Empathy: Path of Whispers is a PC game available on Steam where players solve puzzles to uncover fragments of stories. Featuring a large cast of characters, the story focuses on a corrupt Eastern European country ravaged by an apocalyptic plague, which has somehow removed people from the world. The protagonist is an unnamed child, unearthing memories from objects around the world to reverse the mysterious apocalyptic event. After scanning certain objects in a mini-game and hearing important audio fragments, players jump back in time, switching to the perspective of one of the country’s citizens for an opportunity to change the past. In spirit, then, the game resembles Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, with a sci-fi, time-travel touch.
As nobody is around for players to interact with, the game makes good use of audio effects to enhance the game world. The ambient music provides a certain mysterious atmosphere, with the synthesised notes mingling in with the diegetic noises, such as trickling water and running engines, without being unpleasant. The foley is used sparsely, usually reserved for opening doors, picking up objects, or background noise. As a result, the game sometimes feels like a throwback to the 1990s, but the slightly artificial soundscape adds to the stylised nature of the game. Further enriching the atmosphere are the audio fragments, which usually consist of a monologue or dialogue from a handful of characters and provide layers of history to ground the otherworldly environments.
Indeed, these audio fragments, gathered by scanning items dotted throughout the world, present a wide range of interconnected characters and factions, and may, perhaps, be too intricate for the game’s own good. The story is complex, filled with lies, betrayal, conflict, half-truths, and conspiracy. The huge cast does a great job, even if the actors have trouble maintaining an Eastern European accent from time to time. The performance of the American narrator, who acts as a guide in the game, stands out. The narrator not only runs through the necessary exposition within the game, but also muses on the missing characters and, indeed, the end of humankind, effectively situating players within this deserted world.
However, while the game has a high level of world-building, great voice acting, and a strong story, the narrative and character development are sometimes hard to follow. The dialogue that accompanies gameplay often devolves into background noise as players solve puzzles or search the environment. Small moments of audio can, nevertheless, break through the monotony. One example of these stand-out segments occurs when players scan a shred of a child’s dress beside the sheer drop of a cliff face and, after solving the mini-game, hear a young girl’s cries as she tries and fails to free herself from an adult’s grasp. Such moments, however distinctive, are not enough to ensure players remain consistently engaged in the game’s narrative.
One of the major reasons players might have difficulty connecting with the game is the repetitive nature of the gameplay. Each time a new object needs to be scanned, players repeat a slight variation on the same puzzle. For example, users adjust three knobs to match one wavelength to another on the scanning machine. Initially, the mini-game is an amusing and interesting way to unlock the stories, and the puzzle may challenge some players, but the puzzle grows less enjoyable by the fortieth repetition. Players move from one object to another, scanning in a couple of seconds, not so much listening to the story as rushing from problem to problem to complete the objectives as quickly as possible.
In an effort to ensure players get the most from the experience, Empathy: Path of Whispers features a journal with a record of each conversation and note that players hear and read. Unfortunately, this inclusion is questionable, as players may be confused about which character is which and in what order events take place. A personal dossier of each character, to act as a refresher for players trying to keep on top of events, would have been more convenient. Given how much effort the game developers put into the narrative, the story should be the focal point of the game, not ignored as a matter of course.
The objective marker system is another feature that needed more thought than the developers put in. Throughout the game, players must scan items to complete missions. Each scan reveals a line of dialogue or monologue from important characters within the story. When enough of these items are collected, players will go back in time and change a specific incident. Locating these items unassisted is difficult in the large environment, so the player’s scanning device acts as a radar to locate these items. While the scanner does not tell players how close or far away these objects are, players will learn how to locate them after some practice.
However, like many aspects of Empathy’s gameplay, the objective system has significant problems. From time to time, players must enter closed-off areas using specific items with no objective markers provided. For instance, in one section of the game, players are required to collect a totem, a power core, a coil, and a blueprint, then combine them to fix a specific machine to progress. Those items are spread throughout a multilevel park environment, including a military base, several houses, a sewer system, and a gypsy camp. With no objective markers, completing this one minor section requires players to either complete a frustrating search through almost the entire level or watch a YouTube playthrough. While some hardcore players might enjoy a lack of clear objectives in an HUD-free mode, casual players might be frustrated unnecessarily. This problem might have been fixed if the developers had included a labelled map or objective markers for all mission-critical items.
The developer’s choice to leave out maps is strange, particularly as Empathy’s environments are ambitious on an almost-BioShock level. Players will find ruined towers looming over a cloudy landscape, the face of a bearded god carved into a floating park, and beautiful colourful towns clinging to the sides of mountains. Nevertheless, whatever the developers set out to do, Empathy is not a gorgeous game. Most of the locations use low-quality textures that would have seemed dated in 2000 and the engine is clearly not up to the task of rendering the environments. In the third act of the game, set in a beautiful—yet simplistic—mountainside village, the framerate drops dramatically. Players must either try to explore and investigate the area in half-speed or drop the game in frustration.
Overall, the level design feels rushed and incomplete. Building interiors are often duplicated, leaving players unable to differentiate one location from another. As players are often forced to recall where specific items are hidden to complete missions, this lack of variation is a needless problem that could be fixed with only slightly more work. Also, while players are given free reign to wander around the environment, far too many accessible rooms have no reason for players to visit them. While this emptiness does, to some extent, enhance the barrenness of the world, the lasting impression is that exploring the world is a waste of time.
Wasting players’ time is a recurrent theme within the game. Empathy fails to provide enough variety with the scanning puzzles, forces players to search through every inch of the game environment for small problems, and does not provide enough detail in level design to keep an audience entertained. As a shorter game, the more annoying features of Empathy would be less of a burden, but at the actual length of five hours, the adventure drags unbearably.
Empathy resembles a promising game prototype that, with further development and debugging, could have been a star on the Steam store. The inspired world-building and complex story would be a great selling point, while aspects such as improved graphics, a map, more consistent objective markers, a stronger game engine, and a wider variety of puzzles should also be implemented to enhance ease of gameplay. Unfortunately, at present, Empathy: Path of Whispers is an inadequate and frustrating experience with too many bugs to be enjoyable.