Harold Halibut review: Innovative stop-motion design falls short as a video game

Harold Halibut review: Innovative stop-motion design falls short as a video game

Harold Halibut is a remarkable accomplishment from a visual standpoint, its breathtaking stop-motion presentation a glorious sight to marvel at. Though in its pursuit of innovative design, it all but overlooks everything else it takes to piece together a worthwhile video game. Lacking in interactivity, it certainly isn’t an experience everyone will enjoy.

Take one look at Harold Halibut and you’ll see a game unlike any other. Its visual style more akin to Aardman than any peer in the gaming industry. A passion project from a dozen indie devs, this release took more than a decade to bring to life, and that effort shows in every single frame.

Its innovative, downright stunning stop-motion design puts it in a class of its own and should absolutely be commended. It’s impossible to tell when a hand-crafted story sequence ends and any given gameplay section begins. Though in chasing this blend of stop-motion visuals in a medium centered around interaction, Harold Halibut loses track of the latter half of the equation.

Where it shines brighter than almost anything in the industry today, it does so at the cost of engaging systems, unique mechanics, and any form of interactivity beyond the bare essentials. Although it still kept me glued to the screen til the credits rolled, its fundamental shortcomings nonetheless soured the experience.

Harold Halibut: Key Details

Harold Halibut: Trailer

Under the sea

Flashy visuals would be nothing without an equally dazzling setting, and it’s no exaggeration to say Harold Halibut’s is one of the most original and intriguing in recent years. 250 years before the game takes place, humans fled Earth to find a new haven for our species. Crash landing on a mysterious planet, not quite as planned, the ship ends up submerged though life continues.

As the ship was built to last for many generations on the voyage through space, it manages to hold up mostly fine underwater. Humans continue surviving for generations to come, and that’s where we pick things up. At a seemingly uneventful stretch in life for the remaining inhabitants to the long-thought doomed spaceship.

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Harold Halibut review: Innovative stop-motion design falls short as a video game

Life under the sea isn’t quite as thrilling as it may sound in Harold Halibut.

Harold takes center stage as our unassuming protagonist. A character with no charm, wit, or real purpose in this new form of survival for humanity. Just plodding along one day at a time, knowing no different from how wondrous life can truly be outside the confines of their slowly decaying ship.

Where the story goes from here is best left unspoiled. Though it is worth bearing in mind how the story is structured. Divided into acts and with various time skips strewn in, Harold Halibut suffers from serious pacing issues. The first chunk of the game, which merely sets the scene and presents a slice of underwater life, feels like a real drag at times. Then when the far more intriguing aspects of the narrative come into focus, the latter stages of the game feel as though they fly by.

It’s certainly an intriguing storyline and one with some excellent characterization throughout, but it doesn’t entirely justify its lengthy 10-20 hour runtime, especially as those hours grow monotonous.

A video game but hold the game

Compounding the game’s pacing issues is its overall design. Taking control of Harold, perhaps on brand for his character, you’re extremely limited in what you can do. Each day is simply a matter of going where others tell you, following your objective, and going to bed to do it all again the next day.

The crux of your time spent ‘playing’ has you walking from one location to another and talking to the sunken spaceship’s many zany inhabitants. It’s a good thing then, that each and every character is compelling from beginning to end. I genuinely wanted to take the time to catch up with them all every single day. I wanted to hear Buddy’s stories from life before the crash. I wanted to make sure Tommy was doing alright amid his relationship struggles. The daily evolution of their arcs on the ark is what kept me engaged more than anything.

In a sense, it reminded me of Persona’s gameplay loop of wanting to level up your social links. It means you want to make the most out of every day, not go to bed and fast forward until you’re certain you’ve checked in with every single person on the ship. However, the incentive to do so was mine alone. There’s absolutely nothing in the game pushing you in any which direction, no encouragement to engage in such a way, and no systems to track progress of any sort.

Outside of simply talking to others, there’s very little in the way of interactivity throughout the game as a whole. Every single objective is a fetch quest at its core. Go here, speak to someone, grab something, rinse repeat. It can grow incredibly monotonous, regardless of how compelling the narrative may be.

You’re not tracking down secrets, piecing together any part of the mystery directly, evolving in any discernable way, and there’s no challenge of any sort. Not that a game ever needs any of the above, Gone Home is one of my most beloved experiences, but when interaction is limited to merely pressing a few buttons, it lends to a rather dull, passive experience. One where the player is instead mostly watching and listening, rather than actually playing.

A mixed bag in stop-motion

While wanting to praise Harold Halibut for its innovations, it’s difficult to praise it as a video game through and through. Often times while sitting with the controller on my lap, not engaging whatsoever with the product beyond watching and listening, I questioned why this beautiful stop-motion project couldn’t have just been a film or TV series instead. And while that ultimately goes against the ambitions of the clearly determined developers, Harold Halibut did little to help shake that feeling over the course of my 16-hour playthrough.

The Verdict – 2/5

It’s a novel creation, one put together like no other game on the market, but through its meticulous presentation, it leaves gameplay buried under the sea, making it a tough recommendation for most.

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