Is the Noid really the villain this time? Or is he the true hero we all need?
If 4PM were a film, it would be Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. The game clearly tries to play up the melodrama, but the script ruins the tension, and the character models’ silly overwrought expressions can’t help but make me smile. The game is, unfortunately, great fun.
You play an alcoholic woman named Caroline who has no idea what happened the previous night but knows a series of dramatic events will lead up to a life changing choice at 4PM that day. This would be a good premise, except that the promised dramatic events never seem to actually happen and the life changing choice doesn’t really make much sense. Instead, the game depicts a normal-but-crappy day in the life of an alcoholic woman, and ends it by having her head to the roof of her office building instead of the bar and try to talk a suicidal man down. Without giving too much away, the supposed life-changing choice is really just how to receive some bad news.
The pacing of the game leaves much to be desired: The game is less than an hour long, so it’s important to make sure all of the content is immediately relevant to the story the game tells. Unfortunately, the longest scene besides the final one is Caroline talking to a taxi driver about going back to her family for Christmas. This scene is probably supposed to establish something about Caroline’s personality besides her alcoholism, but the dialogue that occurs in the car has almost no connection to the plot of the game besides setting up a never-addressed conflict between Caroline and her step-father. Conversely, the much more important scenes in Caroline’s office and a night club might as well have not been in the game.
So, does the game at least look pretty? Even if the script is bad and the pacing unpleasant, did I at least get some nice eye candy? Well, sometimes. The dramatic rooftop you see at the beginning and end of the game is quite beautiful, and the other environments do tend to be pretty detailed and visually pleasing, but sometimes the game leans on bloom in a way that would make J.J. Abrams blush.
Initially, I assumed the game’s bloom engine is bugged. No biggy, just turn bloom off. Unfortunately, the options menu doesn’t have any bloom settings. What it does have is 3 options for ‘Visual Quality’: Good, Better, and Best. Clearly, this is a game that thinks highly of itself. As I try to go to back ingame after lowering the Visual Quality down to “Good”, I discover that the menu has no “resume” option, and I am instead forced to re-watch the game’s previous scene. The bugs get worse, however. After loading the scene from the main menu, the game’s camera and movement froze. I could look up and down, but not left or right, and I could not move. I exit to the menu again, restart the scene, and the camera works. Great. After re-watching the scene, the office loads up again and…the bloom is still there. And my camera is locked again. In the end, I settled for playing the game inside of a halogen lamp.
Even besides the bugs, the game has some aesthetic issues. Although the game is usually set in first person in an attempt to take after recent first-person-explorers like Dear Esther and the Stanley Parable, and even gives me a body in first-person, it often switches to third-person in order to try and use film-like camera angles to build tension. Unfortunately, this breaks any immersion the first person camera offers, and instead just leaves me feeling confused as to how I’m supposed to relate to Caroline. Am I playing as her (as suggested by the game’s first-person camera) or am I just watching her (as suggested by the game’s frequent third-person cuts)? There’s a reason games like Portal and and Gone Home never switch out of first-person, but 4PM missed the memo. There’s also the odd decision to play a country song about whiskey during the credits. The game really tries to come as taking alcoholism seriously, so playing a song that makes light of it comes off as bad taste.
Ultimately, 4PM is a buggy, sobbing mess of a game that looks up to you with big eyes and begs you to love it. The game’s serious premise and, unique visual style actually have a lot of promise, but in the end the rest of the game is just too weak to do them justice. Ultimately I can’t say I dislike the game, but I don’t think pity is the reaction that the developers wanted either. The game is clearly a labor of love, and the credits, filled with happy pictures of the developers, are genuinely touching. Unfortunately, the credits are also the best part of the game in terms of emotional impact, and that probably says something about the rest of the title.