Playing Return to Grace had me thinking back to when so-called “walking simulators” were still a divisive topic. Video games like Dear Esther, Gone Home, or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – in which the narrative, characters, atmosphere, and audiovisual experience take precedence over mechanical complexity.
On one hand, it’s a design that benefits Return to Grace, making for an immersive experience focused on the narrative pay-off. On the other, I was reminded of how fine a line this genre walks between compelling and boring if the pacing and length are even slightly off the mark.
Return to Grace is a first-person narrative adventure that places you in the environmental suit of Adie Ito – an archaeologist exploring a frozen and stormy Ganymede in 3820 AD, searching for an ancient AI “Grace”, held in god-like reverence. She was an AI that led humanity into a golden age of peace and expansion across the solar system before her disappearance, a thousand years before, triggered a new dark age with many technological innovations and record keeping lost.
A journey of (self) discovery
This is a genre that thrives on strong storytelling and Return to Grace, despite retreading some familiar ideas, offers up an intriguing setting, quirky cast, a briskly-paced mystery to unravel, and plenty of optional environmental storytelling and world-building.
Times have clearly changed since Grace was the caretaker of humanity. Travel throughout the solar system is no longer commonplace as Adie has taken a risky, 300-day journey to get to Ganymede. It’s a one-way trip but she claims everything of value to her on Earth is gone. Record keeping from a thousand years prior is so limited she had to rely on centuries of oral histories to pinpoint the location. Even before I appreciated the divergent nature of the narrative, I was already sold on the setting and I wanted to discover more about its take on the future of humanity.
Thankfully, that “future history” element is integral to the present investigation-based story; it comes up when Adie comments on the technology she witnesses in the spire; and it often features in her conversations with an entertaining selection of AI personalities she discovers on her journey.
Shortly after arrival, she awakens “Logic” who – alongside “Control” and “Empathy” – form core components of Grace’s identity. The problem is they’re old back-ups that have little knowledge of what led to Grace’s shutdown, what happened to the people that maintained the spire, or how her interactions with humanity evolved over time.
What they do have is unique personalities, system permissions, and thoughts on how Adie should proceed. As she pushes on, they create amusing hybrid personalities – for whom Adie picks some choice names – that help her circumvent new obstacles.
It’s not obvious at first, but Return to Grace‘s most significant narrative mechanic is how it tracks your decisions. The consequences can feel a little rushed given the 3-4 hour runtime, but there are a few key moments where Adie can push forward instead of explore, take risky shortcuts instead of the safer path, or allow the AI to perform certain tasks for her. These decisions feed into evolving AI responses and (if we exclude one obviously bad ending) lead to minor ending variations that felt appropriate for my choices.
Repeat after me…
Return to Grace‘s biggest issue – and this is one shared by all games in this genre – is what you’re doing mechanically is rarely that engaging.
You explore and move at whatever pace the game dictates; you sit around listening to lengthy conversations that block your ability to interact with anything until they’re finished; you push or mash a single button to trigger scripted traversal moves or optional commentary; and sometimes you engage in pattern- or memory-based puzzles that require little mental effort. Crossing balance beams, briefly controlling a crane, and melting ice with a flame-thrower is about as wild as it gets.
Thankfully, Return to Grace’s brisk runtime – coupled with some choice comments from the AI if you do get stuck – make this less of an issue, and the compelling world had me hacking every door and audiolog I could find for more details. That said, it didn’t make the process of trudging around larger areas, repeating door code inputs, and twirling Adie’s glove to line up sync points a dozen times feel any less repetitive or tedious.
Do you seek salvation?
Return to Grace’s brevity and strong storytelling are its saving grace. It kept me hooked over two evening sessions and I only started ruminating on the weaker elements just before the credits rolled.
I wanted to find out more about the past events by sifting through the deserted spire; I wanted to hear every one of Adie’s comments on the current state of humanity; I was fascinated by the AI personalities and their attempt to dissect her motivations; and there were moments of doubt that had me wondering if Adie’s quest was misguided.
If you’re in the mood for a brisk, immersive, thought-provoking adventure with a lightly divergent narrative, and you can accept the somewhat limited and repetitive gameplay loop, Return to Grace is a great addition to the genre.
Return to Grace was reviewed on PC using a code provided to gameblur by the publisher.
Return to Grace (PC) ReviewReturn to Grace (PC) Review
- An intriguing setting and briskly-paced mystery to unravel
- Thought-provoking conversations and ending variations based on your actions
- A likeable cast with quality voice acting
- Atmospheric environments and soundtrack
- An over-reliance on a handful of simple, repeated mechanics
- The short length makes some AI relationships feel rushed