Walking simulators - I mean, “narrative experiences” as they sound better when put it in that way – are often based realism or magical realism. We’ve rarely seen pure science fiction narrative experience even though the genre that is all about building atmosphere would serve as a perfect platform for scientific escapades. Developed in Bulgaria, the indie game Elea – Episode 1 dives boldly into where no one has gone before – or where no one can hear you scream. It sets out to to a create a unique mood with surrealistic visions and willingness to expand into horror without cheap scares or space monsters.
By the year 2073, Earth is in crisis. A disease has turned newborn children into emotionless and violent husks. To escape a looming extinction, mankind has to seek out a new home, one without burden of genetic and environmental contamination. Ethan, the husband of the titular Elea, embarks on an expedition to colonize Solace, a habitable exoplanet but the connection to the colonization ship Pilgrimage is cut short after it arrives at the planet. Thirteen years later Elea, a scientist herself, joins a recovery mission to investigate the fate of Pilgrimage. Elea is impatient with her by the numbers crew and hatches a plan of her own to further her mission with the aid of the ship’s AI, Kazumi.
Elea – Episode 1 paints a picture of what trials and tribulations mankind could face in the future. While being science fiction thriller, it also takes a stand against modern social media. A popular AI buddy is making already emotionally defect children even more passive. Just replace it with smart phones and the game could tell about out world here and now. The thing is, Elea – Episode 1 doesn’t want to shout out these things but hints at them through some wild associations, as seen in first-person when Dr. River Elea Catherine Jones journeys between different time periods from her time spent at home to her mission on-board the RSS Recovery.
The acidic psychedelia of the first two acts of the game is intriguing, even though one could debate it’s just a collection of distorted effects, light patterns, misplaced symbols and delusional soundscape with no real purpose. Be it as it may, it’s too bad that after these consciousness-blurring fireworks, the game takes a turn into a more traditional walking simulator with all the conventions associated with the genre; a slow walking speed (you can’t always run and when you can, a limited stamina regulates it), clumsy interaction with objects and surroundings, and a hopelessly linear progression. There are several rooms on-board Recovery that serve no purpose and thus can be easily missed. Luckily, there are some genuine puzzles to break up the mundane plodding. Some interactions come out of nowhere, though. Towards the end there’s a scene where you’re supposed to make an attack against a fellow crew member. There’s been no need for such an act before so you’re bound to fail on your first attempt and taken back to a rather far away checkpoint
The most disappointing aspect of Elea is its length, or rather, the lack of it. The credits started to roll only after two hours of playing (or experiencing). That’s it? But looking at the credits, you’ll notice an interesting fact. The game is practically made by two people. Considering Elea’s audiovisual fidelity, that’s certainly quite an achievement. With its Unreal 4-powered dynamic lighting, plentiful post-processing effects and sublime architecture and design, the game really looks more expensive – and expansive - than it is. If I ever win a jackpot in the lottery, I’d commission a home to similar to Elea’s and Ethan’s. It’s just so amazing! The soundscape is also effective, going under the skin with sporadic ambient music and disturbing background noises.
It’s the chilling and interactive post-credits scene, however, that saves the day – or those two hours you put into the game – and allows me to end the review in a positive note. It really evokes questions that need to be answered, changes your perspective of previous events and makes you hope and want for the next part in the story. After all, the game can’t be called Episode 1 for nothing. As is customary with the genre, fat achievements go a long way in adding replay value to the game. Also, Elea’s shortcomings can almost be expected from a narrative experience. When they have been completely smooth anyway? Fans of the genre and science fiction in general should check out Elea. After all, there are never too many mind-tickling sci-fi games out there.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.