Republished on Wednesday 1st May 2019: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of May's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
It's been five long years since developer Giant Sparrow released its debut title The Unfinished Swan. We absolutely adored that game when it launched, giving it an elusive perfect score. This left us hungry for more, so every little snippet of information we heard about the dev's follow-up was greeted with anticipation. It'd be quite challenging to match our expectations after such an incredible debut – but Ian Dallas and his team have proven that they're more than up to the task.
What Remains of Edith Finch is a game about the last surviving member – the titular Edith Finch – of an allegedly "cursed" family, returning to her childhood home to both relive some of her memories, and discover new things about her family that she wasn't allowed to know as a child. This is the framework that the walking simulator uses to deliver an impressively varied collection of what amount to short stories.
Each short story focuses on a different deceased member of the Finch family, walking you through their final moments. This allows Edith to fill in her family tree, and it's a rather fascinating delivery system. The stories are incredibly varied in look and feel, ranging from things like a story told through old photographs to a fully realised in-game comic book to an adventure game that you partake in while simultaneously decapitating a rather large number of fish.
The delivery methods that Giant Sparrow uses for most of these stories are incredibly unique and elevate the game above and beyond the standard definition of a walking simulator - and these are all supplemented by an impressive amount of narration. This was a huge component of The Unfinished Swan as well, so it's no surprise to see it at work here. Not only that, but between the quality of performances and the beauty of the writing, the developer really demonstrates the power of strong narration.
These short stories excel outside of the neat little gameplay flourishes that they have as well; they all help paint a larger mystery surrounding a tragically unfortunate family. The melancholic beauty of many of the demises also allows you to empathise rather strongly with Edith and the plight of her brood. That doesn't mean the game is constantly dour and pensive, though - it understands the need for some levity, and the title is more than up to the task of getting goofy on occasion. The comic book short story we mentioned earlier is a particular standout of this tone, as it's essentially an 80s slasher film – camp and all.
The game swings between all these different moods expertly, because the short stories are delivered with a staccato rhythm. In between each story you guide Edith through the desolate home, trying to find your way into each family member's now-abandoned room to activate their story. This exploration of the house is wonderful. To put it simply, the Finch household is one of the most fully realised homes we've ever encountered in a game; it's brimming with personality, cluttered with objects, and absolutely packed with mementos of a centuries-spanning family. It feels lived-in in a way unlike anything we've ever seen before, and really helps give the game a sense of place beyond simply being in rural Washington State.
The house, in fact, is a huge part of the emotions conveyed by the title – both for Edith and for you. After all, it's tied to the protagonist's childhood, and all of the stories are centred on things that happened at or very near the house. Each of the family members are given distinctive personalities, and even though you spend very little time with them, the sense that you know this family is strong. This is especially true of one particular story that makes this game pretty much mandatory for anyone who loved The Unfinished Swan.
Another strong component of the game is its music. Just as the stories are incredible in their tones, so too is the audio. It's of course anchored by a more sombre, piano-driven soundtrack whenever Edith is the central character, but the music ends up being an essential part of selling the difference in tones for all of the stories. It's not often you hear such an eclectic array of styles, but the game pulls it off effortlessly.
Giant Sparrow delivers beyond our expectations once again. A touching story about a tragically unlucky family hits all the right notes, making What Remains of Edith Finch a worthy successor to the studio's sublime The Unfinished Swan. A walking simulator with a smart delivery mechanism paints the picture of a family tree full of misfortune and sadness, but leaves room for some happiness and sunshine. Between the most realised home we've ever seen in a game, the incredible voice work, and the moving, intriguing story, this is the genre's new golden standard.