The Suicide of Rachel Foster Review | Mixed Signals

Walking simulators can be a great tool for telling extremely personal stories in a way that, when done right, will stick with the player long after the end. As I saw when playing a similarly styled game, What Remains of Edith Finch, where it put you right into Edith Finch's shoes as she discovered all the secrets hidden inside her childhood home. The Suicide of Rachel Foster, from Daedalic Entertainment, makes a strong attempt at achieving this, and in parts of the game it succeeds, but in others, it falls a bit flat. Conceptually the story is rather engaging, and the first parts of the game had me excited to get to the end, as you can see in my first 30 minutes of gameplay here, but by the time I reached the final day of the story I found that my prior enthusiasm had mostly faded.

Before I go into why I think that is, let's talk a bit about the overall story. As you can probably guess from the title, the game is about the suicide of a girl named Rachel Foster. In the opening, we receive a long letter from the recently deceased mother of our main character, Nicole Wilson. Here we learn the public story of what happened to Rachel. She was a 16-year-old girl who had dated Nicole's father, Leonard. From their affair, she got pregnant and proceeded to throw herself off a cliff, committing suicide. After this incident, Nicole and her mother ran from the town, Leonard's affair having torn the family apart. You also learn in this letter that Nicole has been left the family hotel, where she had lived until it all happened. Nicole must now go back to the hotel, her childhood home, for the first time in many years so she can inspect it before putting it on the market. Pretty quickly after she arrives, the storm outside turns dangerous leaving her trapped and unable to escape the place full of unwanted memories. And as you explore the secrets hidden behind the walls of this old hotel as Nicole, the need for the truth becomes your purpose. 

As What Remains of Edith Finch and Firewatch prove, the personality of the main character in a game of this sub-genre is essential for bringing the audience into the story. Nicole, however, comes across as quite abrasive and rude at the start of the game. I'm all for a strong independent female lead, but there's a difference between assertive and disrespectful. I understand that she's stressed and mad to be back in a place she never wanted to return to, but I found that some of our initial interactions with Nicole, such as when she's spiteful to a stranger who is only trying to help her over the phone, created a bad first impression, making me feel a bit detached from the character at the get-go. Luckily, she does get better as the game carries on and she's developed a bit further. Instead, my real issues with The Suicide of Rachel Foster have to do with its story, which spans across nine days in the hotel as Nicole uncovers the truth about the last day before she left.

I'll jump right to the point. My least favorite part about the game was the placement of the day breaks. They felt random and jarring, such as when one of the days comprised of only a single dream. It began to feel like too much was happening during the black screens telling you what day it was and not enough was happening while you were actually in control. This pacing made me feel isolated from the story because your character often puts together a lot of the "puzzle pieces" that you discovered during the day in these breaks, and a lot of the information is then presented to you in the form of Nicole telling her trusty FEMA employee Irving, the aforementioned stranger on the phone, everything that she had solved while you were staring at a black screen.
Speaking of Irving. He was one of the most engaging parts of the story for me. The use of an external person to be discussing the events of each day allows for you to stay in the loop of the story, though I found myself at times more interested in the relationship between Irving and Nicole than the actual plot. The game also uses the phone conversations, your only link to the outside world, as a tool to ensure that you never feel alone. This works well to give the player a sense of security throughout the game, especially during the final days when things start to get intense.

Continuing on with some positives, my favorite parts of the game were the score, sound design, and the setting. The score was very subtle and eerie, with lots of natural sound design cues that make you turn your character's head inquisitively to explore. That being said, I would definitely recommend headphones for this game to help get the full experience as it does offer binaural audio. I will also add that the score and sound design definitely had me on edge for the entirety of the game as I explored the hotel. The use of the giant hotel with four floors and its many hidden passageways and rooms helped add not only to the mystery that you slowly start to uncover but also to the fun as you explore and learn your way around. The simplistic map gives you just enough information to get where you are going without telling you exactly how to get there. I genuinely enjoyed slowly figuring out the lay of the land as I memorized the fastest routes between rooms.

The nice design work also carries into the rooms. The feel of an old abandoned hotel, along with your perfectly preserved childhood bedroom, fit well with the general atmosphere of the game. In most rooms, there were also objects for you to observe, something that the game encourages you to do as one of the early loading screen tips reads "observing everything with care will lead you to the truth."  I took that tip to heart and made sure to observe all that I could. While the interactive objects were sometimes useful to the plot, many of the observable objects seemed a bit thrown in, such as the toothpaste, cleaners, sponges, and a few others. You could observe them in any room they were in, but they were all exactly the same and didn't add anything more. This would have been fine if more objects that were observable actually furthered the plot, making you have to look at everything to make sure you didn't miss a clue, but the actually useful items are few and far between. There are also quite a few non-clickable items that I wanted to observe, like a suspicious-looking journal, the candles lying in a bathroom, or the screwdriver, which you initially cannot interact with at all but are then asked to backtrack and pick up later on in the game. 

The Suicide of Rachel Foster, as one can again guess from the title, talks about some very sensitive topics. And at its core, the messages the game presents are very meaningful. However, many of those messages are made problematic or are just kind of glossed over. For example, at times it feels like the story is not only making excuses for things that are simply not okay but also glorifying them, most significantly her middle-aged father dating and impregnating a teenage girl. Or, less significantly, how in the letters Nicole reads at the start of the game, it's revealed that Nicole marched against abortion in college in a very positive manner. A detail that I kept expecting to hold some significance as the game carried on but is never touched on again. The closest comparison would be that Rachel had killed herself while pregnant, however, Nicole never really brings it back to that so perhaps this was simply left for the players to connect. But even then, it seems like something Nicole would mention after learning the truth of what happened. Something like marching against abortion, a highly debated and sensitive topic for many, I don't think should be included unless it has a specific meaning for the plot, and in this story, it's a bit of a stretch, and even that, as far as I can tell, isn't substantiated by the game specifically. In order to not give any spoilers, I'll leave out the other particular issues in the messages, but overall The Suicide of Rachel Foster tried to be real and discuss difficult topics, something I appreciate, but it did so in a surface level way that became more problematic than positive.

I won't go into too much detail about the final moments of the game, as they are better experienced in the full package, but I will say that I think the game should have ended before the final cutscene. I understand the purpose of including it, but with the mystery set up so well throughout, I think an open-ending would have been better for the audience. The game does give you two choices of action, but both raised a lot more questions for me rather than give a conclusion. Due to the short length of each day, we don't get to fully experience Nicole's perspective change over the course of the game, so her drastic shift in personality by the end feels unearned, as well as the development of the other characters we learn about in the story. Both of the endings left me wondering "why would they do that?" about more than one character. The last thing I will say about the game is that the final day, before the cutscene, was so unsettling for me that it made me hesitate to keep walking forward. A feeling that was not helped by the fact that I came across my first, and only, glitch of the game as I got stuck in a doorway trying to exit a particularly off-putting room. At first, I thought this was part of the game and something terrible was about to happen, but I then realized that I was simply stuck and had to restart the day, after which everything ran smoothly.

If you are looking for something to do for the next four or so hours, The Suicide of Rachel Foster is a quick game with a few minor scares (slightly bigger if you are a wimp like me) with an intriguing story that will keep you entertained for the duration. The Suicide of Rachel Foster is available now for $17.99 on Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Windows. A review code on the Xbox One was provided by the publisher.

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