Elea might be one of the strangest games I’ve ever played that still follows a cohesive, and more importantly, an interesting narrative, making it a worthwhile title for fans of story-heavy games.
In Elea, you play as a scientist and loving wife that is trying to track down the whereabouts of her lost husband—At least, that’s what the description of the game says on the Steam landing page. In truth, Elea opens with the titular River Elea Catherine Jones undergoing some kind of neural procedure, in order to—I assume—help her isolate the memories related to her missing husband. Of course, this eventually leads to things going from maybe a little unsettling to completely insane.
Elea is set in a far-flung future where space travel is as normalized as buying a train ticket. Future concepts such as terraforming distant planets are not only common but completely viable. After a short psychedelic outer body experience induced from undergoing the procedure, the player wakes up in her new home, which just so happens to be on Mars. Some short exposition via a phone call between River and her husband reveals that River is pregnant and alone with her first son, Frankie, while her husband is away on a business trip in space and has unfortunately fallen prey to some kind of new flu infection.
The relaxed atmosphere accented by the soothing sounds of the rain just outside is cut short as the power inside the apartment goes out. Thankfully, the phone call doesn’t seem to be interrupted, which the game uses as a means of directing the player to the next object—in this case, restoring the power.
At this point, the game dials back some of the exposition and world-building, letting the player actually explore the environment to their leisure (in the dark!). Graphically, Elea is a great looking game, especially when talking about the materiality of some of the textures used for things such as the flooring, walls, lights, and other fixtures throughout the explorable living space. This might sound like a weird detail to talk about or admire, however, Elea’s art direction really lends itself to that classic Blade Runner neon futurist aesthetic that many sci-fi titles strive toward.
I consider myself someone who is drawn to the bizarre and strange, especially when talking about games. Some of my favourite titles include Rez, Katamari Damacy, LSD Dream Emulator, and even Metal Gear Solid, titles which exemplify and embrace all that is weird. But even those games couldn’t prepare me for what Elea had in store after I restored the power.
Once players navigate through the dark rooms of the Jones estate, complete with some very light puzzle solving, the game decides to take a hard right into a surrealist dreamscape of colour, vaporwave angst, and subversion that would make even the likes of Hideo Kojima blush. I recommend playing this game sometime in the evening with a good pair of headphones, as the sound design within the episode also really pushes the strange and almost alien-like quality of the game to its limits thanks to some cool synthesised beats and well-delivered voice acting.
Unfortunately, this is also where Elea might turn some players off. The game really pushes itself towards the surreal and bizarre, to the point where simple gameplay mechanics became obscured by the sheer level of strangeness on screen, something that didn’t really bother me too much but ultimately required a few retries in order to make any significant progress.
An example of this comes at the end of a sequence the follows restoring the power and talking to Frankie, River’s son. A sequence plays in which the player character reawakens in a strange and closed off room, with the only visible exit locked and unresponsive. In front of the player, a large glass window pane lets players peer out into a seemingly endless ocean with the sun being the only other visible object off in the horizon, implying that the room exists in isolation.
Approaching the window and looking towards the sun (who knew staring at the sun would come in handy?) causes the game to get all manners of crazy, eventually spawning an unusual translucent spherical blob directly behind the player. Interacting or entering this blob usually ends in the player dying, which resets the sequence and forces the player to endure the strangeness all over again.
Eventually, I figured out that slowly approaching the blob and entering it just enough to not die would trigger the next sequence of events in order to progress. This is something that the game doesn’t really explain at all considering the entire sequence itself is meant to showcase Elea’s trippy nature to the player. I didn’t find this trial and error all that frustrating but I can see it being something that some players may find unintuitive or at the very least, unnecessarily obtuse.
Elea shows a lot of merit in everything it does and since the game is structured as an episodic experience, feedback from players and the press alike can prove to be useful in further fine-tuning and finding that perfectly nuanced balance between strange and approachable. As it stands, Elea is a game best reserved for players looking for a title that pushes the boundaries of visual storytelling.
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