It’s been a while since I’ve experienced a visual novel where my curiosity was piqued from the very start. Seer’s Isle shows you a set of gorgeous, almost dreamlike scapes before plunging you straight into the action – a cast of characters on a fragile boat in the middle of a storm.
Seer’s Isle is set in a fantasy version of medieval northern Europe (very specific, I know). The story takes place on a mysterious island, where a group of men and women, all from different tribes and clans, have been chosen to go to the island and undergo the trial of the seers. If they pass the trial, they will be bestowed with the seers’ power, and return triumphantly to their homelands to become revered shamans.
So far, so simple. But once they have fought through the mysterious storm that surrounds the island to land ashore, it becomes clear that each one of these people has their own backstory and their own reason and motivation for taking on this quest. Not to mention that there seems to be an odd presence on the island itself – they very clearly are not alone…
At first, all of the characters seem like familiar tropes: the motherly, spiritual one; the headstrong, burly warrior; the sarcastic and cynical outsider; the young pup who is clearly well out of his depth. But through some impressive writing, these preconceptions are quickly dispelled. The game is refreshingly skilled at showing, rather than telling, you about these characters. You aren’t told exactly what these characters are thinking, or what they’re like – instead, you read it in their responses to each other, you see it in their expressions, you find it between the lines of text.
It’s a tricky thing to land right at the beginning of a game – setting the scene for a mystery and the people involved, without revealing too much. The unfurling continues at a nice pace, unhurried and yet moving with purpose. Each scene feels well-crafted, and since visual novels both live and die by their art and their writing, I was very pleased to find that Seers Isle has excellence in both, in spades.
The artwork is detailed, with lovely landscapes and well-drawn characters with distinctive features and expressions. There are some beautiful examples of light and shadow; with firelight dancing across characters when they camp for the night, dappled sunlight on a forest floor; stark, bright and cold daylight hitting a snowscape. A lot of effort has also been put into the music, dreamlike pieces which match the mood of the whole game perfectly and even shift to match the mood of each individual scene. There are even little touches like a dynamic dialogue system, giving the game an air of a digital comic book at times.
All of this is great, and it is easy to get wrapped up in. But if there is a criticism, for me it is that the illusion of choice and influence that the game does so well at setting up starts to crack when it comes to the ending, and becomes especially stark with multiple playthroughs.
In visual novels, particularly in ones that highlight how your choices matter, there are certain points where you are able to see the puppetmaster, to see exactly where the narrative branches. In some complicated ones, it is harder to see the lines and how your choices shape the outcome. In Seer’s Isle, at first it feels very much like your choices matter, and there is an impressive number of achievements to unlock.
But if you consider things closely, you’ll find that in reality, although there are seven characters, you are really only going to see 4 characters through to the very end. In hindsight, this should be somewhat obvious, since there are four traits that light up as you progress through the game and make certain choices, think how choices in Dragon Age or Mass Effect move you up/down a set of scales. But I’m not sure that this is really what the scales are about, and there’s no indication of whether you’re edging more down one path than the other, and therefore how your relationships with characters are progressing until you’re very close to the endgame.
I think part of what bothered me about this game is that it starts off showcasing a group of characters, but in reality, the game is not about them as a group, it’s about one character overall. Without getting too far into spoiler territory, this is why you can only really take one character with you to the very end. Which is fine, but it does seem like a little bit of a shame, and almost like an unfair plot twist where about two-thirds of the way through, the story takes a turn and reveals its true intention. It is a little frustrating to realise that in this cast of seven, you won’t be able to experience everyone’s story, despite the game suggesting that you can, simply because they don’t have one to experience.
Let me put it this way. You start off with seven characters, but through various circumstances, and as the journey progresses, in the style of this story the cast starts to thin out. But at a point two-thirds of the way through, another angle is introduced and the game turns into a singular character study, then right at the end, it is revealed to be a kind of love story. The first time this happened, I thought it might be a particular ending, particular choices which had influenced how the story unfolded. A few characters that I found interesting didn’t make it through my first playthrough, but I thought this would be resolved with several more playthroughs, to get all of the endings and experience all of the stories.
Except it happened again. And again. And then I realised that no matter how much I wanted to learn about these characters, some of them were never destined to progress past the midway point, and no matter what my choices are, they would leave the group and I would be left with a story which felt very different to how it started.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, to end up somewhere different, but the way it was done did feel a little bit like peeking behind the curtain and seeing the puppetmaster. There were one or two occasions where characters would just be written out abruptly in a way that didn’t do them justice, and wasn’t in keeping with how the story had played out so far. For example, in one playthrough, I ended up taking two characters close to the summit and the game’s conclusion. I thought that I had made favourable choices for both of them, so that they would both make it to the end. However, through some arbitrary calculation, the next day, one character had just disappeared – I woke up and they just weren’t there. Up to that point, I had seen a lot of scenes with both of these characters, and there was no obvious branching to indicate that some sort of choice would be made in which one character disappeared and the other carried on.
“Oh well,” the game basically said, “looks like they just wandered off in the night! Off to the conclusion you go!” It broke my immersion a little bit, and when it happened in a second and third playthrough, it rankled. I saw the limitations, and in a game that had done so well at the start to make me think that there was a lot of depth to it, to see evidence that things were actually more shallow than I thought was… disappointing.
Having said that though, I think that it’s more a praise than a criticism – perhaps it’s because they did such a good job of teasing a multitude of stories early to begin with, that I’m disappointed that there isn’t more. A playthrough takes 1.5-2 hours depending on your reading speed, and it was entrancing enough for me to play through it several times, just to grab every nugget of extra backstory I could, to experience every flashback, every vision, every conversation. As long as you are aware of the limitations of the format, there is still a lot to be seen, read and experienced on the island.