Demo Review: the head well lost

An experienced team of developers, L³ presents a demo of the head well lost. Covering about twenty-five percent of the intended final game, in this demo we’re introduced to Francis Lin, librarian, cat mom, and struggling twenty-something. Quickly, she meets the mysterious jet-setter Rai online. Not long after, she learns he’s one-half of famous electronic-pop duo DRYDEN. The surprises continue when, the first time they meet, he removes his signature futuristic space helmet to reveal an even stranger secret: he doesn’t have a head. Faced with this new knowledge of Dullahans and other fae folk, and burdened with her own emotional baggage, can she make this relationship with a genuinely nice young man (who also happens to be a headless pop star) work out?

A Mature Romance

The story begins where most otome games end. Within the first few minutes of the game, Francis meets Rai, and the start of their romance blossoms. The focus, then, is not on choosing a partner from a panoply of ever more handsome bachelors. It’s about the growth of a single relationship through the stages of meeting, learning about each other, and coming up with a definition for what they are. 

It’s a slow burn couched in realistic relationship expectations. Francis and Rai (despite the expected glamour of celebrity) feel like real people. There’s ennui. There’s uncertainty. There’s the baggage of past relationships. There’s space for Francis (via the player) to decide how forthcoming she’s going to be about her own emotions, and the consequences of that are underplayed but immediately tangible.

In a medium inundated with stories of high school and young love, it’s refreshing to play as a main character on the edge of thirty. She works, she watches TV, and she’s created a family around her cats, the three next most important characters in the game after our leading couple. Francis is an average, textually bisexual librarian living a normal life who, after being thrust into exceptional circumstances, decides to handle it one step at a time.

A Not-So-Mysterious Mystery

Francis and Rai begin their relationship long distance. Without a selfie in his dating profile, she doesn’t even know what he looks like. The consequence of this for the player is that you come to know and love Rai without ever seeing him, the same way Francis does. Your exposure to him, at first, is all text conversations—then, eventually, a phone call. This, of course, naturally fosters an air of mystery. The writing, however, never really leans into it. For this particular game, that ends up being a huge plus.

As a player, you know Rai’s two major secrets not just at the end of the demo but before the game even begins. If you don’t get a hint from the title screen, it’s spelled out in the store page. There’s a delight in knowing more about Rai than Francis does. You’re on tenterhooks waiting for the moment he reveals himself to her. You can feel it coming in the narrative. It becomes the epitome of enjoying the journey as much as the destination. If you do happen to go in completely blind, the allure is still ever-present, pulling you through.

With two huge reveals appearing so early in the game, it leaves you wondering what the rest of the game could possibly have in store. How will it naturally escalate from here, leaving a palpable feeling of anticipation.

An Interesting Approach to Art

In contrast to the strong, solid writing, the art is a lot more experimental and, in some places, a bit rough around the edges. The backgrounds are cultivated from photos then treated with what looks like a palette knife or plaster effect. The sprites, while more traditionally illustrated, are painted in a similar way. While everything still feels like it exists in the same universe, it does take some getting used to. The aesthetic is just very, very strange; while one might not find it appealing, it’s certainly unique. You’d be hard-pressed to mistake it for any other game.

A Well-constructed, If Unoriginal Soundtrack

With one of the main characters, Rai, being in the music industry, one would think the game would lend itself to a custom soundtrack. It seems, unfortunately, that this is not the case. That being said, the music that was cultivated and compiled to create the game’s soundtrack feels like it was made for it. This is in part due to clever multimedia-savvy writing, but also a strong sense of mood. All the parts, even those unoriginal to the product, come together to create something seamless in its delivery.

What is love in the digital age? Who is really on the other side of the screen? Who are we on this side of it? A frighteningly modern romance with an unexpected fairytale spin, the head well lost endeavors to ask these questions without ever expecting an answer in return and promises a heart-wrenching continuation of the story.

The demo is currently available on itch.io with an anticipated fall 2020 release for the full game.