by Lee Hazell
Massimo Guarini is most notable for directing Grasshopper Manufacture’s Shadows of the Damned. An over the shoulder shooter in which you play a demon hunter who must enter the underworld to save his girlfriend, kill the big bad and solve some intricate – if convoluted – puzzle scenarios. Video games don’t get much more videogamey than Shadows of the Damned. Due to the notoriety the game gave him, it came as a surprise to many when Guarini opened his new studio Ovosonico, a development house with the goal of broadening the gaming horizon with new and different experiences.
Their first completed project, Murasaki Baby, was a side-scrolling puzzle-platformer with a bizarrely quirky art style and a bittersweet tone. Last Day of June takes that same form of visual storytelling and transplants it into a three-dimensional environment, but keeps the charming character design of sticking huge heads on small bodies. The game follows Carl as he mourns the loss of his partner June. After a romantic afternoon, sitting on a pier by an absurdly picturesque lake, a storm makes them head back to their home when disaster strikes. They are involved in a vehicular accident killing June and leaving Carl dependant on a wheelchair.
Carl, shacked up in their old home with only his grief for company, wheels himself around their house looking for something to sate his rumbling stomach. You feel for him as he drags his wheelchair around the house in the ghostly, shadowy twilight. Where once the house was cosy and bright, it is now cold and lonely, like the blackened wick of a candle snuffed out long ago. The strain of the animation and his grunts as he struggles really bring out our empathy for this downtrodden and crestfallen widow.
Searching for a can opener for his meagre meal, he enters her old studio for what appears to be the first time since her death. As he reaches out to caress her self-portrait, light suddenly emanates from her picture and the painting is filled with colour once again. Her artwork seems to have taken on a magical quality which will allow Carl to see the last 24 hours of her life through the eyes of her friends and neighbours who she lovingly painted when she was alive, and change the events of that day.
The game takes place in a little cul-de-sac in an unnamed Mediterranean country that could have been a setting in a Van Gogh landscape. The leaves on the trees and the petals on the flowers look like they could have been dabbed onto a canvas with acrylics. The studio’s depth-of-field tricks not only ensure that your attention as a player is focussed correctly, but it also gives the game a hazy, ethereal feeling, enhancing the game’s magical realism with a sense of the surreal. The game is constantly stunning to look at and every new vista breaths new awe into an already breath-taking game. Walking around Carl’s idyllic hometown is the most pleasurable part of Last Day of June and gave me the feeling of wonder and discovery you fantasise about having on a dream vacation.
The characters too are more of an obscure approximation of humanity, just like the location is a mosaic of picture-perfect postcards and screensavers. The most discerning feature of their character designs is that there is an absence where their eyes should be, and they all talk in a whimsy heavy version of Simlish.
The idea is so that we can insert ourselves into the characters, to walk a mile in their shoes, as it were. The overall effect can sometimes come across as too twee, but in the game’s most powerful moments, this just makes their flashes of defeat and despair so harrowing to witness. The relationship between Carl and June especially, has such a childlike innocence to it, watching him fall apart over her death is like seeing Peppa Pig’s day out at an abattoir.
These designs come courtesy of Jess Cope, a stop-motion filmmaker who made a music video with Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson that had characters eerily similar to our protagonists. Wilson too made a contribution in the form of the haunting and melodic soundtrack that in just a few short notes can turn the tone of the game on its head, from a chilled out puzzler on a balmy autumn day, to a tragic melodrama, wallowing in mourning.
The game plays like an emotional Metroidvania. As Carl finds himself reliving his neighbour’s memories, he finds that he cannot immediately access all the areas of his small village, but as he discovers the memories of each of his neighbours he finds he can slowly start making his way through all the various obstacles fate has placed in his path. For instance, the first character he can take control of, a child, can kick a ball that knocks over plant pots, revealing holes in fences or widening narrow pathways allowing passage.
That child also provides a handy introduction to not only the game’s mechanics, but into the context with which we will use him. The goal of this kid is not to make some kind of dramatic rescue of the endangered couple, but to simply find companionship in a place where he is the only child. The other characters follow a similar suit, simply trying to find some kind of spiritual absolution in everyday tasks such as securing moving boxes to a van or delivering a present.
Each time you change someone’s circumstances it has unforeseen consequences, ranging from the incidental to the devastating. You then have to navigate a patchwork of different scenarios that all add up to a different ending for June. This involves some repetition and backtracking. Structurally the game requires you to replay certain scenarios several times, but the game will either abridge them to make them less of a chore or guide your hand to help you along with the solution.
It’s a good thing too because the most cumbersome moments come at the times you are aimlessly wandering around trying to find a solution to a puzzle, only to realise you’ve meandered way off track and are now confused as to what to do next or even which character to play in order to progress. It can get monotonous and infuriating at times, but just remember that the further you go from your starting point the less likely you are to find an answer. One good thing to do while you are pondering the next solution is to collect the memories of the characters in the form of collectable cards. Like the rest of the game, they focus on telling relatable stories that pull from some universally shared experiences.
Last Day of June is a joyous, tormenting, cathartic and harrowing journey through the stages of grief. It contemplates the trauma of regret and the ways in which we mentally try to undo those knots of guilt, only to find that we are better off living with them as best we can, trying to be better people and better friends and family along the way.
Last Day of June by 505 Games & Ovosonico is now available to purchase on PS4 & Steam.