Sampling, or the process of cherry-picking and remixing ideas from various sources, is a long-established trend in music and literature that is also becoming common in video games. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots revisits Shadow Moses, Dante’s Inferno offers a new spin on Dante Aligheri’s Commedia, and SINoALICE mashes together a huge array of Western and Japanese fairy tale characters. The Fidelio Incident takes a similar approach. Inspired by Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, the game transplants the core narrative of the classic to a contemporary setting and couches it within a frame story that will be familiar to anyone who has played a first-person narrative mystery in recent years. As such, the inspirations for The Fidelio Incident are worn as badges of honour, but the game is never able to transcend a sense of duty to its forebears, resulting in an experience that, while thoroughly enjoyable, feels a little tired.
Firewatch, Fidelio, Gone Home, Battlefield: Bad Company 2: the list of sources from which The Fidelio Incident draws inspiration is as excellent as eclectic, resulting in a different kind of walking simulator. While many similar games take place entirely within domestic (or at least familiar) settings, this debut effort from Act 3 Games is set primarily in the alien wildernesses of Iceland. This relocation provides the game with an aesthetic unique among examples of the genre, while the development team has made intelligent use of the environment to alter gameplay. In addition to the standard processes of exploration and note collection (here aided by the questionable inclusion of smoke plumes to mark them), players must contend with the dangers of the glacier. The first such organic hazard is the blistering cold, which necessitates rapid movement between warm havens to stave off the onset of hypothermia and is followed by other perils that are almost always equally justified by context. Compared to the apparent effortlessness of these core gameplay variants, however, the puzzles often feel forced and removed from either environmental or narrative logic, leaving the game to suffer from a lack of cohesion. While these issues could be overlooked in isolation, they instead serve to highlight a tendency towards unevenness that permeates the entire production and is most keenly present in the story.
Frame narratives are among the most frequently-used tropes of the first-person experience genre, allowing a complex story to emerge from simplistic gameplay, but The Fidelio Incident’s use of this idea is disappointingly unbalanced. Players assume the role of Stanley Whitaker who is separated from his wife Leonore after their two-seater aeroplane tears apart and crashes in the Icelandic wastes. Following an anxious, broken phone call from Leonore, Stanley sets out to rescue her, with this mission complicated by the scattering across the glacier of journals that threaten to reveal the couple’s dubious history. As is common in games of this kind, the story that unravels through the notes is far more interesting than the central journey. Herein lays a contemporary, self-aware retelling of Beethoven’s Fidelio that delves deeply into the motivations of the two characters to explain why, despite hailing from Ireland, they are far from home and desperate to keep their secrets hidden. The Fidelio Incident tries to link these two disparate narrative threads through a series of dream-like sequences that bring Stanley’s past into the present. This attempt at merging part and present is worthwhile for the emotional weight that should carry through the game’s poignant closing moments, but the effort is undermined by the lack of a discernable cause for these disruptive hallucinations. Despite these shortcomings, the excellent voice performances bring the story to life and invest the player in the adventure.
Indeed, the true heights of The Fidelio Incident are located in the audio presentation, though even this exemplary aspect of the production is not immune from flaws. Stanley and Leonore are played by Glenn Keogh and Bess Harrison respectively, whose convincing Irish brogues sell the backstory. The excellent performances carry through to their brief discussions in the present-tense of the narrative, though Stanley’s grunts and shivers, to say nothing of the infrequent intrusions of soliloquy, often seem less believable. Similarly, the ambient audio is generally weaker than the remainder of the production, with caverns failing to echo properly and being plunged underwater lacking the oppressive, cloistering sensation of the real-life experience. The score, composed by veteran Michael Krikorian, makes up for these weaknesses, mixing reworked samples of Beethoven’s work with original compositions that swell and ebb powerfully at key moments. The single drawback is that this remarkable music is not given more opportunities to stand at the forefront of the game. Even with the high quality set by the voice acting and composition, however, the visuals stand out as the most consistently competent aspect of the production.
Not only does the predominantly outdoor, icy environment give the game breathing space amongst its contemporaries, the setting also allows the eye-catching visual style a chance to shine. With Ken Feldman, the artistic director of God of War III, at the helm, beauty is expected from The Fidelio Incident, and the gently-stylised realism is a clear echo of Sony Santa Monica’s opus. Rocks, ice, and snow all seem tangibly real while the elemental effects of frost and fire have a particular depth that makes them feel dangerous. The indoor locales are a little different, marked out by a sense of asceticism, though no less startling with the attention paid to the minute details of giving each room and hallway a weighty sense of presence, whether long-abandoned or recently filled with life. The visual presentation, from beginning to end, provides a breathtaking wonderment that envelops the player. Unfortunately, the statement made by these remarkable graphics is not matched by the remainder of The Fidelio Incident, though the game remains a memorable, if slightly unsatisfactory experience.
The Fidelio Incident is an admirable first effort, but needs more to truly stand out from the crowded market four years on from Gone Home and the first wave of FPX games. With stunning visuals and music that grip the player and a story that sheds light on a relatively untouched moment of world history, the game contains powerful elements. However, the uneven approach to storytelling and the presence of illogical gameplay sequences drag the experience down, robbing The Fidelio Incident of both cohesion and realised potential.
Reviewed on PC