Mental illness can be challenging to portray in any medium as people often have many misconceptions about them. However, it is one of the central themes of To Leave, a unique 2D puzzle platformer game from Ecuadorian Developer Freaky Creations. The game is about the fantastical journey of a manic-depressive teenager named Harm whose goal is to harvest the souls of his home world and send him and everyone else to Heaven. The game was marketed as being extremely difficult and “hardcore,” which is seriously no understatement.
While the gameplay is relatively straightforward as you guide Harm from the Dark Void through the different levels of the Temples on his magical flying Door, the story of To Leave is much more complex and really up to each player’s interpretation of each of the levels. As Harm has become increasingly disenchanted with his world, he makes a plan to harvest all the souls of the Spiraling Stars by activating all eight Harvesting Temples and binding them to the Origin Gate to activate it and end his pain.
Before entering each Temple, Harm writes a journal entry detailing the experience that he is about to encounter. To get into the game’s story, I strongly encourage you to take the time to not only read these but also to read the ones that detail his past. The English interpretation can be a bit awkward, but it gives a much deeper understanding of Harm’s psyche and his motivation for embarking on this journey to find peace. He is the only “real” character that is encountered, and through him, we experience a wide variety of struggles and emotions as he tries to escape.
The game is divided into chapters, and Harm travels through the Dark Void of the Spiraling Stars to use his Door to transport him through the various obstacles of the levels to activate each Temple. The beginning of To Leave moves at a plodding pace, and using the Door is deceptively easy at first. You just grab on and attempt to alternate between flying and using gravity to make your way to the rocky checkpoints. The Door can only land on these square-faced platforms throughout the different levels and colliding with anything sends Harm and the Door back to these checkpoints, and there is a lot that they can run into.
However, flying the Door is timed, as it is powered by vibrance that ticks away as you make your way through each level and moves much slower when it runs out of power. To continue fueling the Door, Harm must collect what looks like balls of blue light found throughout each level. They never get replenished, so tough areas of the game seem to exhaust the Door much quicker. Once the Door is drained of power, Harm is kicked back to his apartment in a cutscene that increasingly appears as it takes forever, and as the game progresses, this happens much more frequently. Once back in the apartment, you have to start each level over again from its beginning no matter how close to the end you may be which is probably the most frustrating part.
Simply put, To Leave is hard, and I don’t think that statement does it justice. The Door is sensitive to control, and certain obstacles are absurdly difficult. The developer has talked in the past about purposely making the game increasingly difficult throughout, but I felt that it jumped from being a bit of a challenge to seemingly impossible very suddenly late in the game. Those who don’t enjoy spending a lot of time grinding through difficult puzzles probably will pass this one up, as it requires a lot of concentration and patience to master each of the levels. Those who love these types of games may want to replay some of its levels, but I needed a break before I attempted them again.
To make up for looking at the same thing while plugging away at the same level during each attempt, the visuals of To Leave are incredibly stunning, and its combination with the game’s music creates aesthetically unique levels throughout. Each of the levels was handpainted, and this painstaking dedication shines through. I was drawn in by the dreary cutscenes in Harm’s apartment and how they contrasted with the vibrant colors that are used in other areas of the game.
The visual representation of each of Harm’s struggles and encounters is translated so well that even those who have not experienced the same issues can understand what he is feeling. One of the later levels called “The Bully” is seemingly impossible and finds Harm trying to maneuver his way past a group of blocks with faces that morph into a less than pleasant demeanor and zoom their way to knock Harm out of their path. This was the level that broke me at first, but the way that the “bullies” force Harm to take refuge in areas hard to escape off of the main path evoke the feelings of defeat and anger that bullying causes. The symbolism found throughout each level represents different states of mind, experiences, and emotions.
To Leave is an experimental 2D platformer that tackles some very important issues in a unique way that leaves its interpretation up to each player. While it is not meant to be an educational game about mental illness, I felt that its approach to the subject was exceptionally well done. The visuals are beautiful, but the difficulty of the later levels of the game can be incredibly frustrating to the point of giving up. The preface of To Leave is completely truthful when it says that it was created to challenge the wits, skills, intuition, and perceptions of its players.
As this is the first project of Freaky Creations, and one of the first Ecuadorian games available for PlayStation 4, I look forward to what other unique, experimental games they’ll come out with in the future.