiment of visually demonstrating anxiety to those who might not suffer, I hit a certain…wall. The game is only about 9 or 10 chapters long, the first 7 of which are just fine, not too tough and perhaps a little wonky. After I factored in all the positives, I was willing to let these negatives off with a pass for artistic sake. Why not suffer a little wonkiness for something that can enlighten people about mental instability and what it feels like?
But when Chapter 8 and those little Repel/Attract blocks come rolling around, the difficult ramps up to absurd levels as it – quite literally – introduces the concept of death in real and frustrating ways. The difficulty spike is horrendous and so abrupt that after each death my fondness for the game dropped at incredible speeds.
You see, in the game Harm grabs onto his Door and essentially floats around levels getting from one giant purple checkpoint block to the next, avoiding obstacles and eventually making it to the end of the stage. The Door is big and doesn’t really control all that well, but in earlier stages it’s just an inconveniences and you just reappear back at the last checkpoint. Throughout the levels you’ll collect bunches of blue orbs (“Vibrance”) that adds to your timer. Run out of time and you die, returning home to do the level all the way over again.
When it came to the 8th level, I felt good. I even had enough Vibrance to last a while. But then I hit a big version of one of those blocks. Unfortunately, these blocks have a weight to them that make them impossible to gauge at times. Sometimes they’ll barrel right into you, other times they’ll stop too soon and your only option is to let them hit you. With that first hurdle in the game, I died a big handful of times only to have to restart the level. I did eventually get that part completed just to run into another part doubly difficult directly after. The whole level feels about 3x longer than anything before it, leaving me not just frustrated but aggravated at the late-stage imbalance to the whole thing. Each death brought me closer and closer to swearing the game off forever. It’s not Fun Challenging; it’s just bad game design.
With enough persistence, I eventually completed it. I was so happy. But it wasn’t the same feeling as what a game like Dark Souls or even a Super Meat Boy might give. It was much more that I was thankful that I never had to ever endure such a travesty ever again. I was hopeful that the next level would be better, but this wasn’t to be. In fact, things only became more frustrating as they presented Sisyphean-like tasks of pushing a giant block to a 100% when you have many enemies preventing you from doing so.
On paper that still, oddly, all lines up with the themes of the game as a whole and that alone is impressive, but I cannot in good conscience recommend that anyone endure any of the final few chapters. The game offered up such a touching first few acts, but it falters so greatly at the end that you just want it to all be over.
To Leave attempts to present an interactive look at mental illness and how it affects those who may be suffering from it, but ultimately fails in execution. Perhaps this is best summed up by the game’s final chapters, which appear to reinforce the idea that life is hard and you really shouldn’t even try anymore, because it’s just going to throw you under the bus regardless by making your hitbox far too large and your controls too mushy. If their intentions were to illicit a reasoning as to why your character is considering suicide, the game miscalculates what might have been an amazing insight into the real causes of psychological disturbances.