Fun dialogue and good voice-over work doesn’t add up to enough in ‘Neversong’

Christopher Byrd

THE WASHINGTON POST – Neversong is a low-key game which, at first blush, appears to be about a boy struggling with regret. In fairy-tale form, it tells the story of Peet, a lonely young orphan whose life is transformed after he falls for a charismatic girl named Wren who teaches him to play the piano. The two children are inseparable until a dreadful day when they venture out to a decommissioned asylum where Wren is kidnapped in front of Peet by a pale-faced man. The incident so traumatises the boy it sends him into a coma.

In the world of Peet’s unconscious, children have taken over his hometown, Redwind Village. The town’s adults are caged, transformed into monsters or running around with sharp objects and homicidal intentions. At the start of the game we see Peet wandering through a series of dimly lit halls. He walks past walls with “Believe” and “The” ominously painted on them and past doors with letters above them that together spell the word “SMILE” and “LIE”. Adding to the mystery, he comes across a ringing, old-fashioned rotary phone on which he answers. He hears a voice mail from Wren. It is clear that Peet is suppressing something.

Evidently, something anachronistic is going on because soon after Peet wakes up in Wren’s house (he’s still in a coma) he passes a portrait of her and a young boy with enormous smiles on their faces. It is dated 1952, long before the advent of voicemail. To uncover what’s going on with Peet, players will have to explore the village and chat with other kids who generally don’t seem perturbed that most of the adults have gone missing since they went searching for Wren. The children Peet encounters gently tease him for being generally clueless.

Neversong fuses elements of platforming and adventure games. As Peet roams around the town and its neighbouring areas he has the opportunity to solve puzzles and do favours for the children he comes across. Occasionally, he comes into conflict with adults who take the appearance of large monsters. By defeating them or poking around the town Peet learns notes for different songs that can be played on Wren’s piano. Doing so unlocks different upgrades that are hidden about the house such as a baseball bat that can be used to clobber Peet’s foes.

Neither the puzzles nor the combat in Neversong are particularly difficult, making it very approachable. Health is generously distributed throughout so one can blunder through the boss fights without much fuss, and over its relatively short playtime new mechanics, such as a skateboard, are timely introduced.

Although I was impressed that the game is largely the product of one person – Thomas Brush, who handled its story, art, and music – I found its ending to be both predictable and a letdown. The strongest aspect of Neversong is its atmosphere, which benefits from the actor Dick Terhune’s warm voice-over narration and the cheeky dialogue of the characters. Still, neither of those elements, nor the game’s relatively simple gameplay, help to sustain a sense of dramatic tension over the long haul. No doubt Brush is a talented developer, but Neversong strikes me as a minor work. It lacks the punch to make it more than the sum of its parts.

A scene from Neversong. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST