You arrive in a new town, your house being built on a hill. Apparently, the previous owners of that particular piece of land met an untimely end due to falling boulders, we’re told. You wander into town, folk welcome you to the neighbourhood in the warmest manner, handing you various things (an ugly sweater and a pickaxe, among other things) and tell stories of the land’s history and, in the case of many townsfolk, offer amusingly weird tales that catch you off guard.
I laughed more during my time with Qora than I have in any game previous. The laughter sometimes seems at odds with the darkness of the story, or the spiritual nature of your character’s journey and the things they will see, but its strong heart helps blend all these elements together with startling competence.
Qora is an indie game from the mind of Holden Boyles, built by a small team and brought to the wide world of Steam by a Kickstarter campaign and Curve Digital, creators of Stealth Bastard and handlers of many a fine console port from indie PC developers.
Offering unique pixel art graphics, with simple characters on stunningly beautiful backgrounds, and a hauntingly atmospheric soundtrack, Qora starts you off on a journey in the most unconventional circumstances, but in the best way possible.
Its story is subtle but powerful, told through visions of the distant past, sending you on a journey to a faraway land. There appears to be no reason for this journey, but you’ll soon forget this as you’re drawn into the gorgeous world provided. You’ll want to discover the little stories dotted around the land, but you’ll feel compelled to follow the main story as you learn more and more through drip-fed scenes.
The gameplay itself is as simple as it gets – up, down, left and right keys take care of all movement on the 2D, side-scrolling planes, with a single action button taking care of context-sensitive functions that often reveal story scenes. The apparent lack of controller support is a little surprising, but does not detract from the gameplay whatsoever. After all, it’s not like the controls are complex.
There is no combat in Qora, it is a purely exploratory experience. A decision that you will understand as you progress. Much like the Playstation powerhouse Journey, this is a game about discovery and just enjoying the beauty of its natural world.
And beautiful it is. Even the opening town is full of life with its playful – and sometimes hilariously odd – occupants, and once you discover the ability to see beyond the veil and are sent on your merry way, you will see things that steal your breath and make your jaw drop.
And you will see things that leave you giggling like an idiot.
It’s this masterful mixture of comic timing and real heart that makes Qora such an enjoyable experience. At around two hours long, it feels designed to be played in one sitting (much like Journey) but has plenty of replay value. It may not change radically in other playthroughs, and it only has a couple of different endings, but it offers relaxing gameplay and a world to which you will want to return.
The soundtrack helps with this relaxing gameplay style, with simple loops that somehow ooze atmosphere and perfectly sum up each and every area in the game. From the cheery melody of the opening town, to the melancholic chorus of the doorway scenes, even its skilful use of silence in certain places, every piece of music serves its purpose and will stick with you long after the credits roll. And you’ll remember its credits too, trust me on that.
Qora’s bizarre mixture of drama, comedy and discovery won’t appeal to everyone, of course. It offers the simplest gameplay experience, often needing only to move from left to right and press the action button once in a while, and it requires a lot from each player to find their own story by deciding which pieces of the past to view. It also moves at a very slow pace as you chop through long grass and pick through boulders one stroke at a time, or climb up and down ledges slowly and carefully.
Qora is not for the “quick fix gamer” or the action junkie, it requires patience and a more considered method of play. But if you surrender yourself to its charms and discover its mysterious story at the pace intended, you may just find yourself surprised.
You may, if I might be so bold, find one of 2014’s best games.