It’s idyllic up here in the mountains. In the distance the contractors are putting the finishing touches on your new home. There’s a festival about to start which is a perfect excuse to meet the neighbours who happily tell you they are richer than you. Or your new house is built on the site of a recent falling boulder tragedy. Or they just want to welcome you to the community by giving you an ugly sweater.
Everything is going well until, while admiring the ancient statues on the outskirts of town, you’re struck by a heavenly bolt of light granting you the ability to see into the distant past. Suddenly, exploring the crumbling, cyclopean ruins of the 3000 year old temple on the other side of the valley seems like the most important thing in the world, so you set off into the wilderness.
The world of Qora is a series of flick screen, low resolution, pixel art landscapes. At first glance they look scrappy and amateurish but as you pass from screen to screen it becomes apparent there’s a grand sense of scale under the rough surface. Incidental animations like herds of deer running before you and plumes of smoke rising from chimneys are surprisingly effective at breathing life into your surroundings. The soundtrack is also superb, switching from jaunty electronic folk to washes of delicate, reedy synths and ominous drones as you venture further from the village. Each tiny detail and sparse musical phrase contributes to an atmosphere balanced between tranquillity and unease but it’s the glimpses back in time that truly sell you on Qora’s reality.
At specific points, a prompt appears above your characters head and tapping the space bar fades the screen into black and white while ghostly visions of the locations history manifest themselves. The effect is like a digital pop-up book and I’d feel guilty spoiling even a single instance. The tension as you journey through the ruins builds and builds as the disquieting menace of the architecture plays off the strange and haunting revelations your new gift brings you.
There’s a solid Lovecraftian fantasy story to be teased out of Qora, one that finds both horror and wonder in the vast expanses of time, but the onus is very much on the player to piece it together from fragments of the past and present. In the best traditions of weird fiction there are big reveals at the end but enough is left for the player to puzzle out themselves, individual interpretations lingering on after the ending. It’s not perfect, there are jarringly tonal shifts, goofy dialogue and occasional descents into hipster surrealism. It’s a mixture that Capybara’s Super Brothers Sword and Sorcery EP pulled off with far more skill but the occasional joke still hits home and raises a smile.
If you hadn’t guessed already it’s important to stress that Qora has no game mechanics other than to continually push onwards. Very occasionally there are brief divergences from the main path but you can’t fail or die in any way and meaningful choices are few and far between. This is a largely ambient experience and it’s no surprise that the excellent soundtrack album is available to download as extra DLC.
Another potential red flag is Qora’s length. It won’t take longer than a couple of hours to reach the end, although there is some scope to play around in the world, teasing out alternate endings and revisiting favourite moments. However, players willing to sink themselves into the story, warts and all, might find it stays with them for far longer.