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Where the Water Tastes Like Wine Review

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WheretheWaterTastesLikeWineboxart.jpg.d72e72d7105dbc6705d440649dd84275.jpgNot to get too highfalutin right out of the gate here, but there are few things that tap into the human experience like gathering around a campfire to swap stories. Whatever medium it's in, the art of storytelling connects people, whether it's a personal story or an enduring folktale. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine seeks to tap into that collective experience by setting you loose across the continental United States to collect and share stories. It's a beautifully unique concept that unfortunately does not translate well to a video game at all.
You play as a wanderer who, after a bad poker hand against a surprisingly well-dressed wolf, is tasked with collecting stories across Great Depression-era America (though the timeline is iffy—you'll also encounter people and stories clearly from a 50s/60s beat poetry aesthetic). Your main goal is collecting the personal story from sixteen key characters. To do that though, you'll need to collect other stories to share with the key NPCs, which causes them to open up to you and share more of their stories.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a story about storytelling, and it's a really cool concept. The stories you share are set loose on the world and will change and grow in the process (which in gameplay terms means they'll be more effective at getting the key NPCs to open up to you). It's a fun way of showing how stories evolve and change, how storytellers and listeners add and subtract what they want out of a story to better align with their desires or expectations. The initial stories you find are simple or basic happenings: a chance meeting on a road, a creepy abandoned farmhouse, a sad story of a family trying to survive, etc. Over time though, these stories evolve into larger-than-life adventures, ghost stories, and tall tales. On top of all this, the key NPCs' stories delve further into personal tales of survival, heartbreak, and social issues that are distinctly American. It's a really fascinating concept for a game.
The actual gameplay, however, is kind of a mess. It's understandable that this kind of game would be a bit more of a slow, thoughtful adventure, but Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a painfully slow game. The vast majority of the gameplay involves walking across America, stopping only to pick up a new story or sit down at a campfire with a key NPC. And you walk. Very. Slowly. There are a few options to speed things up but they're imperfect solutions as well: trains are expensive, hopping a train without paying can result in you getting beaten by the authorities, hitchhiking is inconsistent and cars only travel in set directions, and finally whistling while you walk very slightly increases your movement speed but you have to play a little button tapping game the whole time. The experience of playing the game is legitimately boring.
Then there's the story exchange system with NPCs. When you're sitting at a campfire with someone, they'll ask to hear a story from your travels, and they'll hint toward what kind of story they want to hear—thrilling, funny, sad, etc. The problem is, your stories aren't organized by their type at all, you have to remember them, and there are over two hundred stories available in the game. Sure some will be obvious—ghost stories are usually scary, for example—but a lot of others are confusingly categorized. You can only tell so many stories during a campfire encounter and you can't tell the same story twice, so it's really on you to keep track of these categories even though the game provides no UI or organizing system. You can also only "equip" so many stories when you sit down at a campfire, and there's no in-game system for reminding you if you've already told a story or not. Sorting/swapping stories is terribly unintuitive, not to mention that all of the menus in the game are a bit clumsy to navigate. Perhaps most annoyingly, you have to share stories with a specific NPC multiple times before his or her personal story is complete, so you have to just do the same thing over and over again.
Simply put, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is far too long for how slow and repetitive the gameplay is. If it were maybe five hours long it would be a still flawed but novel story about storytelling, but at twelve to fifteen hours it is truly a slog. Most frustratingly, because of the issues mentioned above, it's a hard game to pick up and play gradually over several weeks since you'll likely forget which stories you've already used, or what category they're in. To be fair, I understand that this isn't necessarily the point of the game. It's a relaxed, meandering experience more than a "video game" challenge, but that experience is just boring more often than not.
The game's visuals are somewhat mixed, but the audio department at least does  a great job. The 2D artwork seen when you're finding or sharing stories has a beautiful rustic charm to it. It's simple and has a raw, scrawled vibe that nicely matches the tone the game is going for. While you're exploring though, the graphics switch to a 3D view of America that leaves something to be desired. The views are expansive but bland, and certainly doesn't help the monotonous feel of the gameplay.
The soundtrack, however, is undoubtedly the highlight of the game. The Americana vibe of the music perfectly suits the wandering adventure you're on. The songs are really the only saving grace for the long periods of time where you are simply walking. And in a neat touch of regionalism, the appropriately titled Vagrant Song will have a slightly different style depending on where you are in America (Southern, Midwest, Northwest, etc.). It's a cool attention to detail that honestly should have been carried over to more aspects of the game. The voice work is also pretty solid overall. The narrator has the most lines and is a definite standout, and while not all of the NPCs have stellar voice work the overall quality is decent. There is, however, one baffling audio decision in the game: the whistling that helps you move a bit faster plays over the soundtrack, and doesn't even match the tune or rhythm of the underlying song. It's such an obvious missed opportunity that it's honestly baffling how the developers ignored matching up the whistle and soundtrack.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a clever concept that does not translate to an entertaining video game. The gameplay loop of collecting and sharing stories sounds decent enough on paper, but in execution is such a slow, tedious slog that it drains the game of what little energy it has. A strong soundtrack and decent visual style aren't enough to lift up the poor UI design and unsatisfying busywork of sorting your stories and remembering which have been used. Despite having a neat kernel of an idea, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine doesn't evolve into the enduring folktale that it wants to be.
Rating: 4 out of 10 Stories
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