If Only Lockdown Ended So Quickly

HIGH The environment is pretty.

LOW It’s too short to accomplish anything memorable.

WTF The chat sounds are annoying.

Half Past Fate: Romantic Distancing is a perfect demo. If this were the teaser for a larger experience, I’d give it the maximum recommendation. Sadly, it’s not a demo — it’s just a tiny game that left me feeling quite unfulfilled.

HPF starts great. It’s a 2D dialogue-driven adventure title in which life predominantly takes place inside cozy apartments — yes, as the title implies, HPF is set during the early phases of COVID-19 lockdown.

At this moment, I must give a content warning — as we are still in the midst of the COVID pandemic, those uncomfortable with these themes might find it to be a bit too much.

The story revolves around soft-hearted macho-man Stephen and the anxious, spontaneous Robin. They meet prior to lockdown while she’s on duty at the local computer store. The two hit it off immediately, and exchange phone numbers mere days before the town shuts down.

They keep in touch and develop a bond that quickly points to mutual affection, built on a shared passion for music. The bulk of the game consists of watching their relationship unfold over rapidly-advancing months, with the odd dialogue option or single-outcome plot event in between. The player sees both Stephen and Robin’s perspective in the process.

Apart from advancing dialogue, players can ‘explore’. They can walk freely through both Stephen and Robin’s rooms, examine items, and enact certain actions. However, these actions are usually scripted plot requirements and there’s nothing left to reveal after one examination. One nice variation comes from a second exploration of the shopping center after lockdown has begun, during which the player can see how local businesses have adapted to the new status quo.

It would have been nice to see all of these mechanics explored more, though. For example, more narrative elements in mise-en-scène revealing shifting behaviors or moods during lockdown would have been very welcome. The lack of dialogue and play options makes the title fully reliant on the quality of its script.

Conceptually, the narrative develops strongly. The central conflict is Robin’s desire to meet Stephen in person, whereas Stephen is hesitant due to fear of catching or spreading the virus. Their motivations are stimulated by their roommate situation — Robin shares an apartment with a couple that is comfortably intimate, whereas Stephen has an older uncle (his last remaining family member) who he wishes to protect from illness.

This is the only real tension players will witness, and it offers one of two oppositional endings based on a single dialogue option. It’s quite a shame — for a narrative that otherwise captures the feeling of lockdown well, it hardly has time to build-up to more than a single ethical dilemma most of us must be too familiar with by now.

Likewise, the characterization of Stephen and Robin needs more room to breathe. There’s little introduction to their backgrounds or values, and the short running time (approximately one hour, perhaps?) doesn’t give much opportunity for growth.

A game like Half Past Fate: Romantic Distancing is courageous for presenting a story that confronts our real-world pandemic rather than providing escapism from it. The setup of the narrative and the overall tone befits its ambition, but it’s ultimately unsuccessful in offering significant takeaways or in-depth character studies due to its surprisingly brief length. If it were twice as long it would have likely had twice the depth, and probably twice the score.

Rating: 4.5 out of 10

Disclosures: The game is developed by Serenity Forge and published by Way Down Deep. It is currently available on PC and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 1 hour of play was devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed twice. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E and contains Alcohol Reference. It’s a cutely animated slice-of-life story with no explicitness, nor intense romantic gestures. Nothing to worry about, but the subject matter is mature.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game is fully subtitled. The font size cannot be adjusted, and is not of a large size. There are no audio cues needed for play. Due to the smallish font size, I consider the game mostly accessible.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.

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