If I had to confess one thing that I’m not good at, and I mean, really not good at, it would be the ability to make decisions. I’m talking on a daily basis this is an issue. To the extent of which I debate with myself every afternoon as to what I should eat for lunch. Should I get pizza? Chipotle? A salad? (The answer is never a salad). I weigh the options, the consequences, the rewards…and this is just lunch we’re talking about, dinner is a whole other story. So decision based games can often be hit or miss with me for obvious reasons. But every so often one will catch my eye, and Seers Isle did just that. Between its breathtaking artwork and captivating soundtrack, I found myself entranced with this interactive graphic novel.
Developed by Nova-box, a small team located in France, Seers Isle takes place within a fantasy universe set in medieval northern Europe. Inspired by the folklore from their neck of the woods, the team pulled from Celtic and Nordic legends and myths to create the setting for their story. The game follows a group shaman apprentices who embark on a voyage to a sacred island. Once they reach shore the group journeys to the summit and faces difficult tests along the way. Those that pass these trials and are deemed worthy by the island’s seers are rewarded with the Sacred Flame. With this power they possess the ability of second sight, divination, healing, and are free to return to their village as a full-fledged shaman.
There are seven shamans in training, each with their own personality and backstory, so it’s easy for players to find a favorite amongst the group. The game’s art director, Nicolas Fouqué, has a soft spot for Duncan, a sword fighter who comes from an arctic land and is seen as an outcast by his own family. Lead developer Raphaël Le Bobinnec is partial to Freya, a strong and loyal warrior. And as for myself, I gravitated toward Arlyn, the oldest in her family, caretaker to her younger siblings, and an outsider within her village. In addition to the main cast of seven, players will also have the opportunity to meet a mysterious character that follows the group as they traverse the island.
During gameplay players are faced with various scenarios and must make decisions that will impact the fate of each character. The story splits three times with eight different endings, giving the game ample replay value. Geoffroy Vincens, the writer and narrative designer, said that the idea was to, “make the multiple paths and endings equally compelling, and to tailor them to the player preferences and inclinations, taking each small choice along the way into account.” So yeah, that decision you made on a whim in Chapter One? That’s going to bite you in the ass later.
At first the options presented to players are fairly simple to decipher; raise the sails of the ship during a storm or force passage instead. Naturally as the game progresses the situations can become more complicated and thus the choices can be harder to make. It’s also important to remember whose point-of-view you are tracking. While the border of each speech bubble is color coded to represent individual characters, it can be difficult to keep track of who’s who with such a large group. There were a number of instances I accidentally made a choice about a character that turned out to be about an entirely different character, and in turn altering the story in ways in which I didn’t intend.
For example, I made one decision that ruined a budding relationship that I had established between two characters. Suddenly, one of them died for reasons I’m still not sure of, while the remaining character from the pair seemingly began to try and start a relationship with someone else. It felt abrupt, as I couldn’t understand how my previous decisions would have led to this new romance. I felt with so many characters the web of options between them was too big, resulting in holes in the story, and leaving me wanting to know more. The game also saves automatically, prohibiting you from backtracking to alter the web you’ve weaved. However, once the group started to dwindle and I got to see some characters stories play out more, I found myself completely enamored. The longer their stories played out the more I craved, particularly with action packed scenes.
A symbol system is implemented from the start of the game that is used to track the outcomes of your decisions. The symbols, The Eye, The Hand, The Man, and The Deer, are linked to a hidden narrator and glow after a decision has been made. I’m still unclear what each symbol actually means…I suspect it must deal with the powers from the Sacred Flame. But what I couldn’t translate was how the players decisions cued specific symbols to react. It was also difficult to be strategic with this system because they don’t react until after you’ve made a choice so you can’t plan ahead. Regardless of the symbols though, the game can play out as easily with or without them, as I gave up on the system halfway through the game.
While Seers Isle looks like a traditional graphic novel, it’s the carefully placed speech bubbles that help make the story feel interactive. The bubbles are rarely featured in the same location of an image, which helps to pace the story out and encourages players to focus on different parts of the screen. It’s a good thing too because the artwork is not something to just click past. The conceptual images for each chapter are stunning and reminiscent of the art you’d find on the cover of a traditional graphic novel. Additionally, I loved the look that each character was given. The careful shadowing of their facial features and their unique styles perfectly complimented each character's personality. I also appreciated the attention to detail when it came to designing each environment. From a rainy beach, to a mysterious looking forest, to a snowy mountaintop, each landscape is magnificent and helps showcase how far the group has come on their journey. I should also note that under the art direction of Nicolas there were a group of interns involved with the design of this project. If as interns their work is this good, then I’m eager to see what they are capable of churning out in the future when they have even more experience under their belt.
During my gameplay I couldn’t help but pick up a Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings vibe. The crackle of a fire, swords clashing, the howling wind…the sound effects truly bring the images to life. But it’s the soundtrack to Seers Isle that is the beating heart to this whole story. With every twist and turn the score captures the emotion from the images, conveying exactly how we should feel. And with movie music composers Camille Marcos and Julien Ponsoda at the helm it’s no wonder. The soundtrack feels epic, creating this illusion that the images are bigger than what can fit on screen. The one lyrical track, written and performed by Christelle Canot, is the first thing players hear when they launch the game. It sent chills down my spine when I first heard it and perfectly set the tone for what to expect at the start.
While Seers Isle was unable to sell me on decision based gameplay and their symbol tracking system left much to be desired, I still found myself swept away by its spectacular artwork and enchanted by the soundtrack. And despite losing members of my party, I felt compelled to see the journey to the end to find out if my decisions deemed me worthy of the Sacred Flame. Geoffroy notes, “The main themes of the game revolve around fate, duty, and sacrifice, so brace yourself for a bittersweet ending at best.”
Seers Isle is currently available on PC, Mac, and Linux.
Check out the trailer below: