Empathy: Path of Whispers takes place in a sci-fi post apocalypse of sorts. The world erupted into chaos and humanity whittled down to nothing. A strange phenomenon has caused countless people to go insane and fly into a murderous rampage. People die and flee and then, as the protagonist/narrator explains at the beginning, “things go quiet”. However, he believes there is still hope for humanity, and in some isolated place he finds a child (that would be us) who he believes can help him get to the bottom of this disaster. The method of doing so is the interesting part, as he intends to do this by utilising a device that can explore the memories and emotions that litter the seemingly abandoned world. What will you discover about the world from these memories, and will you find the ‘solution’ this man is looking for?

As far as premises go, I’d have to say it’s a little bit vague. However, this conveniently plays into the mechanics and theme of the game, with you ‘discovering’ the story as you go along. Empathy is a bit of a walking simulator/narrative driven title – as reductive as that is to say, I think most people will get the gist of what’s on offer from that description – and so its main drive is in you finding the story through exploration, reading of notes, and listening to character dialogue. Unlike a lot of narrative driven ‘experiences’ (*retches*), however, Empathy actually has some tangible gameplay and interaction, albeit small, to get to grips with. The most important of which is this device that explores memories and emotions.

It’s a simple process, really. Each level is filled with objects that contain essences of memories, and in order to unlock them you must track them down with your device and tune into their ‘waves’. Each object appears as a blip on your device’s compass, giving you an idea of what direction to head in. When you reach one, you have to solve a simple mini-game of matching the wave lengths. For example, one button extends your lines up and down, another moves them left and right, and the last fine-tunes the line. When you match the default pattern with yours, it unlocks the memory and you are given some dialogue by whatever character in the past this object was relevant to.

It took a few for me to get used to it, but after then these puzzles are pretty easy – a little too easy if I’m honest. Once you’ve found all the memories in the level the game will transport you to one of these past experiences, where you will complete a task that unlocks where you’re next supposed to go. The first of these sees you as a worker hammering planks of wood onto a track, and once you’ve done that, your character can now cross to the other side. In the larger levels, upon finding all the objects you will play out one of these memories and then more objects in the same areas will become available to unlock, but generally speaking some new area will be unlocked for you to explore as well.

In addition to finding memories, you will also want to keep an eye out for items. Some puzzles require items to solve, such as a key or a part to a machine, but these aren’t marked on your device like the memories, you have to explore naturally to find them. Optional memories can also be found that aren’t marked on your device, and while not necessary for progression, they are definitely worth looking out for if you want to get to grips with the story. The game relies quite heavily on this memory hacking mechanic, but it’s nice that there is a bit of variety to proceedings as well – encouraging you to properly explore the areas, as opposed to just bumbling your way towards waypoints on your device.

And you’ll want to have a good look around, because while rudimentary in terms of textures, and the occasional barren area, the aesthetic of Empathy is pretty damn cool. The first great sight that’ll probably grab you is of a huge island propped up by a giant statue of a bearded man. The whole world of Empathy is elevated. You look down to see buildings far below, you’re surrounded by towers and complex structures built all the way up in the sky. It’s pretty magnificent, and certainly staggering to think about in terms of the context of the world (there were people living up here?).

The developers did a great job of establishing a sense of scale right from the get go, and this continues through to the end. It stumbles somewhat with filling the world with actual interesting things – as I mentioned already, some areas are quite barren (take the train station, for example, there’s not much going on there aside from the memories you’re looking for) – but the quirky nature of the world I found enough to negate this. Additionally, there’s a variety in the types of areas you visit. You’ve got the depressing, dull train station, the dark yet mysterious island with its camp site and sewer system, the colourful mountain town with buildings built into cliff sides, and the last area, which I won’t go into detail to avoid spoilers, but it’s another shift in visual tone. Empathy does what is absolutely essential for narrative focused games, and that is to create an interesting world.

The story is intriguing to discover as well, and the few gameplay mechanics on offer help to drive you through it all. Unfortunately, however, these are also the areas where the game’s issues are most present. As quirky and charming as the memory searching initially seems, it quickly becomes rote and reveals how simplistic it really is. There’s no meaningful scaling of challenge to the wave-length puzzles (in fact, towards the end it seemed like a fair amount of them were copies of each other), and you do them so often they just become a means to an end. I get that this is the main mechanic and that in the story this device is how you access memories, however it’s clear not much effort has been put in to diversifying this area. Could there not have been more than one mini-game idea implemented, or at least have some more complex wave-lengths to deal with towards the end? It made what was to begin with a potentially enjoyable dynamic seem more like an excuse for gameplay.

Additionally, while the inclusion of item based puzzles helps to mix things up a bit, these are also the most frustrating aspects of the game. The problem isn’t so much that they’re illogical, or difficult to understand, or really just hard to find in theory, but the game’s exploration has an issue with consistency. You can explore some buildings but not others, you can open some draws and lockers but not others, and you can interact with some objects in the environment but not others. It creates a false sense of what’s viable to interact with in the game’s environments, and actually works to make finding items and environmental puzzles quite difficult. As an example, one item in the game that I struggled to find was shut in a draw. Doesn’t sound too much of an issue, I could just explore and try every draw I come across until I find it. Problem is, up until this point, every draw, locker and cupboard I tried to interact with showed no signs of interactivity, so I had no reason to consider this an option. One draw out of the tens of draws in the level was interactable and happened to hold the solution to my problem. It sounds like a silly issue, but this extends to other puzzles in the game too, and at times you find yourself stumbling around without a clue of what to do until you accidently discover the next step. There’s no setup or structure to these puzzles, no start point to begin your ‘investigation’ into the solution, you just seem to randomly fall onto the correct path – often after much fretting.

Thankfully the story serves to compel you through the hard times, but even this isn’t without fault. I’ll commend the developers for having a good amount of voice acted material – this isn’t a story-driven title that relies so much on making you read notes – but some of it can be pretty hard to listen to. The main character is voiced well and comes out with some interesting musings, however some of the other pieces of dialogue are cringe worthy and not well acted at all. There’s also just a hint of pretentiousness to some of it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s badly written or silly – I thoroughly enjoyed the story and learning about the world’s past – but there are some areas where the script forgoes a direct explanation in favour of throwing ponderings or suggestions at you. I don’t feel the story is easy enough to understand in the first place for that to work, and I’d rather continue, as he does for most of it, to elaborate and summarise what you witness.

The game’s length seemed just about right for me – lasting 5 hours in total – and as the game is, I think any more might have resulted in things becoming tedious. However, this could also be put down to the game not offering enough with its gameplay. There were certainly some missed opportunities and half-hearted attempts in there, and as a result it struggles to meet its full potential. But did I enjoy the game and do I think it’s worth your time? Yes, honestly, to both of those. Provided of course the thought of playing a walking simulator type title doesn’t offend you, I feel that Empathy: Path of Whispers has enough going for it to get invested. I will say as a final note, there were some reports of pretty serious bugs after the game’s release. I’ve reviewed the game a fair bit later than most, so I can say at this stage I didn’t experience anything significant in that respect. There were the odd moments getting stuck and having to reload, but nothing game breaking and it’s being patched as it goes on. Aside from that, it’s an intriguing title. The story and aesthetic are quirky and fascinating to experience, and play well into the memory exploring mechanic. It’s just a shame it stumbles at making this mechanic more worthwhile. Some more thought-out puzzling and a bit of extra polish and this would have been pretty decent game in my opinion, but unfortunately it’s ultimately a little disappointing.

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