Last week at Gamescom Sony surprise launched Erica, a live action interactive mystery story. Developed by British studio FlavourWorks, the game follows the titular character as she uncovers the mystery behind the death of her father, and how it relates to Delphi House, the mental health facility he founded. Full motion video (FMV) games fell out of favour in the 90s, but with Netflix’s Bandersnatch and Sam Barlow’s Telling Lies bringing the genre back, is Erica another success?
I’m happy to say it is, with reservations. Whilst the decisions aren’t quite as impactful as the developers imply, choice is a big part of the game. There are a myriad of ways you can reach the ending, so many in fact I think it would be difficult to find every permutation without a guide. There are 33 trophies (excluding the platinum) for the different things to see and the ways scenes can play out; after a single playthrough I’d only unlocked seven. It does seem to me that many of your choices only impact the scene immediately after and not the ending, so the journey changes, but the destination remains the same. As an example, a certain character will always die, but there are multiple ways they can meet their end. There are multiple endings, but from what I can tell these are only really impacted by your actions in the final ten minutes.
Part of the interactivity of the game comes from controlling movement on screen, such as turning pages in a book, pulling out desk drawers or turning door handles. This was something that Telltale and Quantic Dream games used to do, and I have to say I’ve never been a fan. I don’t find it adds anything to the experience: at best it’s a distraction, and at worst it’s frustrating. It’s meant to be immersive, but for me it does the absolute opposite. There is nothing quite as bad as Heavy Rain’s infamous baby change scene, but there is far too much of it and there are certainly some annoying examples. In one particular moment I had to clear dust off something by rubbing the touchscreen/touchpad, but having cleared it sufficiently to read it the game still wouldn’t let me continue until I had cleared every last difficult to see spec of dirt. The game does not need it, and it certainly hampers replayability when you know you’re going to have to go through all these pointless tasks again.
Importantly though, the story is engaging and the mystery of Delphi House will keep you guessing. The game does employ the overused trope of whether when Erica is experiencing something supernatural or psychological, but it still manages to keep things fresh. Decisions over who can trusted, for example, are difficult because there are no clear heroes and villains and there aren’t really right or wrong choices. The internet has branded certain endings “good” or “bad”, but whilst the game encourages this a little it’s not that clear cut. Speaking of the ending, players who want to see a conclusive solution to the mystery will likely be disappointed, as the various ambiguous conclusions leave a lot to your own interpretation. It’s down to you whether that is frustrating or not, I actually quite like it.
The FMV games of the 80s and 90s were notorious for their bad acting, so I’m pleased to be able to say that Erica’s cast is strong across the board. Erica herself is an engaging protagonist, a must for a character who is ever-present in the game. It must have been a monumental effort filming every different option and maintaining consistency of character, but actress Holly Earl (whom you might recognise from the 2011 Doctor Who Christmas episode, and more recently Channel 4’s Humans) puts on a fine performance as the troubled yet determined Erica.
The game can be controlled either by using the touchpad on the controller, or by downloading the companion app. The touchpad is not user-friendly, so I’d recommend using the phone. This works well, but you can’t help but feel it’s a gimmick. There is no reason this could not be controlled by the analogue sticks on the controller, so I suspect limiting players to the touchpad is a way of forcing them to download the phone app.
Erica is a strong return to form for the re-emerging FMV genre. Gone are the hammy acting and cheap production values of the 80s and 90s, this is a television-worthy interactive tale that keeps you guessing. Whilst the decisions are not always as impactful as they seem, and the endings are somewhat ambiguous, these are minor frustrations that did not bother me personally. My major gripe is with the controlling of movement, and simply put the game would have been better with this removed entirely. Overall though, the game is a worthwhile experience at a low price. A single playthrough will take you less than two hours, but you’ll want to play again to experience everything the game has to offer.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*