Yesterday [Review] – You must remember to forget

22 Mar 2012  by   Paul Younger
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The little promotional summary for Yesterday on Steam is great. It reads: “This thrilling mystery … will not leave you indifferent!” If all videogame press materials were to follow this new pattern of making modest claims, I’d be thrilled. Goodbye to endless press releases about “epic” stories and “visceral” combat, hello to “we guarantee our story will be better than trying to open a stubborn jam jar” and “this combat is unlikely to induce cataplexy”.

Anyhow, I can safely say that this point and click adventure does not leave me indifferent, so hurrah for accurate promo blurbs. Developed by Pendulo Studios (whose previous adventure titles The Next BIG Thing and the Runaway series were more on the comedic side), Yesterday thrusts you into a perplexing tale of amnesia, Satanism and the unpleasant aroma of smouldering hobo corpses.

Now, reviewing adventure games can be tricky at the best of times. The critic has to evaluate narrative and dialogue (awash with subjectivity) and assess puzzle design (an area in which one man’s “use the milk on the cereal” is another man’s cat moustache). Since Yesterday is a murder-mystery thriller, I’m going to have to critique the plot without going into too much detail about what it actually is. Likewise, I don’t really want to spoil any of the puzzles.

So, um, what can I actually tell you?

As mentioned, this is Pendulo’s foray into what can be summarised as ‘gloomier’ territory. Your first moments with the game involve a bloodied, cell-like room with Satanic symbolism daubed on the floor, intercut with images of people being tortured. Thematically, it deals with loss of identity, mental illness, obsession and other topics of weighty import. There are jokes in the game, but it’s not trying to raise a laugh with every line or squeeze gags into every item description.

The narrative is relatively complex and fragmentary in nature, told through playable flashbacks and (in the case of the opening chapter) through control of characters other than the titular protagonist John Yesterday. To Pendulo’s credit, they’ve handled this structure well. It’d be easy to get overwhelmed by a narrative with different perspectives and jumps in time, but the story here stays comparatively clear. The majority of players will probably see a few of the twists and turns in plot coming, but others are handled skillfully and should be a genuine surprise.

There are, though, problems with tone. The developer’s other games all have a much more lighthearted, humourous feel, and this comfort zone seems to keep creeping through in Yesterday at fairly inopportune moments. A hotel desk clerk who keeps trying to foist cut-price prostitutes onto Mr. Yesterday (despite the fact that John is quite busy, investigating his own attempted suicide) has potential as a surreal gag, but the guy is so slimy that it just comes off as unpleasant and out of place. Later, a character is rattling off torture techniques during what should be a menacing monologue and somewhat spoils it by blurting out “pop the gonads with pliers”. That might just be a quirk of translation, but the phrasing made me chuckle and rather ruined the mood.

Characterisation is also a little mixed. John’s love-interest (introduced in the first third of the game) is just that; a love-interest. Nothing more. She has tragedy in her life, but it’s addressed so quickly that it’s hard to drum up much of an emotional response. Nor is the relationship she has with John particularly believable. It’s established in a brief flashback and we get minimal opportunity to see how the two of them behave together as a couple, making it a struggle for the player to care too much when she’s placed in peril.

There’s more subtlety at work with the character of Cooper, a burly former American football player with a traumatic childhood. The little flashbacks to his time in the scouts (or the ‘young pioneers’), where a tyrannical scoutmaster verbally assaulted his every move, provide insight into his otherwise unlikely partnership with another abusive figure of authority. The dependable rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ is also put to fine use with an early subway location, where an unexplained catastrophe has greatly affected one of the other characters.

As you will no doubt have gathered from the screenshots dotted around this article, Yesterday adopts a coherent comic book style. Weird perspectives in certain scenes contribute to the feeling of unease, while panels and text-boxes with a graphic novel typeface pop-up whenever you examine objects or hotspots in the world. Characters converse through speech bubbles; though their faces (mostly the lower halves) are also animated. I’m not sure this was such a great decision, as it’s rather unnatural to watch and I think still shots of the character’s faces (perhaps changing with mood) would’ve worked better. Still, although the faces look a little … off … the English voice acting throughout is of a high standard.

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The puzzles in Yesterday are strongest when they stick to Broken Sword / Indiana Jones inspired code-breaking and clue hunting. This not only fits better with the general theme of secret cults and ancient Satanic rituals, but also keeps the brain-teasers firmly in a safe zone of ‘figure out this sequence’ or ‘discover the secret message you left for yourself’. Elsewhere, game-logic is stretched a little too thin; like the sequence where you need to retrieve an axe from behind glass, but (for some reason) can’t use the plank of wood or any of the other solid, inanimate objects in your inventory to do so. I won’t spoil the actual solution here, but it’s one that seems pretty ridiculous in the context of the other items you’re carrying.
Watch the IncGamers Plays video above for a narrated example of a couple of early puzzles (minor spoilers, obviously).

Thankfully, you have tools at your disposal for when the puzzles get a bit too lateral. If hotspot-hunting is getting you down (and it should, because it’s a terrible device in any games) you can utilise a handy button that will flash up all the areas in a room that you can interact with. Pedulo has included a hint function too, which starts vague and gradually gets more precise. In an effort to prevent abuse, the hint system will stop working if you press it too much (and only lights up again once you’ve tried a few things out for yourself).

As I wrote at the start, Yesterday definitely lived up to its promise not to leave me feeling indifferent. I admired much of the comic book art style, raised an eyebrow and drew back from the screen at the facial animations, engaged myself with much of the plot (while cringing at other parts), enjoyed the Broken Sword-esque puzzles, shook my head at others, felt invested in certain characters and lamented those who didn’t feel fleshed out enough. Pendulo’s narrative ambition is not always matched by the quality of writing on offer, but the thematic threads (well-worn as some of them are) do hold together. Yesterday isn’t up there with LucasArts classics like Grim Fandango or Sam & Max Hit the Road (though that is a very high bar to reach), but the positives outweigh the missteps in this conspiratorial jaunt.

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