It’s difficult to talk about what you’ll experience in the game Where the Water Tastes Like Wine without spoiling the game because the game is quite literally the story. You play as a hobo traveling around the U.S. in what seems to be the Great Depression era, although the time period isn’t really apparent from the outset or explicitly stated anywhere. After playing (and losing) a card game with an enigmatic dealer, he offers an alternative way to pay what you owe by tasking you to collect stories. The player finds these stories by walking, hitchhiking and train hopping their way around a fairly sizeable scale map of the country.
Did I mention this guy is voiced by Sting? Yes, I actually mean THE Sting.
Along the way, you’ll encounter fellow travelers eager to share details of their lives, assuming you can tell them a variety of tall tales, tragedies and strange sightings you find while wandering around. Telling them the right type of story during each encounter will encourage them to reveal more about their past or personalities. This will eventually unlock their “true story,” which is what your debt collector wants you to find.
It’s clear a lot of time was spent on the artistic direction of this game, and the effort shows. Every story you encounter comes with gorgeous hand-drawn artwork that feels like it was pulled straight out of an old storybook, supplemented with fantastic voice over performances. The music flows from plucky folk tracks to lively jazz compositions and more as you wander across the rustic-colored landscape, depending on the area.
Even the damn pause menu is stunning.
The setting especially feels ripe for exploration; developer Dim Bulb Games have created a world that feels vibrant and dynamic. The vignettes peppered throughout the map are a mix of tall tales, slice-of-life snapshots, and mundane interactions, but every story has a chance to grow and change over the course of the game.
Most importantly, the fireside chats you have with other travelers in the game are some of the most engaging interactions I’ve had with a character in a video game. They all touch on simple subjects – love, loss, adventure, regret. But that simplicity provides relatability and connects to the core of what it means to be human.
Find a cool story? Chances are you’re not the only one, and people will tell their own version of that story over time.
Conceptually, this is one of the most interesting games I’ve played, which is why I almost feel guilty that I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. The one and only thing holding this game back is, ironically, the moment-to-moment gameplay. There are small tasks like managing your health bar and exhaustion level, but it’s so minor it felt like an afterthought by the designers.
What is significant, however, is the game’s movement mechanics. Your skeleton avatar moves painfully slow across the map, and the only way to move faster is to hitch a ride, hop a train, pay for a train ticket or whistle. Yes, whistling makes you walk faster. Hitching a ride is only occasionally useful because cars will only go one direction on each stretch of road, and hopping or paying for a train will only take you to major cities, meaning you miss out on tons of potential stories.
You’ll want to collect a variety of stories, because you never know what a fellow traveler might want to hear.
Which leaves your main mode of speeding up your travel whistling, which is simultaneously the most charming and frustrating feature of the game. Holding control will bring up a four-direction grid and music notes will pop up randomly. Pressing the correct arrow keys as they appear means your avatar will walk slightly faster across the map.
That means more than half of the game isn’t spent enjoying the wonderful artwork or keeping an eye out for story locations, but instead it’s focused on playing a monotonous mini-game to efficiently get anywhere. For me, they could have eliminated the 3D map navigation altogether. I would have enjoyed it much more.
Trains provide a fast travel method, but if you’re hopping and not paying, you’re limited to one option of where to stop.
If you are even slightly interested in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine’s core concept, then please don’t let the tedious traveling deter you from giving it a shot. It a shame that the actual gameplay isn’t more engaging, but that won’t stop me from trying to finish it, because I truly want to see where this grand story will take me. I’ll just have to revisit it over time, like slowly sipping a fine wine.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Gameplay - 6.5/10
Story - 9.75/10
Design - 8/10
Where The Water Tastes Like Wine provides a beautiful, verdant tapestry of tall tales and stories that speak to what connects us all in a gameplay package that’s a bit rough around the edges.