I hadn’t heard of Scéal when I first received the review code. The studio behind it is named Joint Custody and is a small company based in Slovakia that works with developers and artists in multiple countries across Europe. Scéal seems to be their debut title and what initially struck me about it was its watercolor aesthetic and music while watching the trailer. It was enough of a hook that my interest was sparked and I gave it a try.
Scéal: PC [Reviewed]
Developer: Joint Custody
Publisher: Joint Custody
Release Date: 27 October 2016
Price: $4.99 [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
So apparently Scéal is the Irish Gaelic word for “story”. The game is even framed as a storybook, with the main menu being designed as a leather-bound tome. The player is given control of a spirit (soon revealed to be named Iona) which is guided by a mysterious raven named Branna and told to explore the countryside around two Irish villages and discover three of its feathers that it has hidden. As you progress through the game you uncover more details about Iona’s past and her story becomes to take shape.
I had a lukewarm first impression of the game as the colors were faded and the whole game was a monotone shade of sepia yellow. However, I was immediately instructed to repaint “cursed” buildings that had a paintbrush icon. A bit of a pedestrian task but not as tedious as it sounds. Painting over all of the cursed buildings restores color and life to the game world as the fields become green, the sky takes on its blue shade and people start roaming the streets of the town.
Scéal is structured as a three-chapter game with each chapter following the same basic structure: paint over the cursed buildings (thankfully marked on your map), find an NPC that gives you a task to complete and then find Branna’s feather. The task part of each chapter adds a bit of variety to the game as they involve Iona shape shifting and impacting the environment a bit for some neat visual effects.
Finishing the first chapter, however, I was a bit disappointed to see that the other two took place on the same map, they just had you visit different places at times. As the game goes on this begins to make sense as the story is tied to the people and places in the region. One interesting twist is that Scéal quite explicitly offers the player (and Iona) the opportunity to choose an ending after most of the story is revealed.
There is not much to say about the gameplay since it consists mostly of moving around with the mouse and occasionally clicking on things, but Scéal is at its core a casual, atmospheric game. And atmosphere it has in droves. The game is 3D but the entirety of the scenery is built as a watercolor pop-up book with environmental elements sliding in and out of view to reveal additional paths as you explore. It’s one of those styles that is very simplistic in design and highly effective in its execution. The soundtrack is absolutely enchanting if you, like me, dig Irish folksy music. It’s a combination of instrumental tracks consisting mostly of pipes and the occasional vocals which are entirely sung in Gaelic.
In terms of length, Scéal is about an hour long and while there’s some replay value in the final chapter, you’re definitely not going to squeeze a lot more play time, but for the time and experience, it’s (in my opinion) reasonably priced. And after all, it’s essentially a casual game and I say that without even a hint of reproach.
Scéal is an interesting experiment in visual style and storytelling. It creates a unique atmosphere and explores a rarely-touched setting, that of Irish folklore. While it has little to no core gamer appeal, as a casual experience it holds up pretty well. It could have benefited from having more than one area to explore across its three chapters which would have maybe added to its play time as well, but it’s a fine and well-enough crafted project for its modest goals. And the music is pretty great.