Harold Halibut Review: A Stop Motion Adventure That’s Not For Everyone

Harold Halibut Review: A Stop Motion Adventure That’s Not For Everyone

According to the game’s official website, the concept for Harold Halibut was first dreamed up in 2012 during a dinner conversation. The team spent over a decade making the game, and every single element—the locations, the characters, the props—was created in miniature form first before being scanned into Unity. Everything in here was made by hand: stitched, moulded, painted, crafted. Over a decade after that dinner, Harold Halibut was quietly released under the radar and nestled snugly into my heart.

Harold Halibut is the sort of game where knowing the context of its creation is important if you want to get the most out of the experience, just as Wallace & Gromit hits a little harder once you see the videos of Nick Park and the team at Aardman lovingly altering Gromit’s eyebrow ridge frame-by-frame. But even if someone played Harold Halibut without knowing the work that went into it, they’d still get it – the game is unmistakably handmade, and the more you look for shortcuts, the clearer it is that none were taken. Knowing that the game is exactly what it appears to be, a game created with a lot of wire and plasticine and felt, makes the whole thing all the more astonishing. 

If we’re just judging the game’s artistic merit in a bubble, the work was worth it. The “look” of the game is incredible, and the game feels grounded despite being fantastical. The closest approximation would be something like The Neverhood, which achieved its look back in the 90s through far more stringent limitations. A game aiming for realism will always have obvious tells; the best-looking “realistic” game does not, probably should not, look like a photo. But by aiming for an aesthetic that is grounded in a sense of reality – which is to say, an aesthetic where it really looks like you’re exploring a stop-motion puppet world – Harold Halibut, at times, feels real in a way very few games do. 

Harold Halibut is an adventure game, one light on puzzles and heavy on storytelling and dialogue. 250 years before the game started, the Fedora spaceship took off from Earth in search of a new planet to populate the thousands onboard; 200 years later, the ship was taken down by a heavy solar wind during a planetary inspection, and it has rested deep within an alien ocean ever since. In the present day, the ship is run by the All Water Company, which runs the transportation tubes that move residents around the ship and acts as a de facto government. As the game starts up, humanity is moving towards figuring out a solution to once again return the ship to orbit.

You play as Harold, a young, unextraordinary man who has spent his life living at the bottom of this alien ocean. He works as the assistant to the great scientist Jeanne Mareaux, which involves a lot of running around the ship, completing errands, running the filter cleaning programme, and observing as the characters around you pursue important work. Eventually, Harold makes a discovery that changes everything, but the less you know about that, the better.

Slow Bros has positioned Harold Halibut in its marketing as being midway between a game and a playable stop-motion series, and that’s more-or-less accurate. There’s not a lot to the mechanics of playing the game – you’re given objectives, and they mostly boil down to moving from place to place, triggering conversations and cutscenes. Every now and then, there might be a mini-game or an ever-so-slightly more involved sidequest triggered by an optional conversation. But there aren’t “puzzles”, per se, or significant challenges to overcome.

But Harold Halibut succeeds because simply moving through these environments, meeting these characters, and digging into the weird little world the developers have built is astonishingly satisfying. The handmade feel of the game never gets old: the pleasantly textured plasticine skin of the characters, the slightly askew paint job on a wall, and the fibres on a piece of fabric that has been wrapped around a prop. You are in a diorama world, and it’s full of beautiful characters that I couldn’t help but grow attached to. Harold himself is a triumph of appealingly unappealing design – his five o’clock shadow, his tired eyes, the clothes that feel rather than look like they need a wash. I especially love the gorgeously observed detail of the slightly lower quality paint job on his hair than the other characters and what it means for Harold as a character.

The game’s cast fleshes out over time, as does your sense of the world they inhabit. The story being told here is a surprisingly big one – the game is much longer than many similar contemporaries, running about 12-15 hours, depending on how thorough you are. The cast of characters grows quite large, and every one of them is fleshed out over time in meaningful ways. You can’t make choices to impact their lives seriously, choose which ones you develop relationships with or anything like that – you can just choose how much you want to engage with them. I found that I could not help but absorb every little conversation, running around the ship as the story progressed to make sure I checked in on everyone, heard their gossip, and saw how the events of the game were impacting them.

The first few hours have a curious air to them, a patina of boredom that makes narrative sense but which isn’t exactly felt, at least not by me. Two hours in, a beautiful cutscene sees Harold question whether there’s more to life, more to what purpose he can serve down there. At this point, I’d been so transfixed by the world, the characters, and the phenomenal style that the game has that it had not occurred to me to find its mundanity boring. This is an extremely difficult tightrope to walk, but the team at developer Slow Bros has done the work to walk it.

I’ll admit, your mileage may vary – I can imagine a theoretical reader who is rolling their eyes at this point because not everyone is so into walking and talking. And Harold Halibut is also a clunky game in several ways. The subtitles in the build I played could not be turned off and sometimes differed slightly from the lines being delivered. Three times Harold froze on me mid-animation, refusing to finish lining himself up for a conversation or interaction; each time a quick reset dealt with the issue. There is a trophy in the game that, pre-launch, has a 0% completion rate and references events that I swear don’t actually happen in the game. There are a few signs of possible cut content that stand out, and one prominent gameplay mechanic is used exactly once throughout the entire game. And, I suppose, some players might be bothered by the fact that there’s ultimately not really that much to do beyond following the plot – no serious puzzles, no big choices, side quests that don’t go deep.

I can’t say that any of that mattered to me too much. I think the game is a little saggy in places towards the end, but by the time I got there, I was already in love with it. In some ways, the rough edges add to the charm of Harold Halibut, serving as a reminder of how difficult it must have been to get this thing finished, of making every character and environment feel real. Even the game’s sense of humour feels lived-in and specific. I spotted on-the-nose references to This is Spinal Tap, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, and Dragon Ball Z, and I enjoyed several of the game’s non-sequitur jokes that feel very specific to the people making the game, sequences that momentarily break the fiction to deliver a gag. The handmade feeling extends to the whole game – the fingerprints of the team aren’t literally visible in these environments, but you sense them there anyway. 

One of the great pleasures of being a person, moving through the world and experiencing art is encountering works that feel specific to your taste, that speak to you, and that make you feel like you’re in conversation with the people who made them. “This is my thing for me,” you’ll whisper to yourself, possibly out loud, possibly just in your own head. I can imagine that some people will bounce off Harold Halibut. They might be put off by how long and repetitive it is or unable to gel with the character designs; they might be as charmed by it as I was. I would not begrudge them. But to me, this game is precious, beautiful, deeply impressive, and worth the monumental effort that must have gone into making it. 

Harold Halibut is available on PC, Xbox Series X/S, and PS5. It’s available on Xbox Game Pass. A PS5 copy was provided for review.

Image: Slow Bros., Kotaku Australia

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