Out now on consoles after being available for a few months on PC, When the Past Was Around is a moving narrative adventure that deals with love and loss.
Or at least, that’s what it tries to be. When the Past Was Around is clearly influenced by the likes of Florence and Gorogoa, games that express themselves solely through images and an emotionally-charged soundtrack. It falls short of the poignancy that those titles manage to deliver, but that’s not to say it’s completely devoid of worthwhile moments.
It tells the story of Eda, a young woman currently lost in life. She’s heartbroken, after suffering a romantic loss. When the Past Was Around delves into that heartache, delivering snippets of Eda both past and present through a series of short chapters. Filled with puzzles, its gameplay will likely keep you interested, but its narrative never quite hits the mark.
Settling for somewhere between abstract and realistic – Eda’s love interest is portrayed as a man with the head of an owl – you’re never quite sure what’s going on. It means the raw emotion that developer Mojiken Studio has clearly tried so hard to fill the game with is lacklustre at best. While Eda’s emotions – her sorrow, her helplessness – are portrayed well through images, it’s difficult to ever fully empathise with her. Is she mourning the loss of her lover, or an actual owl? Or is the owl a metaphor for something else entirely? We’re steered towards presuming the former, although the latter would perhaps make more sense. There’s no given rhyme or reason why Eda’s love is depicted as a bird, but you can make of that what you will.
Unnecessary obscurity aside, When the Past Was Around is at least engaging throughout its runtime. You’ll be finished in less than 90 minutes, though; this is a short and sweet adventure, but every moment is filled with an engaging puzzle or another. Split into chapters, you’ll only ever have a small area – at most, three rooms – to explore. Like a point and click game, you’ll need to interact with the environment in order to gather items or uncover clues. Solving a puzzle might be as simple as finding a key that can be used to open a box. Others require a little more logic; looking out for visual clues in the environment in order to crack a code, for example.
Practically every puzzle is rewarding to complete, though that’s helped in part by When the Past Was Around‘s beautiful art style. Hand illustrated by Indonesian artist Brigitta Rena, every frame is a delight to look at. Though small, every environment begs to be interacted with; clicking on windows and lights to see the quirky ways they interact is mesmerising. The visuals alone leave you wishing there was more to When the Past Was Around, but it’s a shame the narrative never reaches the same highs.
If you enjoy quiet and reflective games like Florence, as well as indulging in a bit of puzzle-solving, you’ll undoubtedly find something to like in When the Past Was Around. Its narrative never fully delivers, however, and its bizarre choice to be vague and obtuse when it comes to the main character’s love and loss makes it hard to ever fully understand her plight. Still, beautiful artwork and music coupled with enjoyable puzzles make it a worthwhile way to spend an hour or two of your time.