Before Dave Gilbert became well-known for his Blackwell games, he already showed his ability to tell an engaging and touching story, this time about the Jewish faith, with The Shivah in 2006. 6 years later, a special edition was released as the Kosher Edition.
The Shivah: Kosher Edition
(USA 2013, developer/publisher: Wadjet Eye Games, platforms: PC, iOS)
Rabbi Russel Stone investigates the murder of a former member of his synagogue, while he is also struggling with his own faith.
Have faith in this story of mine
The first thing that comes as a surprise to anyone familiar with typical anti-heroes, comical or not, is that here it’s a disillusioned rabbi who’s thrown into a series of events which challenge his cynical attitude towards religion and what the Jewish community regards to be proper. So it’s not only a realistic portrayal of this person, but also New York and the religious group. During the playtime one learns quite a few Jiddish words and while some can be guessed, others have to be looked up in an ingame dictionary. Rabbi Stone needs some getting used to with his moods and interior monologues, but the script is quite witty and interesting to read or listen to.
The plot itself is a mix of drama and crime elements. Although the question of faith is central, there are enough new leads to follow and people to talk to in order to keep the player interested in the investigation. However, the very short playtime of 2-3 hours makes the abrupt ending disappointing and having an update when a new place can be visited would have been a welcome addition as well.
An interesting aspect of the gameplay is that one can make moral decisions which can change some parts of the story. Unfortunately despite their relatable content, there are very few, and sometimes there is only one right answer. Otherwise the player sees the death screen that is also part of a potential story ending with an epilogue explaining what happened because of his actions. These death sequences happen way too frequently and are extremely frustrating for a player who’s made believe he or she can act freely. So a moral dilemma is often obfuscated rather than an alternative decision encouraged.
This what-the-designer-wants-the-player-to-do trope is also reflected in the puzzle design, which is often obscure (which point-and-click game wasn’t or isn’t?) with its solutions and sparse with its clues. Especially annoying are so many parts in which one simply has to find a password to access a computer. Guess work is the order of the day then, which is a shame, as there is an interesting nod to Monkey Island‘s insult-swordfighting, although in a more religious, serious way. More of this would have made the puzzles less ordinary. Still, weird object combinations are absent, so at least the conundrums fit the story progression, and the inclusion of a hotspot key makes scanning the environment less difficult with its pixel graphics.
Looking and sounding same-y
Like so many Wadjet Eye Games titles, the graphics are something for retro fans and pixel art lovers. So one shouldn’t expect high but low-res characters and animations, while the backgrounds and character portraits are well drawn with a washed out-like painting look. The music on the other hand is varied and atmospheric without being too repetitive. Voice acting is also of a very high quality with almost all characters speaking in a natural way despite low audio production values.
A game with a different concept
The Shivah is one of those few games which are brave enough to tackle themes like faith and religious groups in a subtle manner without feeling patronizing. The plot itself might not be as originally fresh as playing a rabbi, but for the very short playtime, there’s quite a lot to like in how the story unravels, even if some characters could have used more lines or interaction in order to make them more interesting and memorable. The idea of moral decision-making is commendable, but its execution flawed, as only very few choices matter in the course of the story. While puzzles are more dialogue-driven than inventory-object-combination-heavy, they’re even less interesting to solve.
What remains though is a game that has to be played at least once to see how games can be more personal and touch on important everyday life matters without forgetting that there’s still a game to play. The Kosher Edition is also the one to go (highlighted by the fact that the former version was automatically updated via Steam) due to a definite step up from the original graphics and the inclusion of very good voice acting, while adding more comfortable features like a hotspot key and not so subtle references to Wadjet Eye Games titles which were made after the original.
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