Four Horsemen is a game about immigrants and refugees, and also kinda sorta the apocalypse. It's a compelling game, written from a place of deep empathy about a topic that is important to consider in our current political climate. Unfortunately it doesn't quite come together.
Things are ending for the four friends you follow in this visual novel — school is ending, friendships end, and most significantly these kids have experiences that end their illusions about their identities and the country they live in. You choose what fictional nation the kids have emigrated from, which will change the characters' names, native tongue, and sometimes their appearance. In one playthrough they were from Aurentin and spoke German. In another, they were from Crisol and swore in Spanish. This may be my favourite touch in Four Horsemen since it feels the most politically relevant. The kids that could be from anywhere, and these are struggles that happen in many countries. The characters' dialogue and experience touched on issues and conversations familiar to me from the recent repeal of DACA as well as the challenges my own immigrant mother faced when she arrived in America in the '50s.
The kids spend their days building a fort, which is where most of the game takes place. During the day you try to buy supplies with your meagre money, or dumpster dive for supplies. Maybe you do some homework or hang out with your family. By the game's end, the shack, which you get to name in the beginning, looks and feels quite cosy.
These parts of the game — the fictional countries and the slowly changing hideout — feel natural, and it's pretty delightful to watch a decrepit shack turn into a home. The illustrations are lively, and the world the characters inhabit feels very real. The problem is I'm not sure I like the kids I'm helping to find a home.
Four Horsemen wants the player to empathise with its protagonists, and then by proxy understand the plight of immigrants and refugees. But the writing isn't quite sharp enough for the balancing act it is trying to do. On the one hand, these kids are cool, alternative teens with alternative teen problems, like the plucky hacker trying to balance hanging with her internet friends and her sister. On the other, they're subject to intense racism and struggle to survive in a foreign country.
Mixing light humour with heavy emotional topics to make a point isn't new. Degrassi did it all the time. But I liked the characters in Degrassi, and their petty problems felt real to me. The problems that the characters have in Four Horsemen don't quite blend well into each other. The plucky hacker girl is treated differently by her maths teachers despite being very good at maths, but it's an event that just happens, rather than a plot thread to follow. Often, the instances of racism were too blunt and felt isolated from the rest of these characters' lives. When the four teens in this story were called scum for the thousandth time I felt more disconnected from the game than empathetic to their plight. Yes, outright oppression is traumatic, but it's a very difficult task to portray how it feels to be discriminated against without laying it on too thick. Despite its lofty ambitions, Four Horsemen lays it on too thick.
Four Horsemen has a multitude of branching paths and a scrappy spirit that I like. Like a good punk song, it isn't too long, and it won't let you forget its point of view. I admire the courage it takes to be so blunt about one's message, especially in an age when many families could face deportation and racists are using refugees as a scapegoat to further their racist ideals. Issues like these are difficult to address in any medium. Four Horsemen cares deeply about the plight of immigrants and refugees, even if it doesn't quite do them justice.