I first played Season three years ago at PAX East 2020. That was the last big convention I went to before COVID became a real concern in the US. Similarly, playing Season was the last time I felt like I’d discovered the next big game no one knew about yet. I called it my game of the show and I’ve been quietly looking forward to it ever since.
Fast-forward three years later, and Season has finally arrived as a finished work. In that span of time, the main character’s look has changed, the final product has received some promotion from Playstation, and most notably, the development team (Scavenger Studios) has suffered through some serious workplace controversy.
My original take on the game was that it was a sort-of modern-day indie take on Breath of the Wild, with your protagonist riding her bicycle around a large valley and documenting the culture within. And, at least conceptually, not too much has changed there.
Season opens with you preparing to leave Caro, a village up in the mountains. You can explore the protagonist’s bedroom, learn a little about her, and then you perform a memory ritual with her and her mother. The world of Season has many elements of the real world, but the rules that govern it are much more spiritual. Memories have magic powers, and by sacrificing five sense memories, you can create a protective gem for your journey ahead.
After a short time in the village you set out on your bike, documenting the world with a camera, a sound recorder, and a scrapbook. The scrapbook is the star of the show. Each page represents an area in the world, and everything you record and collect—polaroid photos, sketches, stamps, doodles, notes, and more—becomes an item you can place on the scrapbook page. It’s a joy to mix and match all of the items you collect and make each page something of your own.
Eventually you arrive in a valley, and this becomes the open world area that you’ll spend the majority of your time in. There you’ll find quests and mysteries to unravel, a handful of people with stories of their own, and remnants of the past to unearth.
When you arrive, it’s only a short day from when the entire valley will be flooded by a collapsing dam. It becomes your goal to document the culture before it is all washed away.
It’s a very cool premise, and everything about the scrapbook and the lore of the valley is compelling, but unfortunately, that’s where my praise for Season comes to an end. As excited as I was for this game, and as cool as a few elements are, there are some very serious core issues that bring down the entire experience.
Season’s open world vibe may take a page from Breath of the Wild, but your ability to express yourself as you travel from location to location is severely limited. The game’s engine simply doesn’t support the concept of gravity. Your character’s feet or bicycle wheels are always firmly planted to whatever surface they’re on. This not only makes the world feel like an endless series of arbitrary barriers, but it also gets you into trouble if you’re not careful.
Anytime I tried to have fun with the bike—that is, doing more than riding down the delineated paths at a safe speed—I would either hit a dead stop on a small tree branch, rock, or fence or, even worse, I would pop up onto those small objects with no way to get down. Your character can’t fall off of things, so if you somehow manage to get stuck on anything above the ground, you’ll have to either fight to glitch your way back to solid ground or restart the game entirely.
This limitation would be fine in a slow, walking sim-style game, but Season gives you a bicycle and a large open world with hills and valleys to explore. The way the game feels to navigate, and the design of the world itself, are out of harmony with each other. It’s a fundamental flaw that followed me from beginning to end and sapped so much of the joy out of my experience.
But the one-two punch that really soured me on Season was the combination of that flawed gameplay and some rough storytelling. While I found the lore of the game’s world interesting—the memory magic, the history of the various seasons, the hints of lands outside of the valley—a lot of these elements are presented through very stiff voice-acting and pretentious dialogue.
I rarely felt like the main character was a complete person or a blank slate for me to put my choices onto. Instead, the protagonist felt more like a conduit for the writers’ storytelling goals. Instead of sprinkling meaning into the world and letting the characters speak naturally on it, a lot of the dialogue feels like fortune cookie observations. That a lot of this dialogue is presented without an ounce of emotion, while the characters just stand there blank-faced, made it really hard for me to connect with any of it.
Season has a lot of cool ideas, but only a few have successfully made it from design document pages to the final game. I think some people will be able to make the leap and excuse the issues, finding joy in some of the sweet moments the game gets right. For me though, the flaws are fundamental, hanging over the entire experience and preventing me from ever truly connecting with it.