Wayward Strand Review
A depressing yet hopeful reminder that time doesn't stop for anyone.
Wayward Strand is a cute visual novel carried by its memorable characters and authentically written performances. It tells a simple story of a young girl who helps her mother take care of some elders at an old folks' home. It’s a very simple game with not a lot to say, but what it does say is very heartwarming. I can’t deny the overall experience - while not always super engaging - was still relaxing. The tone can shift pretty abruptly since it takes place in a hospital, but the atmosphere is consistently light-hearted and hopeful.
You play as Casey, a young aspiring journalist who doesn’t necessarily want to be surrounded by old people all day, but is going to do her best at helping. The sense of helping elders that have far more life experience but are now in a vulnerable deteriorating state is something that I haven't experienced in a game, and the interactive visual novel structure only elevates that feeling. The game also has a very specific NPC schedules that makes me wonder how a repeat play-through would look. In theory, you could just sit by the window and look at your notebook all day and the game would progress just the same.
Each character you come across is distinct with their own personality and quirks. As you learn more about you connect with their struggles and concerns. You’ll keep them company by talking to them about their lives, slowly digesting each personality and all the experience that has made them the person they are today. Most of them are really sweet and wholesome, some may not enjoy your company, and you’ll have the option to respect their boundaries or not.
Dialogue in Wayward Strand is extremely fluid and the dialogue tree is just as intuitive. I wish more RPGs would use a similar structure of organizing your options by tabs. Instead of only ever having four options that can be broken into very generic questions, every option can branch out, and very rarely can you go back and ask one of the other options. This makes conversations feel unique and natural, without feeling like you’re just exhausting every dialogue option. Some of your options dont have any dialogue but can illicit a response either way.
While it is quite literally scripted, it doesn’t always feel that way. There were many times I found myself genuinely curious about some of the patients' lives, and the response options the game gave to me were very similar to what I was asking internally. I loved how the game read my mind in that way.
The layout of the ship is easy to understand and has just enough to explore. NPCs' routines depend on the time of day so sometimes you may find an elder outside of their room, or you’ll walk by them and they'll greet you. In a more annoying game, every interaction would be drawn out with the game suggesting that I hear every line of dialogue each NPC has to offer. But it's not like that in Wayward Strand. If you miss your chance you miss it, and time goes on. I think that's really cool.
Just like everything else about Wayward Strand, the artstyle is simple but effective. The framing gets used in a variety of different ways in some cut scenes. Sometimes animations did take me out of the experience, though. For instance, sometimes Casey will walk through some of the patients. It never soured my experience. I just thought it was worth pointing out. If anything the excellent performances help me look past the minor bugs. Every character is consistent the entire game and no voice actor felt out of place.
Like an old folks home, not everyone wants to jump at the opportunity to play a visual novel. They're slow and take up a lot of time, dialogue can feel meaningless, and you might have the ever-present thought that you could be doing something better with your time. That is definitely present during this game. I almost didn't finish it because I played for about an hour and a half, quit, and then came back later to find out the game only saves your progress by chapters. Chapters can last hours so there were a lot of instances where I just wanted to stop but I couldnt or else I’d have to replay more than an hour's worth of content. For a game as slow-paced as this, I think an auto-save feature would've been necessary.
It’s a cute game that I normally wouldn't have given a second thought to, but I am glad that I played it. It can be very slow, and an auto-save feature being absent is a poor design choice, but I think what most people will take away are the memorable characters and moments that you'll feel like you created.
You can tell that this game received a lot of love and care from Ghost Pattern, and I think they created a great story that could only be experienced through the medium of gaming. I hope that whatever they create next has just as much care behind it, and they continue to expand upon the routine mechanics. And add a save feature.
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