We’re living in strange times, and seeing various attempts in media at addressing the COVID-19 pandemic has been even more bizarre. Aside from a direct response, works attempt to cover the pandemic in a variety of ways, such as having characters wear masks, displaying plastic barriers, or adhering to social distancing requirements. Other outlets seem content to ignore that anything out of the ordinary is even happening, preferring their fictional realistic worlds exist in a universe apart from our current reality. It was only a matter of time before video games weighed in on the subject, with the rom-com drama stylings of Half Past Fate: Romantic Distancing as one of the first RPG/graphic adventure titles to do so. The result is a short foray into a couple’s tentative romantic developments as they maneuver through the pandemic drastically affecting their lives.
The second episodic adventure in the Half Past Fate series (the first of which was excellently reviewed by our very own Alana Hagues) follows players as they take on the roles of spunky Robin and “himbo” Stephen as they struggle to maintain a newly established relationship as a coronavirus-like pandemic sweeps through their state. With the lockdown initially putting their plans to meet in person on hold, can the pair successfully navigate a long-distance dynamic, or will it prove to be too much for their new relationship to bear? The choice ultimately lies with players in the game’s final moments.
Half Past Fate: Romantic Distancing is a colorful game despite the more serious undertones inherent in the story it tries to tell, fitting for a game focused on people living their lives in the midst of unprecedented events. The 2D character sprites are nicely detailed and expressive, and I was impressed by how they changed to help illustrate time passing in the game. For example, as the story progressed, characters would wear different clothes, even wearing masks when going out in public. The backdrops were colorfully vibrant and fun to examine more closely, also changing visually to reflect the passage of time as the narrative’s lockdown and quarantine regulations progressed.
Gameplay-wise, the title plays very much like an RPG without the pesky battles most often associated with the genre! You control either Robin or Stephen as they maneuver through either a shopping district, which you see steadily evolve along with the game’s timeframe, or through their separate homes. You can talk to other characters when prompted, and you’re tasked with completing “puzzles” at various stages in the game. True to the game’s realistic theme, the puzzles are reminiscent of everyday activities, such as finding a specific music collection, figuring out how to fix a router, or getting congee to eat for breakfast. The item menu and button commands are simple to pick up once you get the hang of them, though it did take some trial and error to figure them out at the beginning.
I found that the gameplay was relaxing and very forgiving in terms of puzzle solving expectations, so I wouldn’t describe Romantic Distancing as aggravating or challenging. Indeed, if that weren’t the case, it would probably defeat the overall feel of the game! Occasionally, you’re also given dialogue options or a list of actions for the character you’re currently playing as. But beyond the one key decision point at the end of the game, all the options really do is provide a few differing script lines here and there.
At its core, Half Past Fate: Romantic Distancing is a slice-of-life story set around a couple trying to find their legs. Since that is the main theme, you could see the pandemic Robin and Stephen are dealing with as more of a background element to their story, though it does come up at times in surprising and understandable ways. I’m sure many can relate to Stephen’s anxious worry about his more-at-risk elderly uncle, and quite a few people are familiar with the strain quarantining can take on a relationship when you can’t physically spend as much time with one another as you’d like. The believability around Robin and Stephen’s story is where the writing shines most, as well as the often-memorable character dialogue. I found the quips characters came up with as they observed things or talked together to be quite entertaining or true to form. Beyond some of the more serious plot points, though, I wouldn’t say Romantic Distancing is a story that necessarily stays with you too long after playing it.
The reason the story isn’t particularly memorable is primarily due to its short length, which I felt was something of a double-edged sword. Going extensively into every way COVID-19 could impact someone’s life would make for an emotionally exhausting game, and it would definitely not be in line with the obvious rom-com moments the game was going for. At the same time, certain key events in the game lose some of their intended effect because they happen too quickly. I played the game for under two hours, and I managed to see both endings in that timeframe. It is hard for a title to have a lasting impression when the storyline is so condensed, as the lockdown period, and the later “loosening of some lockdown regulations” period all happen in a fairly short amount of time. Since the game saves automatically at the end of a story segment, players can replay the final ending decision point once they reach it, or they can simply start over with a New Game to see different dialogue and action choices without having to devote much more time to the title either way.
Because the game is so short, Robin and Stephen are the only two characters we really get a strong sense of. There are some interesting supporting characters, such as Robin’s roommates and Stephen’s uncle. There are some memorable lines of dialogue, like the “salad debate,” and I liked how worried Stephen’s uncle got over his business or how him being at a higher risk impacted his nephew’s private life. But the other characters don’t get enough focus to leave much of a lasting impression, little more than the supporting cast of friends and relatives often found in rom-coms. I would’ve loved to have seen more aspects of the side-characters explored in light of the lockdown situation they found themselves in.
Script-wise, Romantic Distancing is error-free, and the dialogue flows nicely. A shared love of music plays a big part in the courtship between Robin and Stephen, and their fan-fueled dynamic is further captured in the soundtrack’s adequately infectious presentation. The game provides two different outcomes to Robin and Stephen’s tale, both of which fit rather well in different degrees for their socially distant romance. The secret romantic in me may have preferred one ending over the other, but both have their merits and are surprisingly realistic.
All in all, Half Past Fate: Romantic Distancing is a title that doesn’t do anything wrong in its gameplay or story presentation. Truth be told, it is really only hampered by its brief duration. If you’re looking for a shorter diversionary title with an emphasis on romance development that doesn’t ignore the pandemic experience we’ve all been going through, you might want to look into this cute episodic adventure. Like most rom-coms though, don’t expect it to be insanely memorable afterward.