I dig seeing companies release games for the first time. You always hear about how people start their own studios because they want to revolutionize how gaming works, and then they get their chance and produce a game in their vision. Some people have great vision, other's are just a tad blurry—but it all makes for an interesting experience. That's the mindset I went into for Empathy: Path of Whispers, the first video game from Swedish indie developers Pixel Night (published by Iceburg Interactive).
Empathy puts you into a first-person exploration game where you're a nameless person exploring the ruins of a lost city. You have a guy in your ear, presumably talking to you through a headset, guiding you through the different areas as you find out more about the environment and determine what exactly happened to this place. You get an object called the E-15P, which we'll just call your scanner for this review, that acts kinda like a geiger counter and kinda like Egon's EKG reader from Ghostbusters. You move the scroll wheel and the right mouse button to find the perfect wavelength frequency that will unlock information
The world design is nice for an indie title with large iron-work beams and stone buildings. Abandoned railroad tracks and statues carved from the mountainside they were once a part of. The buildings are a mesh of 1950's accommodations and random destruction, as if a disaster happened here and people only had moments to flee or perish. As you explore, you use your scanner to unlock pieces of the story through objects found around the level and unlock abilities for you to go into new places. A good example of this is early on, you find a toolbox and a hammer that belong to someone, and by unlocking their story you can build train tracks across a broken bridge.
The hardest part of the game is dealing with your scanner. On the surface it looks easy and self-explanatory, but messing with it is a chore that takes up way more time in the game than actual exploring does. There are genuine moments of frustration when you see that the frequency is almost correct, but the dial is just a hair off and it isn't syncing up to the frequency you need it to be at, even through it's right there in front of you. You have to be dead-accurate with this thing or else you're just spinning your wheels. Well, scroll wheel. And there are times when you've spent five or six minutes getting this thing to work, when it finally clicks in, the storyline payoff isn't all that fulfilling. It feels like an experiment in patience.
The voice in your ear is both helpful and annoying. You know he knows what's up, as if you're being forced to live through a scenario he already knows the ending to. The minute you hear phases like "Have a look around the park," you know he just wants you to go to the park. Story-wise, I feel like I'm being jerked around—game-wise, I feel like I'm not being given a proper chance to explore or make mistakes and learn on my own. There's a lot of awesome things they put into this game, and if not for the fact I could check it all out, it feels as if I'm on a rail game.
Empathy: Path of Whispers has a lot of good things going for it, but the story feels very confining and takes away from the exploration element. I get that I'm alone and my life currently had little meaning beyond exploring what's in front of me, but I also believe I reserve the right to explore and be bored with my existence before eventually moving on and doing what I need to do. For Pixel Light's first game, it's very well done, but there's some elements that could have been toyed with. If you dig exploration games, this is a must-try for the scanner and the story, but average gamers may end up being lukewarm to it.