Platforms: PC, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: 505 Games
Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.
Videogames don’t often affect me emotionally outside of making me annoyed or happy because I’m having fun. But The Last Day of June hit me in the feels. There weren’t any tears, yet I did walk away in a contemplative frame of mind. I was invested in the story it wanted to tell, a story of heartfelt love and terrible loss, of learning to accept, of sacrifice and of grief.
That’s impressive because The Last Day of June doesn’t contain any form of dialogue, rather its small cast of strangely eyeless characters communicate solely through sighs, moans, giggles and other little sounds that work with the wonderful animations to give them more personality than most games with massive runtimes, budgets and voice actors ever manage. Part of this boils down to simplicity; without any voice acting emotions are kept simple and pure with no room to misjudge them. That, of course, means the characters aren’t particularly deep or nuanced, but for a journey that lasts just a few hours that’s never an issue. Through a simple glance you can tell the main protagonists love each other with everything that they are, that they are the purest form of love, the kind we read about in the greatest romances and all secretly hope to one day discover. All that from a glance. That’s more than entire games do with scripts so thick they could be used to beat a whale to death.
As for you, dear player, you’ll be taking on the role of Carl, a man with huge glasses who heads out with his wife/girlfriend June on a wonderful lakeside date. Tragedy strikes, though, when they become involved in a car crash on the way back, leaving the man paralyzed and his soul-mate dead. Left in anguish Carl struggles to go near his wife’s art studio, fearing the pain and memories it will bring. But when necessity forces him he discovers something amazing; his wife’s paintings grant him the ability to influence the past.
To say more of the story would be to ruin the entire game, but it’s expertly crafted. Carl’s despair is obvious to see, his frustration at being wheel-chair bound easy to sympathize with and his raw desire to change things a driving force we can all understand. The Tim Burton-esque visuals and absolutely wonderful music by Steven Wilson whose work is carefully placed for maximum impact within the narrative.
It’s this ability to travel into the past that forms the core of The Last Day of June’s light gameplay mechanics. You’ll end up controlling the other people who live in the tiny nameless village in a bid to alter events favorably. As the small child you can fit through gaps while you try to persuade the adults to play with you. As the proud hunter you’ll chase a bird from tree to tree. Aside from the main protagonist himself there are five other people you’ll play as throughout the course of the game, and the goal is to slowly change how the fateful day of the car crash will play out. If the child playing with his ball is the cause of the crash at first, then you need to change it so that he’s doing something else. This then affects everything, so part of the puzzle is getting further into the story and then jumping back to someone else so that you can open up a few more things. Opening a gate could open up a whole new avenue for another person.
This time traveling and cause and effect stuff might seem complex in writing, but in practice The Last Day of June doesn’t tax the mind, opting for a straightforward series of simple puzzles where reactions to your changes are clear and obvious. The developers make it plain through the design that they didn’t want anyone to get stuck or frustrated so that the focus is kept on the story.
Still, they could have implemented the gameplay in a smoother fashion. Repetition proves to be an issue because you can’t simply leap from character to character as you see fit, rather you’ve got to “end the day” by performing a specific action, so to see if things are working out you could end up replaying the same sequence a few times over. The developers try to curb this a bit by having the game skip initial segments of a character’s sequence, but even then there were moments when things dragged a little.
Helping combat this are little memory orbs strewn around specific to each character that unlock little paintings of moments in their lives, filling in their backgrounds in broad, simple strokes. Again, we see the emphasis on keeping things straightforward due to the lack of dialogue or even text. Carl and June also get memories, although this take the form of ghosts that you interact with in order to get them to animate a brief snippet of their lives together. The slow unfolding of Carl and June’s past is well done, serving to reinforce your attachment to these two voiceless people.
So the game won’t challenge you and the repetition can be a bit troublesome, but consider the heavy subject matter this is an almost relaxing experience. It’s easy to get lulled into a sense of peace when you’re simply ambling around opening gates or getting a kite out of a tree. It’s almost like the developers knew that this light puzzling was relaxing because whenever you end a character’s day you need to witness the crash all over again before leaping back to a frustrated, despondent Carl. It’s a sharp, effective contrast.
Visually it’s a striking game thanks to a style that seems to borrow from the Tim Burton school of design. That’s not surprising because you see the game is based on characters created for composer Steven Wilson’s song Drive Home. Who designed those characters? Jess Cope, who previously worked on Tim Burton’s animated movie Frankenweenie and has now collaborated with the developer of Last Day of June. That gothic influence can be felt in the strange character designs and their odd lack of eyes. Another interesting design decision comes in the form of background scenery which all looks like it has been smeared in Vaseline. Everything that isn’t almost touching your character is out of focus, probably a reflection of Carl’s, and therefore your, influence on their life. It can be jarring at first, but once your eyes adjust it’s a beautiful game that’s slightly hurt by a few framerate stutters, although since this isn’t a reaction-based game or fast-paced those moments don’t damage the experience too much.
And what an experience. It’s like an interactive version of Disney’s Up, constantly smacking you in the feels before lulling you back into a false sense of relaxing security with its GroundHog Day puzzling and gorgeous water-color graphics. For those who value gameplay above all else it’s probably one to skip, but if you’re seeking something more story and emotion driven then Last Day of June is for you, and makes a compelling argument for why games can be as much art as anything else.
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