The cross-country road-trip is a uniquely American concept: the idea of traveling through a myriad of locales, exploring each one and the cultures they have cultivated, is something distinct to the United States. Where The Water Tastes Like Wine (WTWTLW) is meant to tackle the concept of the American cross-country trip and is equally as unique as the mythos inspiring it. WTWTLW appeals with gorgeous aesthetics and high-concept gameplay, but only takes a few hours to show the cracks in the pavement. Unfortunately, an interesting premise and intriguing art style cannot save the game from becoming a monotonous slog—the very antithesis of the idea it is based upon.
WTWTLW starts on a strong note with a stunningly animated cutscene filled with the games dark and messy art. The powerful opening includes the introduction of The Wolf, played by none other than Sting, famous front-man of British rock band The Police. Once this scene ends, the player is confronted immediately with little direction; without guidance or description of how to precede, they are left to aimlessly click on icons until they run out of options. Eventually, the game tosses the player out into the world. This brusqueness is typical of WTWTLW: an experience marred by lack of proper communication to the point of frustration and confusion. Nothing in the game is clearly presented, including the goal, which is only cryptically hinted at by The Wolf before he sends the player on their way.
WTWTLW presents the player with a map of the United States—every state is technically available, although the interactivity with each is limited. The developer, Dim Bulb Games, focuses on seemingly arbitrary locations. In fact, many major cities are left out and certain selections feel odd. Traveling across the map is a tedious affair, as the player is stuck walking at a sluggish pace and must engage in a simple mini-game for their character to start whistling and walking faster. Between the repetitive soundtrack (which only changes based on location) and the whistling, the sound in the game becomes so grating that the travel begins to feel like even more of a chore. Compounding the slow travel is the requirement to backtrack constantly when one of the major characters changes their location; the repetitive design in turn makes a game that should have been half a dozen hours at most, drag on at least twice as long.
The second major component of the game, besides travel, is the collection of stories as a sort of currency. The player can click on locations or walk around the map to collect local folklore and make minor choices that effect which category the experience fits into. This concept becomes relevant once the player meets one of the 16 major characters. The purpose of the smaller tales is to use them in trade to get the major characters to share more about themselves, which in turn allows the collection of their more important ‘true’ stories. If this concept sounds confusing, it really is. The game does not provide any information regarding this process, and the player are left to waste time chasing these characters all over the map to unlock the next chapter. Once the player reaches the final chapter in a character’s story, they find out the ‘truth’. The issue is that none of these stories have the time to fully blossom and are made up of an amalgamation of snippets of dialogue and the character’s reaction to the stories the player has told them.
In the end, the payoff is nearly non-existent, with most characters fitting archetypes and their stories seem clear from the beginning. Without a real overarching narrative drive, WTWTLW makes players feel like everything is a checklist just to end the experience at some arbitrary point. Wandering the map and collecting tales becomes a grocery list, each story feeling more like a collectible in an Ubisoft open world as opposed to a unique piece of narrative goodness. On top of that is the fact that not even getting to any destination is enjoyable, which at least other open-world games have going for them by comparison. Every element of WTWTLW seems to exist to slow the experience down to a snail’s pace, directly contradicting the fast and loose nature of a trip across the United States.
Where The Water Tastes Like Wine excels in a select few areas: the writing of the stories themselves is generally interesting and poetic, with choice language and sense of foreboding in their tone as if anything could go wrong. The stories succeed in painting a darker undertone to the concept of the American mythos and the folktales surrounding it. Finding famous stories and watching them evolve (such as the tale of the Jersey Devil or Sleepy Hollow) is where the concept behind the game shines. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between, and as soon as the player is back to their journey, all the game’s issues come to the forefront. The artistic direction is another standout, with a style reminiscent of the tarot cards that influence the story, and each character has incredible transformations once their final chapter is reached.
At the end of a long road, emotions can be mixed, with many exhausted by the experience or rejuvenated by the discoveries made along the way. WTWTLW instills the former, driving players to feel dragged through the mud as opposed to fulfilled. Although the game touts the importance of the journey over the destination, neither offers any real sense of satisfaction. In the end, an interesting concept and great art direction cannot save the game from the weight of ambition. The attempt is admirable, but the execution leaves much to be desired. WTWTLW is lacking the narrative punch and cohesion of other story-focused games, as well as the freedom and gameplay quality of other exploration-based titles. WTWTLW has all the promise of a long and exciting road-trip across unknown territory, but ends up only offering flat tires and postcards of better places.