review【Last Day of June】 

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Carl is a man in love. His partner is as gaga about him as he is about her. They speak their own language of amor, a sweet argot of mutual delirium. If you’re on the outside, it might seem a tad vomity. But if you’re on the inside, it looks a lot like happiness. Wonderful, two-some happiness.

Oblivious to glowering storm clouds on the horizon, these two likeable lovey-doveys decide to take a trip to the lake. (Foreshadowing is evidently not in their vocabulary.)

And so begins Last Day of June. Suffice it to say that the game’s title does not refer to the time of year. The season is autumn. Carl’s trip to the lake does not go well. He is left … well … bereft.

In the dreadful aftermath, Carl is gifted a magical ability. He can go back in time, take control of various players in the unfolding drama of his doom, and change events according to his own desires. As he discovers that time is less a simple two-dimensional line than an almost incomprehensible four-dimensional web, things go awry.

Last Day of June is a narrative puzzle adventure in which, as Carl, I tweak the past in order to change the present and create a better future. I seek to navigate the exigencies of reality to carve out a specific outcome in which all’s well that ends well.

The gifting of magical powers to tragic figures is a dramatic device that’s at least 30 centuries old. From Sophocles to Snape, things rarely end as the hero intends. Last Day of June certainly makes the most of this well worn trope, digging deep into the idea that the best laid plans … you get the picture.

There are three things that are undeniably wonderful about this game.

First, its beauty. The six human characters (and two animals) who make up the story are quasi-wooden carvings, eyeless and awkward, yet they are as human as the most carefully rendered motion-captured superhero you’ve ever seen.

None of the characters speak any language known on Earth. They make small gestures to one another that drive straight to their personalities, their histories and their vulnerabilities. Even without the power of absolute language, they manage to be universally comprehensible. This is writing, writ without words, and it’s a true marvel.

Then there’s the environment. Carl lives in a hamlet that looks like a cross between Renoir and Postman Pat. It’s a heaven of posies, cobbles and leaky old buckets, of twisted steeples, discouraged gravestones and creaking windmills.

I’d place it in Provence or Piedmont in the mid-1950s. But the location doesn’t much matter. With the tiniest of tweaks, Last Day of June could take place anywhere at any time.

I can easily imagine it taking place in ancient Thebes or medieval Tenochtitlan, or anywhere in space or time. This is its second big plus. It’s a timelessly human story about love, loss, rage, jealousy, hubris and hope.

Crucially, I can imagine it happening to me, in modern California, and this makes me afraid. It makes me sit on the edge of my chair after eight straight hours of play, watching the ending play out.

Finally, I admire its core design. Last Day of June isn’t just a story; it’s a game. And so it incorporates my idiocy into its narrative. It lays out puzzles and it gives me clues, but not so many that I feel patronized. It drops delightful little solutions into my story, allowing me to take credit for solving puzzles that are neither obtuse nor inane.

The game sits back, arms folded in amused observation, as I wander around, pointlessly. It waits patiently until I come to understand that my standard videogamey strategy isn’t working, that I’m not going to solve anything by finding The Thing, but by understanding The Story.

Yes, I wasted a lot of time skirting hedges, fences, walls and doors, hoping for the answer to light up, to point toward itself and guide me onward. It took me a while to wise up.

I don’t hold this against the designers. It’s all part of the experience. Last Day of June takes place both in the damaged mind of Carl, and in the streets and rooms of his real life. Instead of boorishly explicating itself, the game invites gradual understanding.

But I also have issues with Last Day of June. Or, rather, I have one particular issue: repetition. This is a game about reshaping history, and so I am transported to various iterations of the past, again and again.

I set up a range of circumstances and then I have to sit back and watch the corollaries unfold. More often than not, I already know what’s going to happen. I’m just working my way through the puzzle, jumping from one character to another, opening gates and such.

It’s like in Banjo Kazooie when I switch from big thing to little thing and back again to solve a puzzle, except in this game, I have to sit through way too many mini-movies of the same events, again and again.

Some kind of skip system ought to be available. I find myself checking Twitter while the characters I love are being seriously hurt for the umpteenth time. I wait for the rattle of my joypad to tell me that I’m back on. That’s not good.

I ought to point out, in defense of this design flaw, that the game’s ending sort of relies on repetition to make an astounding and heart-stopping denouement. Without giving away spoilers here, the ending is fucking great. I mean, blub-and-reach-for-a-hankie great.

By my lights, that’s a sure sign of superior writing, art and design. There’ve been maybe five games in my life that have made me cry. This is one.

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