Goodbye Volcano High Review
Growing up isn't easy, especially with an apocalypse coming
Breaking into the mainstream can be tough for almost any developer, but sometimes an opportunity presents itself that can't be missed. That's the situation that developers KO_OP have found themselves in when Sony decided to feature their new game, Goodbye Volcano High, at one of their big quarterly video presentations. The reveal put a big spotlight on the game, which also happens to be the biggest effort yet from the developers, who until now mostly dabbled in arcade and puzzle games. And while that exposure led to some positive and negative outcomes, this narrative 2D animated adventure has finally launched and while it has some promise, the final product had plenty of room for improvement.
In Goodbye Volcano High, players follow a young student named Fang. But this isn't just a regular student – they are a dinosaur, attending Volcano High school with other similar creature students and teachers. This is a fantasy type world where dinos populate the Earth and have TVs, cellphones, and the same high school experiences as humans typically do today. Fang is an aspiring musician and a lead singer in a band called Worm Drama, as they try to get an audition and win an upcoming battle of the bands competition. This audition is the central guiding point of the story, although Fang also has to deal with other typical events during the final year of high school: managing the relationship with the brother while their parents are out of town, hanging out with friends and bandmates, upcoming college decisions, a secret admirer, and more. Oh, and a minor event of a meteor that may or may not be on a collision course with the planet. Players will have to guide Fang through a variety of situations and decisions, in hopes of staying on course even as the world may soon be coming to an end.
While the obvious metaphors of a meteor threatening the planet of dinosaurs may be a bit too on the nose, the narrative is actually quite laid back and casual. The experiences and conversations that players guide Fang through feel swift and unburdened. You will chat with other high school dinos, make choices to be supportive or dismissive, selfish or team-oriented, and so on. The writing is also very light and despite having some typical cringy teenager exchanges and group chats, it actually feels appropriate for the setting. Heavy topics occasionally surface but are also only lightly touched on, such as Fang identifying as they/them and others in her friend circle struggling with identify; it's rarely the focus of conversations. It's the sort of stuff you would expect to see on a daytime Disney Kids channel show, aimed at young teens. So in a way, it's still bound to annoy plenty of players, but it’s also not heavy handed or obnoxious.
On the other hand though, this very laissez-faire approach removes most of the stakes. The looming threat of the incoming meteor is rarely a factor, instead of driving any character motivations or narrative events, it's just a background footnote. It's not used for anything other than occasional jokes, but a late-game attitude switch suddenly makes it the important doomsday event that it should have been all along. There's also some forced conflict in the group of friends at the very end, which is also quickly resolved. The final year of school just flies by without much happening, as the band audition is the only thing that seems to matter to the narrative. Further, the ending is an unearned ambiguous finale.
The pacing also struggles a lot, and the 6-8 hour runtime could have used some trimming. There's not one but two sequences of "final nights by the campfire" to evoke some sort of emotion from the player, and some of the scenes don’t serve much purpose. There are also multiple lengthy, painful D&D story sections – which are quickly becoming a trope in narrative adventure games it seems. These sections really didn't need to be so long and so frequent, and could have been left out for a leaner runtime.
While players make plenty of choices as Fang, Goodbye Volcano High is not really a game with many different outcomes. As in most adventure games, the gameplay's entirety mostly consists of clicking/scroll through dialogue and making occasional choices. The choices are made from the typical conversation wheel at the bottom of the screen, and are sometimes on a timer. The game plays around with the concept of uncertainty, so sometimes your choices shift or bend and have different backgrounds to represent Fang's feelings. Some cases where you feel Fang should have a big choice to make, don't actually materialize – such as handling your secret admirer – as the game's story simply carries on as it intends. Certain scenes and situations may change, but there are no major alternative paths to explore that are worth replaying for. You can fast forward through most dialogue, but there is no scene select and only one save file for future replays. Players will unlock photos and flashbacks during certain moments and choices, viewed in the menus, and seeing them all requires different choices. Again, if the game was shorter, perhaps it would have been more worthwhile to replay.
Despite some of these issues with the story, pacing, and player choice, Goodbye Volcano High manages to find some surprisingly inspiring and heartwarming moments. Given how ultimately positive the whole game and its dialogue feel, you can't help but feel occasionally caught up in the moments. The strongest such moments come from brief situations or conversations, which we won't spoil here. They are not enough to make up for the game's narrative shortcomings – the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts – but they were nice to experience.
Perhaps the biggest moments in the adventure are when Fang gets to perform. Music being such a core part of the story was not expected, and with the recent release of big budget musical Stray Gods, Goodbye Volcano High had its work cut out. And shockingly, the songs hold up. Just like the dialogue, the performances manage to perfectly walk the line between being too basic because of the limited budget, and also sounding exactly like you'd expect a teenage band to sound. The instruments are limited, and the lyrics are brief and repeating, but it works. Is it luck or design brilliance? Either way, the musical numbers sound good and will remind players of the indie grunge tracks from other series such as Life is Strange. And because these are actual songs, they sound and feel better than anything stitched together in Stray Gods.
During the songs, players will need to make some QTE inputs, and it is the only other means of interaction in the game (other than making choices). The inputs are somewhat unique – in addition to the usual timed face button presses, you'll also need to maneuver the left stick to catch orbs coming from three directions, as well as occasionally press down on both sticks. Doing well or poorly in these QTE moments during songs isn't really a focus; failing earns you less applause but doesn’t halt the progress. And you will want to play with a controller, as the keyboard and mouse are just too awkward.
While the songs and music are good, the audio design is lacking elsewhere. The voice acting is a step down, and sounds amateur for all of the characters, including the lead Fang. While the subtitles try to express emotion through various fonts and bolding, the voice actors largely deliver their lines very flatly. There is very little background music during most of the game, and even the main menu is strangely, eerily silent.
The game features a cartoon art style, with both characters and backgrounds being decently detailed – but not impressively so. Again, the production feels like what you'd see on a kids channel in the middle of the day. Nice and passable, but hardly impressive. The animations during most of the game are limited, but for some of the songs and pre-made scenes, it does look fairly good. Elsewhere though, scene transitions are handled poorly with many black loading screens that feel a bit jarring, and the flow of the scenes is not always good as you switch locations. There are problems with text and UI overlap in the menus depending on the resolution. But on the whole, the game is stable.
Goodbye Volcano High is surprising in ways you may not expect. Despite its art style and the troubled development you may have heard of, the final product actually suffers from the very typical afflictions of adventure games. The pacing and scene transitions could use improvement, the story is inconsistent and ending is flat, and the voice acting shows some inexperience and limited budget. But there are still aspects that help it stand out – with its nice musical numbers, unexpected heartfelt moments and unencumbered dialogue. And while these moments aren't enough to elevate the whole game, they still show decent promise and make the title worth playing – perhaps when it goes on sale from its current $30 asking price and some of the minor technical quirks get patched.