...clouds roll slowly overhead, and what appears to be black ash falls steadily from above...
Empathy: Path of Whispers is an atmospheric, exploration-driven game. Through interacting with various objects and the world itself, you also interact with the past, and with the emotions attached to each of these items. Your mission is to uncover that history and the details of those who inhabited this now-abandoned world.
After pressing some red button that, one might initially assume, wiped out the earth’s inhabitants, you find yourself in a bedroom. The overall color scheme evokes somber, dreary emotions. Gazing out of the window atop a staircase reveals an oddly-architectured, monolithic remnant of a building. At each turn, I felt mesmerized by the detail of the graphics; in the sky, clouds roll slowly overhead, and what appears to be black ash falls steadily from above. Not too far away, there appears a bent over statue of a man, carrying something upon his shoulders. My initial thought was Atlas Shrugged. Interestingly enough, it turns out that he’s carrying a park named “Atlas Park,” and the park itself carries a captivating history (that shan’t be spoiled here).
Experiencing the world as it currently is
The method by which you interact with objects is interesting. You must pull out a radar device, adjust through a few modes of wavelengths, and adjust the wavelength itself until the red (your current wavelength setting) matches and overlays perfectly with the white (the target setting). There are three modes to adjust: A, W, and F. I imagine these represent the amplitude, (pulse) width, and frequency, respectively, of the wavelength. Even though a controller will work for most functions, there is no button for sprint, nor can you operate the radar while adjusting the wavelength. It seems a mouse is optimal, for I could not get my touchpad to scroll to adjust the wavelength (but it would scroll through the modes), as this requires a mouse wheel. I hoped for a way to remap what the buttons on my controller did, but could not find an option to do so.
Once you have a firm hold on how this system works, it begins to be more intuitive. This radar will also point you towards more items with which you may interact. Adjusting the height at which you aim the radar will reveal the height of the object relative to where you are currently, along with the shape of the object; this is immensely helpful. Part of the fun, though, consists of experiencing the world as it currently is, and to walk around and admire the sights. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Empathy occurs if you forget where a certain object is, particularly since there is no map which you can consult (at least, from what I could tell). While individual areas aren’t that big, disorientation is, at times, problematic.
After each time you interact with an object, you get a glimpse of someone in the past who’s interacted with the object. There are only a certain number of items that appear on the radar at any one time, so the progression seems linear in this sense. Once you find these objects, a new set of items will appear on the radar, forcing you to revisit the area you just explored, providing a new set of perspectives. You do, however, get to investigate new areas; sometimes this requires certain items to operate a machine, or to open a door.
The past persists into the present
Note that not everything with which you may interact appears on the radar – even more reason to explore. This reminds me, albeit vaguely (as it has been years), of the audio diaries in Bioshock. Each provides just a minor, personal glimpse of a perspective into a world through a broken window. The meaning is unclear and each, individually, only elucidates so much, but, the more items with which you interact, the more information you’ll ascertain regarding this strange world.
And what a strange world it is. As if exploring this abandoned universe wasn’t creepy enough already, with its general sense of dread and eeriness, you are treated to spine-tingling sound effects, such as children laughing at a small playground — presumably echoes from the past. Then, you find items that force you to relive the emotions associated with the object; the emotions are still there, and the past persists into the present.
There was one point where I triggered a switch to cause a bridge-like object to come down, allowing me to walk across it from one house to another. I decided to take a break and close the game. When I returned, I was still in that building, but this bridge was no longer down. I searched around this house for over ten minutes, but could not find a way back, nor any switch to trigger. I was, it seemed, stuck in this house, with no way back to the rest of the world. I’m unsure if I overlooked something, but I ended up just scraping my save and starting again. It was pretty early in the story, so it didn’t take long to get back to this point. In another instance, interacting with an object caused the application to crash; but this problem did not recur on the second time with the same item.
I typically do not play this genre, but between the graphics and exploring this abandoned world and piecing together what happened, I found Empathy: Path of Whispers to be incredible. I highly recommend Empathy, even if you might not usually play an exploration-driven title. (I also recommend playing this with a good, reliable mouse to save yourself from some hassle.) You won’t be disappointed with this one.