Guitar Hero meets Undertale in one of the best video games of 2021

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It’s hard to forget my time playing Tool songs in the 2008s Guitar Hero: Around the World. They clearly stand out: you don’t see the virtual band playing, but instead a vivid background takes center stage. It moves and transforms – from a spiral of faces to a sea of ​​eyes. The songs are long and difficult, locking you in place for what feels like an eternity, forcing you to hit hundreds of notes as horror threatens your performance.

I’ve always wondered what would happen if these scenarios went a step further – if these spectral curves became real obstacles in the way; if those eyes tried to attack me. Everhood provides the answer.

The so-called “unconventional adventure RPG” looks, at first glance, like Subtitle. The premise follows a wooden doll protagonist – whose arm was stolen – and a cast of colorful and distinct characters trapped in an ethereal realm. As they chase the limb thief through different areas (in a worldview similar to Subtitle), enemies interrupt you for combat encounters. Instead of the usual RPG action sequences, however, the fights take the form of musical battles. As soon as I saw the protagonist jump and dodge notes inside a rhythm game fretboard, I knew Everhood would be special. (The full name of the game is Everhood: An Ineffable Tale of Inexpressible Divine Moments of Truth – to save time, I’ll stick with the shorter version.)

Image: Chris Nordgren, Jordi Roca / Alien Gnomes

An ATM, a knight, a frog playing the guitar – whenever a conflict arises, the perspective changes and you’re third person facing the fretboard. Based on the idea to put the player in interactive music videos, the purpose of Everhood is to endure whatever the screen throws at you until the battle is over. The songs range from EDM to rock, from house to power metal ballads. Each character adds their own quirks – some are more melodic while others are downright aggressive, requiring you to react quickly and start over a dozen times until you’ve learned the patterns.

It’s both a rhythm game and a ball hell, in which the visuals play the main role. Some encounters are downright psychedelic. You quickly spin the entire neck as you dodge the notes and hang in there for life, only to disappear completely in a subsequent segment as your character sprawls across the screen. Fluorescent dwarfs slowly occupy the space and aberrant colors fade away with your movements.

Similar to seminal Subtitle, Everhood constantly questions its own design principles. The environment changes from a D&D style campaign to a mini racing game, to a Shiny-like a maze chase. My expectations were challenged at almost every turn. I was prepared to be surprised, given that both games rely on absurd conversations, dark characters, and heavy use of visual imagery that doesn’t live up to the standards we’ve grown used to in legacy titles. But at the same time Subtitlethe footprint is clear in Everhood, the latter deviates from it in a crucial way.

[Editor’s note: photosensitivity and epilepsy warning for the following video.]

Back when I first played Subtitle, I opted for the pacifist path. I couldn’t bear to murder the colorful characters I met along the way. To this day, I don’t think I have the courage to kill any of them – the other roads remain a mystery to me.

Realizing that Everhood presents different endings, which are also based on the player’s choices (one requires you to walk in a straight line for three to four hours in real time through an “endless” corridor inside an optional area), I wanted to follow the pacifist route once again. It seemed like a fairly easy task, considering none of the musical battles were lethal – or none of the enemies I encountered, that is. And so I continued with the story.

But something was wrong. Despite my best intentions, some conversations – and mysterious warnings – have hinted that the characters in this world might wish for a different outcome. The inhabitants of this kingdom, tied to immortality and the stasis of time that accompanies it, have sought a way out for centuries. I managed to ignore it until I hit the end credits. Here the protagonist has acquired the ability to deflect attacks. The wait, functioning as Act 2 of sorts, is to go back to the beginning and repeat every encounter with this mechanic in hand, battling everyone I have encountered in the first half of the story. Deflecting the attacks would actually kill the characters, granting their wishes to escape. But I kept going, determined to reach the end that would spare everyone.

Everhood characters play tabletop role-playing game

Image: Chris Nordgren, Jordi Roca / Alien Gnomes

I then got stuck in the last battle and quit the game for a few months until I started working on this piece. I came back expecting a big reveal after reaching the end credits. With Subtitle still coloring my perception, I expected Everhood to reward me for my pacifist efforts – to find out that Everhood the characters do not have really want to die. But it was not. The pacifist road was not, in fact, the “real end”. An on-screen message sums it up in simpler terms: “Only death can set them free.” This is how it was planned. If you’ve come here to have an ending, I can’t give it to you. As you are the end.

Everhood takes the rhythm games standard and builds micro-worlds into each song. It features a charming yet simple art style, only to warp it later, changing perspectives and infusing the screen with some of the most impressive and spooky visual effects I’ve seen in years. It is inspired by just enough other games to draw players in, only to pull the mat under them, with great effect.

The presentation similar to Subtitle is a facade – the latter questions the free-to-play murder that permeates so many RPGs and, while difficult, rewards you for avoiding it. In Everhood, however, the expectation is quite the opposite. With so many characters trapped in an endless loop of pain, Everhood proposes a passive and pacifist path as the most selfish approach. As someone who always goes the ‘right’ route in games, it’s hard to reconcile the fact that I’m the only one who can free these characters from the burden of immortality.

In Everhood, rhythm game challenges take on new life. I’m no longer just faced with difficult note patterns or awkward backgrounds. Each encounter is a story, each song a future memory of the character on the other side of the handle. I have come too far to give up now, and I will do whatever I can to save them, even if it means standing up against what I have always believed in.


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