by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Taking one step at a time
While making any game is a risk, the affectionately dubbed "walking simulators" may be the most deceivingly difficult to nail. With such limited gameplay, they live or die on their narratives and environmental atmospheres, which are famously hard for even the biggest-budget game to get right. Return to Grace, developed and published by Creative Bytes Studios, fully commits to its genre, eschewing almost all traditionally gamey elements in pursuit of a simple but satisfyingly evocative story and message about the human condition. While it’s not without minor stumbles, Return to Grace had me gripped from its opening scene to the credit role, and it’s a project that fans of the genre won’t want to miss.
Like most narrative exploration games, Return to Grace throws players right into the thick of things and lets the nature of the narrative unfold over time. In this case, players step into the space suit of Adie as she roughly crashes to the surface of the frozen Ganymede. Her only companion is the voice of her ship's AI, who guides her through the unforgiving terrain as she searches for the mysterious Spire. Small deserted buildings hint at something bigger, and it's not long until she finds what she’s been looking for.
A Familiar Story Done Well
Explained on the macro level, Return to Grace presents a narrative hook that's familiar at best and banal at worst. Grace is - or was - an almighty AI with the intelligence and power to craft a better future for humanity, but, as always seems to be the case, something goes wrong, and Grace simply disappears. However, in both the details and execution, Adie's story grows into something beautiful that's stuck with me since I completed my playthrough.
Not gone for mere years or decades, Grace has been gone for almost a millennium, but fragments of her missing whole exist in the form of these specialized and simplified AIs that help Adie - the snarky Logic, the authoritarian Control, and the warmly friendly Empathy. Further, each of the three is split into a subdivided combination mixing two of the aforementioned to create a hybrid AI. While it sounds complicated, it really just boils down to six different voices in Adie's head that help her navigate the spire to find out how to piece them all back together into Grace.
Adie's conversations with the six AI personalities make up the meat of Return to Grace, and they're generally a delight. Pal, a mix of Control and Empathy, is a childlike daredevil that annoys Mom, a mix of Empathy and Logic. Control predictably doesn’t appreciate when Adie ignores his instructions, and Logic can't fathom the value of emotions or artistic expression. They feel like characters out of Pixar's Inside Out in a great way, and the AI's relationship with both each other and Adie develops in interesting ways as the story progresses.
The Big Questions
Return to Grace deals with familiar questions surrounding what makes us human, how we respond to adversity, and the way tradition adapts in the face of technological and social advancement, and while spoiling the finer points of how those are brought up robs the game of its biggest selling points, the final stretch of the game presented a story that I found quite beautiful.
In addition to the ongoing dialogue between Adie and the six AI segments of Grace (her ship's AI is only briefly a presence), Return to Grace does a great job with visual storytelling. The inside of the Spire consists of beautiful and varied environments that wouldn't look out of place in a Bioshock game. While a largely linear experience, the game also gives the player the choice of how much they'd like to explore different environmental segments, and I enjoyed simply walking through rooms and listening to audio recordings to get more immersed in the created world.
Light on Gameplay, But Big On Feeling
As is generally the case with walking simulators, traditional gameplay is extremely limited. Most of the game is simply walking through an area, exploring some rooms or buildings, listening to dialogue, and moving on as the story progresses. However, there are a few pattern-based puzzles that unlock doors (however, they're skippable), one quick segment with a flamethrower (the only weapon in the game, and it's not used for combat), and a few balance beam segments. The latter is one of my only sore spots on the game, as walking and balancing were a bit more unengaging than I felt they should have been. Besides that, there are a few decision points in the back third of the game with consequences, and they succeeded in making me pause and think.
Return to Grace won't win over anyone that isn't interested in the slow and pensive pace that this genre delivers, but those that are will find a wonderfully crafted adventure that balances familiar tropes with insightful themes, memorable dialogue, and beautiful environments. At about 2.5 hours in length, the game is a quick play, but it doesn't overstay its welcome and feels like it's exactly as long as it should be. Return to Grace is an easy recommendation for anyone looking for a single-sitting adventure that'll stay in mind far longer.
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Wonderfully crafted atmosphere, well-written dialogue, and engaging narrative themes.
Actual gameplay is light, even for the genre.