Ah, Shakespeare. You’d think that with how prevalent his stories are in other forms of media, video games wouldn’t be strangers to the legendary poet. Yet, the games which lean on his catalog of work are far and between. Enter Elsinore, which attempts to rectify that issue, one step at a time. While it does occasionally stumble under the weight of its own ambitions, it is a game full of pleasant surprises that will satisfy both fans of Shakespeare and mysteries alike.
Elsinore is a what-if twist on a story of Hamlet, a quite depressed Danish prince. It is one of the more recognizable plays by Shakespeare, but just in case you’ve forgotten how the story goes, here’s a quick recap. Hamlet’s father dies and appears as a ghost to his son, claiming that he was killed by his brother Claudius (who’s already married the widowed queen Gertrude). Ghost asks Hamlet to enact revenge and in ensuing calamity and pursuit of vengeance, everyone but Horatio dies. Then Norway invades. The End.
Amidst this chaos, there is a character of Ophelia, Hamlet’s love interest, who is elevated to the level of the protagonist in Elsinore. When you first start the game, the story beats mimic those of the original play. The discrepancy arises at the moment of Ophelia’s death. Originally drowned in lake by her callousness, here murdered by Norwegian assassins. Yet, instead of succumbing to her fate, Ophelia miraculously teleports to her own bed a few days earlier. That’s right, Ophelia is stuck in a time loop, and will remain there until she figures out how to make things better. Well, less murdery, at the very least.
Let’s look at the guts of Elsinore and how it all translates into gameplay. Elsinore operates on a clock, and over a span of several days, events unfold. With player’s nudging, the timeline begins to diverge from the original, but only if Ophelia knows exactly where to nudge. Here’s an example. Recall the scene in Hamlet where Polonius (Ophelia’s father) spies on the conversation between Hamlet and Gertrude. In the altercation, Hamlet mistakes Polonius for Claudius and murders him. If Ophelia knows that, she can warn Polonius and save his life. Multiply this ability over dozens of interactions with the residents of Elsinore and the possibilities seem endless. Hell, in one of the timelines, Ophelia might even become a new wife of Claudius, murdering everyone who would stand in her path. The sandbox capabilities of the game are not exaggerated, and I don’t think I have fully untapped its potential, even after sinking a few dozens of hours into it.
The insanity of it all takes some time to unfold, for better or worse. Since Ophelia’s abilities to manipulate denizens of a castle are limited by the amount of information she possesses, first several iterations over time loop will be quite uneventful. Especially given that you may stumble upon a piece of information that is completely useless without several missing links of a loosely defined “questline”. That makes the first few hours with Elsinore not only uneventful but overwhelmingly confusing. At the same time, I can say that this chaos makes the discoveries so much more rewarding, as your triumphs are legitimately your own. All in all, if you ever find yourself lost, the playmaster in the castle’s gardens will kindly offer you tips on what to do next. Thankfully, that is entirely optional, so the game never punishes you for going in blindly.
The game which revolves around dialogues lives or dies by its writing. It would be unfair to compare anyone, really, with Shakespeare but I’d say that developer Golden Glitch manages to weave a compelling narrative, with characters that you can’t but find endearing. Writing is certainly not antiquated, anachronistic at times, but the last thing I’d want to do in the game is to decipher ye olde speaketh. On top of the characters that you might know from the play, Elsinore expands the cast with characters such as Lady Brit, love interest of Laertes; Irma, the castle’s cook and mother figure for Gertrude; even Othello, surprisingly, makes a cameo as the barkeep in the town’s inn.
Frankly, it was a while since I’ve read Hamlet, and I didn’t remember the entire cast of the play. So it was quite surprising when I’ve realized that Lady Brit and Irma were created for the game – that’s how at home they feel in Elsinore. Writing breathes new life into characters without compromising the original intent of the author. Each one of them feels like a person with their distinct purpose in life. Rather than merely existing to serve the overarching narrative, everyone that you encounter has their problems and aspirations. Lady Brit is torn between the duty to her family and love for Laertes. Bernardo is ashamed to reveal his double-life to his friends, while Horatio hesitates to reveal his romantic feelings for Hamlet. These stories are auxiliary to Ophelia’s quest of escaping the time-loop but they are nonetheless engaging in their own way. It speaks volumes about writing’s quality that I was pursuing these stories even though some of them don’t aid you in reaching the “end-state”. I just wanted to know more about them, that was a reward on its own.
I will admit, however, that game does have some struggles with a consistently engaging narrative. Specifically, my issue is with the game’s occasional misuse of its creative space, so to speak. Storylines which illuminate issues of racism, homophobia, and acceptance of trans-sexuality is not something that I would ever advise against. After all, what is art if not a reflection of the zeitgeist, and now, more than ever in the last several decades, these issues are at the center stage of the social discourse. The issues arise when the conversations on these topics stick out like a sore thumb. At its worst, it felt as if developers were talking to me, the player, rather than my in-game avatar. And it’s not an issue with the concepts themselves. The idea that a rugged soldier Bernardo has a tender, feminine side adds so much nuance and dimensions to the character, that I honestly can’t fault writers for going that route. In their excitement, it seems, they just fumbled the execution of a wonderful idea.
Elsinore is an ambitious and daring game. Not only it decides that it can do a dialogue focused game in the Shakespearean setting, but it also asserts that it can introduce new characters to the fold, and alter existing ones to make them, sometimes, almost unrecognizable. Surprisingly, it succeeds. Setting aside my grievances with grindy introduction and occasional writing flops, it is a game that does justice to the legacy of its setting, full of characters that you can’t help but fall in love with. Yes, the game is not perfect, but as Elsinore would quickly tell you, perfection is unachievable. Whatever decision you make, comes with a compromise. Whatever compromises Elsinore had to accept, the result is one of the damn best adaptations of Shakespeare into a videogame. And that’s worth something.
Game key kindly provided by Golden Glitch for the purposes of review.