In the 3 or so years since I reviewed Dear Esther, a game which in my opinion was an incoherent mess, I’ve come to appreciate the walking simulator genre. They’re definitely not for everyone, what with the achingly slow pace and reliance a strong story to really make them, however they can shine beautifully when done right. If I’m honest though had I known that Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was done by The Chinese Room (the guys behind Dear Esther) I probably wouldn’t have played it. Thankfully though I didn’t find that fact out until I was a fair way in as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture deserves to be judged on its own merits and not its heritage.
It’s a beautiful day in the quiet small town of Yaughton in Britain. It’s one of those places where you feel like you could hear a pin drop a mile away, the only sounds being the rustling of the leaves with the occasional bird chirp or quiet rumbling of a car off in the distance. That stillness belies something far more sinister however as you quickly discover that this town is bereft of people and the only thing that remains is an eerie ball of light that dances through the streets. As you walk through the town it begins to reveal its story to you and that of the people of Yaughton.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture utilizes the Crytek 3 engine and definitely makes good use of the capabilities that it provides. Whilst it’s not the pinnacle of graphical mastery that the engine’s flagship game was it’s still a decidedly pretty game. Indeed the sweeping views of an idyllic English countryside backdropped by columns of light are some of most enjoyable and serene set pieces I’ve seen in a long time. However what really sets Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture apart from all others in its genre is the absolutely stunning soundtrack, one that wouldn’t be out of place as a movie score. It definitely pleased me to find out that Jessica Curry, the composer, has received a BAFTA for her efforts as her current work shows just how capable she is.
As the genre would suggest Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is essentially a sightseeing tour, one that will walk you through the town of Yaughton and gradually reveal the story to you. Unlike most walking sims though there’s a guide to show you the way, a small ball of light that will dance and flit around from point to point, urging you to follow it. Then, when you reach certain trigger points, you’ll see events of the past rendered in a shower of light, the voices clear but the people seeming like ghosts playing out their past lives. The only real game mechanic to speak of is tilting your controller one way or the other to sync up with the light but beyond that it’s a lot of holding the left stick forward.
Walking sims generally encourage you to explore the environment, usually with the promise of revealing more of the story to you or opening up a shortcut. The addition of a guide, in this case the ball of light that races around from place to place, would seem to be contrary to that but it’s something that I actually came to enjoy later on. You see, whilst it’s easy enough to figure out what general direction you should be heading in, there’s a lot of places you can get yourself into which don’t lead anywhere. Following the ball, and straying from the path where it seems obvious to do so, seems to be the best way to play Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.
One mistake that was unfortunately repeated by The Chinese Room was providing avenues of exploration, ones that seemed wholly intentional, that lead to absolutely nothing. The best example of this was the church early on in the game which, when you first go to it, you can’t access the second half of. However if you look around it’s clear there’s another path available to you but you’ll have to go all the way around to get to it. Naturally I did that only to be greeted by sweet fuck all when I arrived there. In any other game this would be a minor annoyance but in a walking simulator it was a 15 minute ordeal, even with the sprint button pegged down. This was the same issue I found so much frustration with in Dear Esther and it pains me to see them making the same mistake.
Thankfully the one mistake they didn’t repeat was delivering the story to you in randomized, disjointed sections. Whilst the story is still far from linear, delivered in vignettes as you stumble across key locations, it at least has a sense of flow and timing to it. Each section follows a particular individual’s story over the course of the events that preceded your arrival, revealing more and more details about their particular part they played. There’s also optional bits of dialogue that you can trigger by picking up phones or turning on radios which are key to understanding the central character’s motivations.
For me the way the story was delivered was the key difference between Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. In Dear Esther I struggled to have any empathy for any of the characters as it was hard to tell where I was in the story and how that section fit into it. With Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture on the other hand whilst the vignettes might be told in any order they’re at least internally consistent and often reference a point in time in the larger story. This means that there’s a flow to the larger story that its predecessor lacked, giving you a much better sense for how the events that led up to your arrival unfolded.
The story itself does meander a bit but it’s interleaved with enough background and character development that you feel drawn into their lives and the minutia of this small town. It grips you early on, especially with one scene (pictured in the second screenshot) where a desperate mother struggles to understand what’s going while being comforted by the local priest. The slightly disjointed nature means you know the ending long before it happens however the final few reveals were still an emotional journey. It may not have left me an emotional wreck like other similar games have done but it was definitely one of the more memorable stories in recent memory.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture aptly demonstrates the talent that The Chinese Room team has. Everything about this game, from the graphics to the story to the soundtrack, are well above par in all regards. They may make the same mistake of opening up paths of exploration without reward however there’s many more issues that plagued Dear Esther that are simply not present in their latest title. Indeed Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is one of the few games in this genre that I feel would have appeal beyond that of genre fans as it truly is a great experience.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is available on PlayStation4 right now for $29.99. Total play time was approximately 5 hours.