Yesterday – Review

Title   Yesterday
Developer  Pendulo Studios
Publisher  Focus Home Interactive
Platform  Windows PC (reviewed)
Genre  Point and Click
Release Date  March 22, 2012

There’s nothing like a good mystery. Take the following as an example: what’s the link between a serial killer who tortures homeless people, an heir to a business empire, and a man who suffers amnesia after a suicide attempt? Sadly, this isn’t one we can solve with a machine full of potentially-drugged-out mystery solvers and their dog within half an hour (including adverts). To find out the answer to this one, you’re going to have to delve into the world of Pendulo Studios’ latest point and click adventure, the simply-titled Yesterday. And, unlike the titular protagonist, the game itself is almost unforgettable.

The game begins with Henry White, the son of a wealthy businessman and heir to an empire, as he and his best friend Cooper attempt to track down and help homeless people located in the ruins of a collapsed subway station. They’re warned to be on their guard as homeless people across New York City are going missing, only to show up several days later having been burnt to death. It’s not long before worries of the serial killer subside, if only because Henry is instead held captive by the very people he came to save. Cue a rescue effort by his best friend Cooper, the second of three playable characters throughout the game. Where Henry is small and meek, Cooper is strong and athletic, and the puzzles shift in his favour as you’re able to take a more direct, if slightly clumsy, approach to the proceedings.

Another key difference is the fact that Cooper is seemingly perpetually haunted by his bullying Young Pioneers Leader, who’ll often start yelling at the poor kid if he can’t come up with the correct solution to a puzzle, or makes a mistake somewhere along the road. It may be a relatively small part of the game as a whole, but it’s a brilliant way to help differentiate the playable characters and adds so much to the personality of both Cooper and the game as a whole that you almost can’t help but enjoy being yelled at.

Sadly, though, your time playing as Cooper is altogether shorter than your time spent with Henry, and after this early sequence and explosive plot twist, you’ll transported a year forward in time and into the shoes of the game’s true protagonist, John Yesterday. John is an expert in the occult who was hired to track down the aforementioned serial killer, who has moved on from burning his victims to torturing them in a similar manner to a mysterious sect known as The Cult of the Flesh. Unluckily for the diminishing homeless population, John’s original investigation had resulted in another body to add to the pile; his own. Whatever John discovered had apparently driven him to attempt suicide, putting him in a coma and giving him a severe case of amnesia, gaming’s favourite illness. Nevertheless, he’s persuaded to continue his investigation and discover not only the identity of the serial killer, but also his own.

I have to admit that, upon originally discovering that the main protagonist was an amnesia sufferer, I was prepared for the worst; I’m not a particular fan of the use of the illness as a plot device (although there are very few exceptions (Second Sight)), instead ranking it along with the likes of “it was all a dream” in my list of storywriting clichés I abhor. Couple this with the fact that this is Pendulo’s first foray into serious storytelling, and there’s a lot that could potentially have gone wrong with Yesterday. It feels like a risky gamble for the studio, but it is my utmost pleasure to say that, considering the odds stacked against them, Pendulo almost walked away with the whole damn casino. The writing present in Yesterday is right up there with the best gaming has to offer, as Pendulo are able to expertly manipulate your mood as they see fit. This is a game where you’ll often find yourself gobsmacked, wincing and squirming in your seat, or even laughing your head off without any of the changes ever feeling out of place. The wide range of personalities helps this a great deal, with some of the best moments coming from a hotel clerk a bit too obsessed with trying to sell you a prostitute, Mr Hart the Young Pioneers leader, and a powerful sensei who loves nothing more than messing with your head. Some encounters may be brief, but I’m still finding them hard to get out of my head even now.

Something I found just as difficult keeping out of my head was the stellar presentation and graphical style. While it draws heavily on the cel-shaded style, it manages to feel completely unique in the way that it’s employed in Yesterday. No two characters look even remotely similar, and their expressions are so well defined through the animation that you’ll rarely, if ever, find yourself doubting how characters are feeling. Aiding the action are the comic-book style panels that often pop up, whether they’re to show one of Yesterday’s restored memories, dialogue or even action sequences. While this technique isn’t new by any means, it seems to fit Yesterday’s dynamic more than any other game I’ve seen it in. It does a lot to spice up what would be otherwise visually mundane conversations, meaning that you’re more immersed in the action and more invested in the dialogues, which shine all that brighter thanks to the incredible writing.

For many players, the voice acting is just as important as the writing itself, as even the worst writing can be improved with the right casting. Fortunately, Yesterday isn’t a game with writing that needs to be saved by its voice actors, and it’s also not the case that it needed to be saved from them. The thing is, it’s more often than not that the voice acting just feels a little… flat. Granted, none of the performances are in any way terrible, but for the most part they just about do their job, and in the case of John Yesterday himself, come across ultimately underwhelming.

Considering the calibre of the script itself and how well crafted it is, it still shines through despite what essentially becomes a minor setback. Admittedly, when a good deal of the writing isn’t accompanied by voice acting it initially comes across as jarring, but since these incidents are mostly confined to inner thoughts or descriptions, this ends up helping the pacing of the game a lot more in the long run. The average voice acting isn’t game-breaking by any measure, but you can’t help but feel it holds the experience back a little.

Point and Clicks aren’t all about stories and voice acting through; even the finest-written game in the genre could be ruined by lacklustre, frustrating puzzles. Once again though, Yesterday leaps this hurdle like it’s going for Olympic Gold. Not only are the vast majority of the puzzles intuitive, but they also do an amazing job of making you feel clever when you realise how to proceed. To those who find themselves stuck, as I admittedly found myself a few times, the game allows you to see all available interactive hot-spots and can provide a hint at the click of a button. Yesterday doesn’t want you to just spam the hint button if you get stuck, and after solving a puzzle with it the game will fade it out. In order to replenish the meter for the button, you’ll simply have to explore more and try experimenting to find the solution yourself. It’s a nice way to encourage the player not to over-rely on it, but it did become slightly frustrated on one or two occasions where I was blindly experimenting to replenish the meter only to find that it wasn’t working. That is, until I hovered the mouse over the hint button again and found it was suddenly available to use again.

When you do get a hint, Pendulo Studios were wise enough to not give you the answer outright, nor make the advice too vague and unhelpful and so, in a worst case scenario, you’ll still have a rough idea of where to go or what to acquire. Overall, most of the puzzles are going to be a lot more fun to solve than they are in other games in the genre, less frustrating and never unnecessary. Yesterday will even comment on some of your more experimental solutions if they’re close enough to the actual answer or outlandish enough, which gives a little extra to make the game that bit more enjoyable.

Once you take away the criticisms of the voice acting and the rare issue with the hint button, there really aren’t any negatives you can effectively attribute to Yesterday. The only negative I can think about in terms of writing is that the romance subplot feels a little rushed, but even then it doesn’t feel unconvincing. Then there’s the fact that the game itself isn’t very long at all, as I managed to get through the entirely of the story within about five hours, but even then it’s written and paced so well that adding too much more could potentially have unbalanced it. I’d rather have the game as it is, a compelling five hour rollercoaster that I can’t help but want to fall for, than a six or seven hour experience that could have been paced slightly better and doesn’t feel as concise as it should have been. As it stands, Yesterday is one of the more extraordinary point and click games I’ve had the pleasure of playing. Pendulo Studios showed that they can make a game that doesn’t have to rely on humour to be good, and made a thriller that manages to stand tall amongst the big hitters. It’s not the biggest point and click, and nor is it the best, but it manages to embrace the genre and provide something unlike any other.

  • Fantastic writing throughout
  • Manages to be dark, tense and funny with ease
  • Majority of puzzles are fun to solve
  • Beautiful art style and presentation that feels wholly unique at times
  • Music often complements the action well
  • Well-paced and makes the most of it's time with you.
  • Some lacklustre voice acting means some of the writing doesn't reach its true potential
  • Romantic subplot feels rushed in comparison to the rest of the story.

Sometimes, it's worth taking a risk, and Pendulo Studios are proof positive. They've strayed away from their roots and crafted a thriller with such expertise that you'd swear they've been making them since their beginnings. Yesterday keeps you enthralled from the start, with smart, witty dialogue, well-made puzzles, jaw-dropping plot twists, brilliantly defined characters and a story that'll keep you hooked until the end. Whether you're a point and click advocate, someone who plays games for their writing, or even if you just fancy a good mystery, you owe it to yourself to play Yesterday. You certainly won't forget it anytime soon.

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One Comment

  1. Lorna Lorna says:

    This one sounds like a must-buy for me. I adore games with strong writing, and I love the point and click genre (traditionally a home for some great stories), so a purchase seems like a given. I was surprised at first that Pendulo were tackling a darker, more serious story, but it sounds like they have pulled it off admirably. I agree with you that the whole ‘memory loss’ device is so over-used in gaming, but there are those rare occasions for which it works well – Amnesia was fine, for example, and in a dramatic setting, it can be very effective.

    I love the twist on the traditional help elements that Pendulo have introduced here – the show all hotspots key is now an accepted genre convention, but to limit its use was a smart move. It gives frustrated players the option for help, but prevents it from being over-used to the point of ruining the gameplay and, presumably, the pace. I wonder if we’ll see more of that from the genre in the future?

    Looking forward to playing this one :) Nice one, Ed.

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