Francis Finklestein was the manager of the all-time greatest rock band The Deadbeats. Unfortunately for him, they’re now all deceased. Desperate for new clients, Francis accepts a mysterious invite to see a gig in Wailing Heights. But this is no ordinary town. Francis discovers that Wailing heights is populated by werewolves, vampires, zombies and various other incarnations of the undead, including all four members of The Deadbeats. And of course, the locals don’t look favourably upon the living. Francis is arrested and charged with the crime of being alive. It’s a race against time for Francis to plan a reunion show for The Deadbeats, and exonerate himself before he winds up a rotting corpse.
Wailing Heights is a 2-D musical adventure game brimming with sarcastic humour. While being prepped for interrogation, Francis has a chance encounter with an inmate who trades him his musical possession wheel. To function, this device requires three pieces of information. A character’s name, something they love and something they hate. The gameplay involves conversing with the characters and selecting the correct dialogue options to learn their personal information. Once you have it, Francis can possess their bodies and use their unique abilities to solve environmental puzzles, and ultimately escape Wailing Heights in one piece.
The town of Wailing Heights is an interesting place full of musical references and parodies of modern culture. Coffee snob hipster-vampires line up for a gig just to be seen, and a zombie horde consumes everything in their path on their way to a soul concert. Francis’s incompetent lawyer is even a nod to a popular TV lawyer who has criminal tendencies.
Now that we’ve set the scene, let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes Wailing Heights’ sound and art design are as incredible as they appear in the trailers and screenshots. The original soundtrack consists of tracks from the indie, pop, soul and country genres, including the catchy ‘We are The Deadbeats’ song that has now been stuck in my head for days. Each character you possess comes with their own theme song, and almost every location in the game has some form of live or environmental music. Over 4000 lines of dialogue were recorded for the game, which is an impressive feat, considering that Wailing Heights is an indie games and only around four hours long.
The gorgeous art work looks like it was torn straight from the pages of a comic book. The comic similarities are no coincidence, as the game’s artists had previously worked on the comics Preacher, Judge Dredd and The Revenants, just to name a few. Having never read any of the aforementioned, the art reminded me of Bill Willingham’s popular comic series Fables, particularly the talking animal characters. Each cut scene is even framed with cells straight from a comic book page, and all dialogue appears in comic style speech bubbles. The bright comic style art is also the reason that I noticed Wailing heights in the crowded Steam marketplace.
I do have several small qualms with the game. First off, the puzzles were on the easy-side, the very easy-side. Learning the character’s names and likes/dislikes was much too easy. The trigger words were not only spelled out on the screen in full capital letters, but they were also immediately added to the possession wheel. No thought or memory was required to solve those puzzles. Secondly, the backstory cut scenes had no audio dialogue. This was an odd design choice, as these cut scenes were the only dialogue throughout the game to feature no audio.
Overall, I really enjoyed Wailing Heights. The sound and art design were some of the best I have experienced so far in 2016, and the sarcastic dialogue reminded me of one of my favourite adventure games The Secret of Monkey Island. It can’t be ignored that a game set in the musical afterlife was released within days of Prince’s passing, and only several months after losing David Bowie. Without ever intending to be so, Wailing Heights is a fitting tribute to our lost musicians. It suggests to me that they’re still out there playing music, warming hearts and changing lives.
Wailing Heights was developed by Outsider Studios, based In Ireland. This was their fifth game, and the first not developed for smartphones. Wailing Heights is available now on Steam for both PC and MAC. A deluxe edition is also available which includes the soundtrack and a PDF art book.
Michael Vane is a freelance writer who believes that if the soundtrack featured licensed music, Monster Mash would have been a fitting addition. You can follow him on Twitter @DrVane