Review: When The Past Was Around (Switch)

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When The Past Was Around is bittersweet, haunting, beautiful. A tale of love, loss, and grief, it delves into memories of a young woman coming to terms with the passing of the love of her life. It’s a short, powerful adventure—one that you’ll complete in a little over an hour, but that will sit with you for far longer.

Eda is someone who was lost, struggling to find her place in the world, until she met The Owl. A chance encounter on a cold day and the kind gesture of a scarf around her shoulders brought them together, and soon they found love. The Owl had a way of bringing out the best in Eda, and helped her to reignite her childhood love of music. They were happy and in love—until The Owl was taken from Eda’s world, far too soon.

In a mausoleum full of The Owl’s treasured keepsakes and mementos, mostly relating to their time together, Eda can’t help but find herself thinking back on their time together: how they met, how they fell in love, all the joy and sadness they shared. With each box she opens comes a new wave of memories, and a new wave of heartbreak over what she’s lost. But ultimately, When The Past Was Around is about Eda coming to terms with what’s happened and finding the strength to move on.

A screenshot from When The Past Was Around

The wordless nature of the storytelling in When The Past Was Around makes its exploration of grief particularly poignant. It’s an emotional journey, not so much about what is actually happening in any given scene but about what each character is feeling in that moment, and that emotion comes through stronger in the art, animations, music, and puzzles than it ever could in dialogue. The lack of words lets When The Past Was Around aim straight for the heart.

Much of that emotion comes through the puzzles that drive the game forward. When The Past Was Around is a classic point-and-click adventure that sees you exploring each memory in search of a way to prompt the scene to unfold or to open a door to the next room. These are simple, familiar puzzles—move some books off a rug so that you can find a key underneath, using nearby clues to figure out the code for a padlock, that sort of thing.

But the surreal nature of memory and Eda’s grief-stricken state make what might be rudimentary adventure game puzzles into key aspects of the story that When The Past Was Around wants to tell. The items that you find and use to solve each puzzle are never just objects, but mementos, be it the scarf that The Owl wrapped around Eda when they first met or just their favourite blends of tea for a lazy afternoon together. Taking place in dream-like memories allows memories and mementos to interact with each other in ways they wouldn’t normally, like finding clues to the solution of a puzzle box in the footprints of pigeons outside. To solve the puzzles in When The Past Was Around is to piece together Eda’s memories, to help her reflect and process her grief.

A screenshot from When The Past Was Around

That said, the abstract nature of the puzzle design does, on occasion, lead to some frustrating moments with solutions that don’t really make sense until after you’ve solved them. It takes a bit of sideways thought to connect the words on a pair of ice cream sticks, a message written in ketchup inside a sandwich, and a padlock—it’s a solution that makes sense, in its way, after you’ve solved the puzzle (or looked up the answer online), but the threads that connect these disparate objects can be difficult to find. That isn’t to say that the puzzles in When The Past Was Around are difficult—they tend towards the easy side, if anything—but it sometimes feels like there’s a piece missing that’s necessary to find the answer.

Beyond the puzzles themselves, much of the narrative weight in When The Past Was Around comes through its gorgeous art style. The hand-drawn, comic-style artwork is evocative, using its deliberately restrained animation and autumn colour palette to bring the emotion of the game to the fore. Cutscenes lean into the motion-comic effect with panels that interact with one another, driving home the visual storytelling and surreal atmosphere.

Music being a central motif throughout the story, the soundtrack plays a key role, too. A violin-driven score provides a haunting, melancholy atmosphere, sometimes building up to make dramatic moments even more impactful, but mostly just working through the background to sell the bittersweet mood of the game. Some puzzles play creatively with the music itself; it’s not quite a rhythm game, but the way the music intertwines with the puzzle itself is impressive.

A screenshot from When The Past Was Around

All these pieces come together to make When The Past Was Around a beautiful, deeply moving game. It’s a bittersweet exploration of love, loss, and grief—not uncommon themes, especially among indie games, but delivered in a particularly effective way through a wordless story and an emotive approach to point-and-click puzzles. Eda and The Owl’s bittersweet journey is one that will sit with me for a long time to come.

Score: 4.5 stars

When The Past Was Around is developed by Mojiken Studio and published by Toge Productions and Chorus Worldwide Games. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.

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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.