Well now, here’s a thing. Wailing Heights certainly ranks as one of the most peculiar gaming experiences I’ve had in recent years, but is it a good one? In truth, even now I’m not quite sure.
Set in the mysterious town of Wailing Heights, the game sees you cast as Frances Finklestein, the former manager of “The Deadbeats”, who seem to have been a kind of undead re-theme of the Beatles? The game begins with the death of the last surviving member of this global mega-band, forcing Finklestein to take a gig in the eponymous small town just to pay the bills.
With it so far? Good, because from here it gets a bit strange. It’s not immediately clear what has actually happened on the way to this gig, but when the game starts you are in a jail cell at the police station in town, facing charges of “being alive” in a town populated entirely by various forms of the undead. To be honest, this is where I got a little confused with the plot, as the Deadbeats we are shown in the intro cut-scene are pretty obviously a vampire, a zombie and a mummy, and this is a world where the undead really exist, so were they actually vampires, zombies and so on, or was that just their band gimmick? I honestly don’t know, although given that they all died, I suppose we have to assume they were alive before that? Can vampires die in a plane crash? Regardless, Finklestein seems pretty chill about a ghost solicitor coming to visit him in jail, so obviously the existence of undead people is well known in this world. I’m so confused!
Anyway, with the scene set, Wailing Heights sets its stall out in a brief and well put together tutorial sequence in the police station. The player is introduced to the core mechanic of the game, “Body-hopping”, by a mysterious monster that lives in the rafters. We are told that music has the power to move our soul into another body, as long as we sing the right words. All we need to transfer ourselves in this way is to know our targets name, the thing they love, and the thing they hate.
Fortunately, our new ghost solicitor friend proves to be pretty generous with personal information, and we are soon ensconced in his handsome non-corporeal bod, free to waft around the town itself, exploring your new surroundings while you try to find a way to spring your original body from the jail cell.
The first thing you notice once you are free to explore is the quality of the visuals. From the screenshots you can hopefully already tell that this is a startlingly pretty game, with a thickly outlined graphic novel art style that really works brilliantly with the classic monster movie tropes on show. What the screenshots aren’t showing is how good this all looks in motion, with excellent animation and incidentals in every scene, breathing life (or unlife?) into the town of Wailing Heights.
And what an odd town it is – From the vampire coffee-shop with its trademark blood lattes to the Irish werewolf theme pub, it’s a fun mash up of musical and monster clichés. The vamps are classic hipster indie kids, all competing to like the most obscure new thing and then get bored of it as fast as possible, the werewolf bar jukebox is wall to wall celtic folksy rock, and even the zombies all get their groove on with some big band jazz at the local concert hall.
As you can surely tell by now, a large chunk of this game is about music, and this is where my inner conflict takes hold. There’s a lot of original music written for this game, from the tunes of the world famous Deadbeats, to the little four line ditties that accompany your every “body-hop”, and… I just don’t like much of it. It all comes across as a bit precocious, as I’m guessing it was mostly created by the developers and their friends, because it has a kind of amateurish sound and vibe to it that just sets my teeth on edge a little. Playing the game often feels like spending time with “that friend” who keeps bugging you to listen to his latest demo tape, and whilst I do feel genuinely bad to be criticising someone’s earnest hobby, I just can’t say it’s much fun to listen to. Solving the puzzles in this game often requires a fair bit of trial and error, hopping from character to character to see if any of them bring some new responses or outcomes to the fore, and that means hearing some of those swap songs a LOT, so it’s a genuine problem if they aren’t to your taste.
Which brings us to the other big problem here. The core mechanic is a lot more enjoyable on paper than in reality. In theory, character switching to solve puzzles sounds great, but in practice it leads to a game that is almost entirely dead-time, as you try to remember where you left your hipster vampire so that you can walk all the way across town to body-hop into her, then trudge her all the way back to the room you were in to see if her bat transformation ability helps with whatever puzzle is currently blocking your progress. And of course, if it doesn’t, then you are in for yet another trek around the world to find the werewolf, or go back to the ghost to try out his invisibility trick.
When you figure out the song for a new character and add them to your arsenal it’s undoubtedly a satisfying moment, but the reality is that this is like playing an old point and click game, but one where you can only carry one item at once. Most of the puzzles are solved by characters rather than “things” and so you really do end up spending an awful lot of time shuttling your problem solving tools around the map. As the game progresses and the puzzles get more complex, requiring interactions from multiple characters in multiple locations to push things forward, you absolutely crave a quicker way to get the character you think you need into the location you think you want them at. Movement around the world is not especially pleasant either, with some fairly sticky collision in places where you don’t really expect it, and fiddly doors between some locations requiring some fairly precise positioning to trigger.
The consequence of this is that the game ends up feeling far more of a chore than it really should, and this starts to overshadow all the genuinely praiseworthy elements of the game. The dialogue is sometimes witty, sometimes groan-inducing, but reasonably well written and shows some fun little character touches. Stealing a vampire’s mobile phone by telling him you own the same model and watching him immediately throw it in the bin is a giggle, and the bureaucratic lady-ghost at the entrance to city hall quietly steals the show with an excellent voice performance that nicely evokes the kind of obstructive jobsworth that most players will recognise. The world is a rich, imaginatively drawn place full of interesting ideas and fun little touches, like the way the zombies’ moans and grunts all become crisp middle class accents once you finally possess one, or the hilariously clueless yokel police minotaur complete with a charming and hilarious rural accent.
And so we come to a final score and honestly I’m still no further forward. I can’t deny that I didn’t enjoy playing this game, but I really wish I had. The ideas on show are genuinely great, but tragically, they are let down by awkward gameplay along with a raft of minor technical issues, (like missing sound clips on some lines of dialogue, and one character in particular who changes voice actor every other line). And yet complaining about this all seems a bit churlish, especially for a product that has such lofty ambitions from a small first-time studio. They deserve full credit for even taking on a project of this size, and even if it misses the mark for me personally, if it sounds interesting to you, it’s likely worth checking out for yourself and seeing how you get on with it. Outsider Studios are certainly a developer I will be looking out for in the future as this shows a lot of potential for their next game, and hopefully with a bigger budget and more experience, they’ll be able to produce something that can marry their obvious creative talents with some sharper delivery.
Wailing Heights was reviewed with a download code of the PC edition, provided by the developer.