a new life Review
A new life, the newest game from solo developer Angela He, is a small visual novel about the tragedy of love in uncertain times. It doesn’t shoot for the moon with a vast romantic tale. It’s short — around two hours in length — and it knows that. It’s a simple story with complex characters, beautiful artwork, and some nice lo-fi songs thrown in for good measure.
What a new life does best is the writing. The only real characters, May and August, fall in love over the course of tiny vignettes, from meeting in college to growing old together. May and August really feel like two genuine people falling in love — the way they text each other for groceries, the awkward moments of tension when they’re working from home and snapping at each other, the terror August feels for May when she contracts “morbigavirus” and is hospitalised. It’s so authentic that many lines feel lifted straight from actual conversations. The thinly veiled coronavirus allegory is what strikes hardest at the heart, and it’s what makes a new life intensely topical. It’s hard to play without thinking of how many people around the world are in these exact same scenarios. (Over)working from home, quarantined with loved ones and growing frustrated with them, or suddenly dealing with a terrible, heart-wrenching loss. August and May are sincere lovers, trying to manage their lives in a world turning upside down.
The gameplay is mostly linear — you get a handful of dialogue choices throughout, which gently influence the story, but generally speaking I found they all went in the same direction, just at different speeds. Usually, it’s just a choice between two or three words. For example, May asks if there’s anything else needed before the pair quarantine themselves. You can pressure her into making an appointment with her doctor, or just say to get some more groceries. My only gripe was that these options were usually single words, and sometimes I was a little surprised at what I thought I was saying compared to what August said. Apart from those choices, there’s nothing to be said in the way of gameplay. There are no minigames, side quests, or any of the expected trappings of a “real” game. Once you reach one ending, you can go back to the section that sent you down that path (for instance, choosing what text to send). There’s a resemblance to He’s previous game, missed messages, in that way. You’re encouraged to replay it a few times through in one sitting (not hard, given the short playtime), finding new endings, using your newfound hindsight to do things the right way this time. There’s a constant, lingering idea of “what if?” What if you’d insisted May get groceries? What if you’d saved that seat for a friend? It’s a nice level of depth in a genre that normally encourages nothing more than finding the “true” ending and calling it a day.
The game even highlights chapters containing choices you haven’t yet made, letting you skip the same introduction scenes you’d otherwise slog through. Even better, those endings are worth the extra time, because I grew to quite like May and August and was repeatedly moved to tears with each new ending. The developer’s artwork helps elevate the game even higher, managing to be endearingly simple while conveying a huge amount of emotion. Again, it bucks the trend of many visual novels sometimes biting off more than they can chew, and He does a good job of reminding you that sometimes, smaller is better.
A new life is available on Windows, Mac OS, Linux/SteamOS, as well as iOS and Android devices, and it certainly feels a little nicer on mobile, if only because it’s easier to pick up and put down. You can finish the entire thing, achievements and all, in around ninety minutes to two hours. There’s not a lot in the way of content, although you can buy a fan-pack of artwork and music to support the developer. Speaking of music, that’s not to be forgotten — the soundtrack is all original and wonderful. A calming, acoustic set of tracks that brings to mind all the lo-fi hip hop YouTube channels, never fast or tense. They mesh just right with each other, and with the personalities of May and August.
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