Game Review: Over the Hills and Far Away

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This review was originally posted to Steam.

September 18th, 2015

Over the Hills and Far Away game splash image, showing the game title and a young girl with tan skin in ethnic-looking clothes, her eyes cropped out of frame, in front of a sunlit prairie

When you're traveling through a war zone on foot during a storm, you tend to not be very picky when an opportunity to find shelter presents itself. This is how one wounded former soldier, having abandoned his comrades during one of North America's many formative wars in the early 1800s, winds up in a shed together with a young Native American girl waiting out the storm. The shared experience is sure to tear down some of the cultural barriers between them, but will others be too sturdy to be toppled just like that?

Over The Hills And Far Away is a short kinetic novel (a visual novel without choice-based story branches), developed and self-published on Steam by WarGirl Games in collaboration with Collateral Damage Studios and Seycara Music and Arts. It uses western-influenced visuals as opposed to the more common anime style, and tells its story in about three hours.

The VN is built on the Ren'Py engine and has full SteamPlay support on Windows, Mac and Linux, which is something that I personally greatly appreciate. You can save and load at any time (somewhat curiously, the developer chose to provide no less than 250 save slots). It runs in fullscreen or windowed mode, and while it does not quite achieve full 1080p graphics, it runs at a very comfortable widescreen resolution slightly above 720p. The characters are not voiced, and at the time of this review, the VN is only available in English.

The visual style, while having some anime influences, is pretty unique and distinct from most other VNs on Steam. It makes expert use of color and lighting to set the tone, the backgrounds are as pretty as they are detailed and always fun to look at. The character sprites and CGs tend to be consistent between one another, and the characters have strong visual designs. While the coloring and most of the drawing technique is impeccable, I have to nitpick about the faces. The artist is good enough at drawing faces for it not to be too jarring, but they often end up looking kind of wooden or distorted and not really fitting the rest of the body. In one instance this actually made me laugh when a character was clearly supposed to be looking angry, but ended up looking more like he was struggling with constipation. That is the one unfortunate weak spot in the otherwise delightful painterly artwork.

Since I don't have the knowledge to assess whether the soundtrack has any particular relevance to the time period of the story, I can only say that it seemed well-produced and always fit the mood. It's one of those immersive soundtracks that you tend not to notice anymore after a while, which can be a good thing, even though it makes it hard to identify any stand-out tracks (beside the vocal track during the credits that I enjoyed very much). That said, I really have to highlight the sound effect direction in this VN, which feels like it has a unique little bit of audio for almost everything that happens. It's clear that a lot of attention to detail went into the sound design, and the result is impressive. In this particular regard it may actually the best VN I've read so far. The only sound problem that I noticed is that the background music does not loop very well and you frequently hear it fade out before starting over from the beginning. This is a common problem that always challenges my immersion unnecessarily and I wish more developers would take it into account. That said, if this is the worst audio problem that I can find, then that says more about what they did right than what they did wrong.

I always perk up a little when I see someone announcing a VN with an interesting original setting, and in this regard Over The Hills And Far Away certainly brings something valuable to the table. I don't know all that much about American history, so a lot of the context of the war and the motivations of the various factions were undoubtedly lost on me, but it's worth noting that I never felt like I was being admonished for that. The story carries all the context that it needs to function, and I would imagine that many aspects of this story would transfer with little issue to many other wars in human history, so this title is not only for the history buffs to appreciate. If you are hoping to learn more about Shawnee culture from this VN, you are likely to be disappointed, as what little information it gives about them stays on a very superficial level. This is not an educational story (in the scholarly sense) like, for example, Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) tries to be.

As original as the setting is, the rest of the broader plot framework unfortunately cannot keep pace. The tragic story of the battle-hardened warrior meeting the innocent little girl is a safe genre staple, which regrettably also makes it feel a little stale. You know there will be a time period of the two warming up to each other, you know there will be lots of moments of joy, and you know it's going to tug at your heartstrings a bit. That's all just fine, and taken by itself every one of those moments works well, but you tend to see the heartstring-tugging coming from a mile away if you've read a few stories of this kind before, so depending on your own degree of genre-savvy cynicism, there's a tangible risk that this story might leave you feeling like you just went through the motions again.

All that is not to say that the writing isn't good, it's merely not particularly innovative. I'm under the impression that Over The Hills And Far Away is the first “big” serious project of its writer, and sticking closely to a proven story archetype was probably not a bad idea at all. The writing shows very few rookie mistakes (some misplaced humour, some overreliance on clichés) in an otherwise rock-solid and immersive experience, and I have high hopes for the raw talent of the writer, who I'm sure will spread his creative elbows out a little more for his next work.

I've often said that a great execution can do a lot to make up for some things that the framework may be lacking, and this is definitely true for Over The Hills And Far Away. I've already talked about the attention to detail in the sound design, but the same excellence extends to almost all other detail areas of the VN. When the protagonists are walking through a forest, you can see the thicket draw leafy shadows on the character sprites that lightly sway in the wind, the animated fog effects are a joy to look at, and the occassional sprite animation when a character falls down or climbs a tree just gives the whole thing an aura of authenticity that you only get when the developers pay ample attention to the little things. Over The Hills And Far Away is practically polished to a mirror sheen.

Even if it breaks less new literary ground than the setting made me hope initially, I have no qualms giving Over The Hills And Far Away a positive recommendation. There's almost nothing to it that needs criticism, and at the end of the day it is an enjoyable story with a very competent presentation. For people who dislike anime-style art, this is an obvious recommendation. Everyone else will have to weigh it against other VNs that they have not read yet and ask themselves whether the setting and the attention to detail are strong enough selling points.


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