Game: Heal: Console Edition
System: Nintendo Switch (also on Steam, PS4, Xbox One, Android & iOS)
Developer|Publisher: Jesse Makkonen | Ratalaika Games
Age Rating: EU 7+ | US Everyone
Price: US $6.99 | UK £5.99 | EU € 5,99
Release Date: April 16th, 2021
Review code used with many thanks to Ratalaika Games!
Heal has you playing as an elderly man, solving mysterious puzzles in gloomy-looking rooms. Despite what this may lead you to expect, it is not a narrative adventure about that old man.
It is, essentially, an abstract puzzle game. A compact 2-hour experience that doesn’t outstay its welcome, Heal scratched my puzzle itch but left me wanting more of a story.
For the Puzzle-Lover
There are clever, unusual, satisfying puzzles. Most aren’t too difficult. On rare occasion, though, there are puzzles which felt too obscure or over-dependent on tactile precision, but nothing that soured the overall experience.
Many puzzles require motions like swiping, turning, holding down, etc. The touchscreen controls feel easy to use and are recommended over Joy-Con controls. It’s a great port to the Switch in that respect.
A few times, I found myself swiping and tapping cluelessly on a new puzzle, trying to figure out what to do next. Sometimes, exploring other parts of the room was the solution. But often the first challenge was to figure out which parts of the puzzle item I can interact with. Is it a box to be opened, revealing the real puzzle within? And then: can I work on this puzzle now, or does it need to be activated first by completing another puzzle? Am I not touching the screen the right way?
Rare is the puzzle game that has no frustrating moments. Maybe non-existent, even! So I don’t fault Heal for having a small handful of frustrating puzzles, one of which led me to check a walkthrough. The game autosaves after each of the 6 levels, so be sure to complete a level before closing the game.
The Story, or Lack of
But what is Heal about, exactly? I wish I knew more myself! You see, the Nintendo eShop description led me to expect a game “exploring themes of ageing and dementia.” While this helpfully established the context, it also raised my expectations rather high. I had hoped to learn more about the old man, perhaps even learn more about my own ageing father’s dementia as a result.
I imagine that Heal was meant to simulate (to a small degree, perhaps?) what people with dementia experience: a challenge to short-term memory; needing to break down a complex series of tasks to one task at a time; wondering what’s going on. For example, in my occasional cluelessness during the game, I wondered if this is what my father must feel sometimes when confronted a laptop or tablet: a panel of buttons and things that I don’t remember how to operate. And this is exactly what some puzzles felt like, though most weren’t too challenging.
But I set my expectations too high for the narrative portion, which seems pretty disconnected from gameplay. Then again, could this all be intentional? After all, “the narrative” is something my own father seems to struggle with grasping: context, significance, timeline. Regardless, the narrative is pretty obscure in Heal, so don’t expect much in this department.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the game particularly explores themes of ageing and dementia in any clear or substantial way. At least, not other than creating a quiet, lonely atmosphere punctuated by moments of fear. The music mostly rests in gentle, bittersweet melancholia, but occasionally drops a tingling sense of danger. It’s got a lovely main soundtrack, and the visual style is muted but pleasant to the eye. So at least Heal has the mood, if not the words.
While disappointed that there wasn’t much in the way of a story, I think Heal holds up well enough as a puzzle game. The art, music and Switch touchscreen controls get a thumbs up.
Verdict: I Like It