The republic versus monarchy debate has long been a divisive and hotly-debated issue in the UK, and no doubt will rage on for many years to come. But what if Oliver Cromwell’s legacy had survived and the Restoration never happened? How different would the modern era be? Well, that’s basically the premise behind Herald: An Interactive Period Drama.
As the slightly unwieldy title suggests, it’s a choice-driven graphical adventure set in a very different vision of the 19th century. In this universe Cromwell formed an alliance with the Dutch and subsequently other northern European countries to form a superpower known as the Protectorate, which is governed centrally by an elected senate and a Lord Protector. By the 1850s, in which the game is set, its provinces and colonies cover much of the old world and some of the new. Shocking isn’t, an alternative history that doesn’t involve the Nazis!
Anyway, the events of game largely take place aboard the HLV Herald, a Protectorate clipper headed to the eastern colonies along the indigo trade route. The slightly smarmy Devan Rensburg enlists as a sailor in order to return to the country of his birth in search of his real parents. But with the indigo farmers striking over low pay and an important senator on board, the crew are beginning to question the real motives behind the Herald’s voyage.
Herald is in an episodic format with only the first two “books” currently available and two more coming at a later date. The story is recounted in retrospect by Rensburg. In the present, he finds himself the prisoner of a mysterious Indian woman, known as The Rani, who demands to know how and why he ended up here and what transpired on board the Herald.
The game uses a simple point-and-click interface for navigating the vessel and interacting with people and objects, while a journal keeps track of your current tasks and inventory and provides a map of your surroundings. By talking to people and examining things, the journal also records character bios and detailed descriptions of the objects and documents encountered – some relevant to current plot lines, some filling in the lore and history of the universe, and others merely providing entertaining trivia and titbits about the real colonial era and maritime life.
Very much in the vein of the Telltale adventures, the focus is on dialogue and decision-making. As the vessel’s newest recruit, you find yourself playing errand boy to a sizeable cast of characters who, for some unknown reason, all seem far too eager to bare their souls and see you as useful ally – I guess I must have one of those trustworthy faces. As such, you end up smack bang in the middle of the numerous disputes, intrigues and scandals that take place during the voyage. There’s bullying, attempted murders, thefts, stowaways, altercations, and mysteries to unravel. Inevitably you usually end up having to pick sides, but who can you really trust and what will be the consequences of your decisions?
Herald does a great job of conveying what life at sea would have been like back then (i.e. harsh and tedious) and provides a lot of interesting and entertaining facts about how ships used to operate during the colonial era. It’s clearly well researched and I don’t think I’ve ever been so familiar with ship layouts and terminology. But as a game, Herald falls short.
It proudly boasts a “branching narrative”, which is quite frankly utter nonsense. Each episode is self-contained, so regardless of what occurred previously, the next one begins in identical fashion and is deliberately vague about prior events. Not that it really needs to be. While you do make a lot of choices, mostly via conversation options, these are often minor variations of the same thing and rarely have a significant impact on the plot. Having played through both episodes several times, I’ve found that your actions have no meaningful influence on how characters interact with you, and the over-aching narrative barely deviates.
The plot lines themselves are rather dull and the characters somewhat cliched and one-dimensional. There’s the firm but fair captain, who immediately takes a liking to you, promoting you to steward within a matter of days. He’s caught between the questionable orders of his superiors and the concerns of his conscience. And does, perhaps, a troubled past and well-meaning intentions lie at the heart of the apparently self-serving and obnoxious Ludlow? Is the fatherly and friendly Officer Brunswick trying to hide a seedier nature? Why is Daniel always disappearing and behaving strangely, could it be connected to the rumours of a stowaway?
And, of course, the supercilious, cruel and conservative Senator Morton is travelling with his kind-hearted, beautiful and progressive niece. Will a romance blossom between her and the lowly Rensburg? It’s like something straight out of a hackneyed TV period drama, complete with a highly contrived and unconvincing plot twist at the end of book II.
It’s not helped by the stilted dialogue. The voice acting itself is decent enough, although some of the fake accents do occasionally grate. There’s just too much unnatural exposition and the language too rigid and modern, with frequent use of anachronistic words and phrases such as “push my buttons” and “feeling warm and fuzzy on the inside”. Attempts at humour and innuendo don’t fair much better, largely falling flat or seeming completely out-of-place with the situation.
Also, don’t be fooled by the passing resemblance to the Monkey Island games or the presence of an inventory. There are no puzzles to be solved here, just a helluva lot of toing and froing across the ship to fetch mundane items for every Tom, Dick and Harry. It particularly amused me when the doctor was unwilling to believe me about there not being more laudanum in his bag, yet was unwilling to check for himself even though it was right next to him. Another immersion breaker is how you’re unable to interact with characters or enter areas not directly relevant to the current objective.
The hand-drawn 2D portraits and cut scenes do look fantastic. I love the slightly 3Dish effect Wispfire have applied and how the characters breathe and their gazes shift and expression changes based on what they’re saying, even if their lips never move. And the music and general ambiance does a good job of setting the scene. But the badly animated and low-poly 3D models and environments, with their muddy colours and naff textures, look like something out of a crap PS2 game and the characters barely resemble their portraits. For the life of me, I don’t understand why they didn’t just do the whole thing in 2D.
Herald: An Interactive Period Drama is a very lacklustre adventure. The alternative history premise is genuinely interesting. Its world is rich in lore and I enjoyed learning about life on the colonial tides. However, it’s let down by uninspired writing and characters, tedious gameplay and a lack of meaningful choice. And while I admire its attempts to shed light on the expansionism, oppression and barbarity – as well as the class, gender, racial and cultural divisions and tensions – of the colonial era, it does so in such a trite and Disney-esque fashion as to be of little value.