The Witness is one of the better gaming experiences I've had in a long time. The puzzling offered here is more addictive than coffee and sugar-topped cigarettes, and I love the title in a rather unhealthy way, so much so that one half of my brain probably died of how pressured my intellect was by Jonathan Blue's difficult puzzle-challenges. But what The Witness lacked was a contemporary, swinging and emotional story that could be followed and as a reasonable response to that, the Xbox Game Pass library has now invited the challenger Out of the Blue with its Call of the Sea. Of course, it does not offer the unreasonable amount of puzzles that The Witness did, but here is also a great story available... which is preferable if I really had to choose.
Norah is sick. Like really sick. The ailment she has contracted manifests itself in a couple of strange spots on her arms and dozens of days in bed, and you can safely say that her days are numbered. However, maybe there is an answer to what kind of disease it is, or maybe there is a medicine somewhere beyond the thick prescription catalog of general medicine in the 1930's? With the ambition for a continued happy marriage, Norah's brave and adventurous man Harry goes out into the world on the hunt for a cure.
Weeks, even months, pass. The letters to Norah abruptly stop coming from Harry and some time later a package arrives. The content makes it possible, despite her chronic super illness, to travel after him to an island somewhere outside Tahiti - and there the hunt begins, both for Harry and a cure for the disease that Norah suffers from.
On this very exotic island of paradise, Norah immediately begins to follow in the footsteps of Harry and his companions. It all revolves around getting to the bottom with the great mystery that the island itself houses and as an obstacle on the way, there are a large number of puzzles to be broken. At first, they are relatively simple. I assemble the pieces from a torn photo, find codes out in nature and then apply them to a classic code post, and meanwhile Norah in her inner monologue gets a chance to tell about her relationship with Harry - how wonderful everything has been, how much she misses him. I am totally drawn into this cheesy love story, sharing her feelings and grinning at the memories from their internal antics. The story itself is of course not very deep, but everything works well thanks to the voice acting from Cissy Jones, which we recognise from, among others, Firewatch.
In terms of playability, Call of the Sea is a pure Walking Simulator, but also a damn sharp one in my opinion. Admittedly, it is quite tragic how slowly Norah moves, but at the same time it adds a part to the mood - and it's atmospheric. The design is really colourful, playful and detailed, and as my first Xbox Series X review title, I have been damn happy with the graphics that Out of the Blue has put together. Going back to this after a long weekend with Cyberpunk 2077 has been a joy, almost a harmonious Nirvana calm to my eyes thanks to the soft brushstrokes and the quiet atmosphere that the developers has put together.
As for the puzzles, I was eager to solve them fast and know more about the story, rushing between the clue sections as excited as a teenager with open bars on Mallorca, and in a clear majority of cases I have been very happy with what is offered. The degree of difficulty escalates continuously, of course, and when I was faced with tuning an organ, or combining foreign symbols into new words, the mental meltdown was close. To get caught up in something in a game, turn off in pure frustration and return the next day with a prepared patience and then punch the riddle in the nutsack is a wonderful feeling, which immediately kicks off memories from the 90s and early 2000s where I was a little boy stuck for weeks on puzzles in Prince of Persia and Final Fantasy X, for example. Admittedly, I'm a little annoyed that Call of the Sea's main challenges are structured in such a way that you need to go (slowly, remember!) back and forth between the clues' different places, but all in all, the puzzles in Call of the Sea are entertaining, good, and in some cases very difficult.
So, after about eight hours, where a generous chunk of time has been spent on two of the larger puzzles, I managed to take Norah to the end and see the game credit and was rewarded with a really nice and emotionally packed ending. Lovecraft's texts have been a great source of inspiration here, but not the gloomy and anxious part, but instead Out of the Blue has made a more cheerful interpretation that certainly works together with the mystery of life that the main character lived with. At times it may feel a little shitty that the communication between the members of the expedition whose footsteps that Norah follows, would take place via leftover notes that she finds, and sometimes the tone of the voice acting does not match the desperation, fear and uncertainty that Norah should reasonably feel in the situation she is in.
It all throws me out of the mood a bit, but at the same time it does not make Call of the Sea a bad game but this is something very, very good. The curiosity and striving for progress is extremely palpable, so to the extent that I almost ran home every day from my work at the Gothenburg shipyard to play the game, finally get an answer to what Harry had in mind that week in Tahiti, and finally write this review.
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