I remember the first time I heard the title of this game and I had no idea what to expect. Before I could even go to Wikipedia and check what it was about, plenty of Youtube-videos showcased that this was a personal story about a child named Joel who had cancer. His father and mother created this game to tell about Joel’s struggle against cancer, as well as their own difficulties during this time. This really intrigued me: dealing with heavy struggles and loss is not an easy feat to tell about. Now that February is here once again, I can finally give you my review of it.
A diary about loss
Since the plot was already explained in the intro, let’s go over how it is told. The story starts off well, with us getting to know what Joel struggles with, how his father, brother and mother are coping with it, and even some interactivity with the child. The emotions are clearly there, making it heartwarming when the good moments shine, and the more heartbreaking scenes effective. The heavy dialogue and questions the father brings up are also intriguing, making it easier to see their pain.
However, they don’t always recognise that they are telling the story to someone. It changes drastically from more emotional scenes, to more poetic and symbolic ones, which don’t flow well. What is even worse is the inconsistent quality of them as well. I loved the part about drowning in your sorrows and how the parents reacted to the bad news they got. However, even that goes overboard with plenty of expositions on God, while you at the same time go from one householding room to another. It can be a symbolic tone on how emotions go up and down, but since the symbolic parts want to tell something and usually overstay their welcome, it feels off. The pacing is in general not good, such as when the game tries to honor others that have struggled with cancer, but it comes forth so early in the game, instead of having it in the end after giving us an emotional journey. The storytelling is unfortunately sloppy. It is a shame, cause you do feel that they put their heart in it, but not so much their mind.
Story Score: 4/10
Not much to do really
There is almost no interactivity. This is a walking simulator where you pretty much go with the motions and about 90% of the game is just clicking to progress. While there are a few elements you can interact with to get more dialogue, none feel intriguing or necessary. It is also quite slow, making me wonder if having free-movement would have made the connection with this story-driven aspect of the game better.
There are a couple of segments that will have you do other elements, such as one uninteresting race-kart segment where you can’t lose and a shallow arcade-game where you will lose. There were also a couple of parts where I literally had to wait and just clicked because it went on for too long. The game is certainly more focused on telling a story, but that is no excuse for having little to no interactivity. There could have been more exploration, make the kart or arcade segments more interesting or just simply have puzzles. As it stands, there is actually no reason this could not just have been a movie. Then the one hour it takes to get to the end, would have made much more sense.
Gameplay Score: 1/10
Imaginative and yet not intriguing
The art-style is unidentified. While there are a lot of colors, the choice to go with polygon-inspired presentation is not really a good one. The minimalist approach does not add much in a game that showcases a lot of details and tries to be imaginative. A perfect example is the arcade-game, that uses child-drawings for enemies and boxes as platforms, but it has 8-bit scores and letters. Why not choose a more consistent style? Another element that really drives this home, is that no character has a clear face. This could have been done so it would have been easier to put yourself in their shoes, but because it is such a personal story, it is not effective.
However, the voice-actors do a fantastic job. There are some parts that have been recorded during the actual events that play out in the game, and their own voice-work for the game is very well done. You can really tell their pain is real. The music, as well, is calm and lovely, with piano-tunes being a heavy focus. The atmosphere it creates is quite admirable, with tunes that can easily stick with you after the game is over. I hope the composer, John Hillman, will work on more video-game projects in the near future as he already shows fantastic potential.
Presentation Score: 6/10
That Dragon, Cancer is unfortunately not something I would qualify as a good game, especially due to the lack of interactivity. However while it is inconsistent in its storytelling, it at least has great ideas and the heart in the project is clearly there. If they had just went with a bit more thought on whom they were going to tell the story to, and try to make the transitions from emotional scenes to the more symbolic ones flow better, we could have at least had a decent movie. As it stands, That Dragon, Cancer is a mess that at least tried.