The developers at PostMod Softworks are taking a very bold risk with The Old City: Leviathan. Not only have they crafted a game which is more of an interactive story than a traditional game, but they have also constructed a narrative that is designed to be confusing from the outset. First impressions of the game are not necessarily endearing.
Playing as the sole survivor of an undetermined apocalyptic event, the player character is as perplexed by his predicament as you are, slowly musing on philosophical matters while contemplating his own suicide. And yet, when strange events occur such as new paths opening and walls moving when you re-enter an area, your narrator is remarkably quiet. As the tale goes on, the lines between reality and dream sequences become blurred until you aren’t totally sure what’s real anymore. The meaning behind the heavy symbolism that is everywhere in Leviathan doesn’t become apparent until much later, leading the player to believe that they’re missing a vital piece of information that will help them understand the plot. While this sense of frustration is intentional, and the narrator’s dialogue is deliberately obtuse, it does act like a barrier to entry that the player has to overcome.
This can go one of two ways. Some players will likely be turned off by this, but others may feel compelled to delve in further and investigate. Investigation does bring with it a sense of reward in that you can collect notes that flesh out the narrative and visit interesting locations (some of which are particularly trippy). The majority of the game’s content is entirely optional, and is possible to wander through the entire game in just over an hour if you don’t take the time to smell the roses. Leviathan is aimed at people who want to experience an unique environment and enjoy the world-building narrative that it provides.
The city itself is the other main character, and it’s clear that PostMod Softworks have endeavoured to give it a distinct personality. There are some beautifully created environments to explore. Some, like the early sewer levels, are grounded in a dreary realism that gives the dead city a certain amount of life, while others venture into surreal territories and show a variety of imaginative landscapes. All of this is visually striking and wonderfully created, and the game has many nooks and crannies that you are encouraged to explore.
While the narrative and the supporting visuals are undoubtedly the focal points of the game, everything else takes a backseat. Gameplay-wise, there isn’t much to discuss. You navigate the surroundings at a glacial pace and occasionally press E to open doors or collect notes. Your mouse buttons allow you zoom in on objects, which is a nice touch for reading many of the notes or posters that are scattered around the game, but other than that, you are a passenger. A passenger that is able to decide where to go next, but ultimately you will be funnelled down the main path that will advance the plot. There are no puzzles to solve other than the complexities of the narrative, and very little for you to actually do outside of taking in the environment.
For the most part, this is absolutely fine as Leviathan does just enough to keep the game flowing with new areas and by breaking up the environments with wonderful dream-like sequences. However, your speed of movement is something of a problem. You trudge forwards like you’re carrying a dead donkey through trenches of treacle. This seems like an intentional decision, perhaps to stop you from advancing the plot too quickly or maybe to try and hide loading times between rooms, but it really takes the wind out of your sails when it takes you nearly a full minute to pass through an unremarkable corridor. This could also dissuade players from exploring fully, since the time it would take to reach a room and then backtrack just seems too long to bother with at times. This is a shame because Leviathan has some very interesting places to visit, and the city itself contains many visual cues that inform the narrative.
These problems might make Leviathan seem like a trying event, but overall, the story beats are good enough to make the whole experience worthwhile. Your own feelings are mirrored in the player character, and this connects you to the game in a way that not many other titles manage.
As part one of a three-part story arc, Leviathan will take you around three hours to navigate through if you take your time and investigate everything that the game has to offer. If this were a traditional game, the length would be a huge problem, but as it is, the game finishes in a place that makes sense. Any longer and the heavy storyline may become too much of a chore, so it seems wise that the developers took the decision to split the game up in this fashion.
Ultimately, Leviathan is worthy of your time, especially for those of you who want to experience something different. If you find yourself frustrated with the derivative narratives that most games provide, then this might be the perfect antidote. You’ll already know if this game doesn’t appeal to you, but even if you have a remote interest, it’s well worth trying if only for the experience.