Review – Return to Grace

Grace: The Final Frontier

Overview

Developer Creative Bytes Studios
Publisher Creative Bytes Studios
Genre Walking Simulator, Adventure
Platforms PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X (reviewed), PS4|5
Release Date May 30, 2023

If you’re anything like me, you’re feeling a little battered by all the talk of artificial intelligence lately. From whether AI art counts as real art to the threat of indistinguishable deepfakes, it’s no stretch to say that AI is controversial. But this isn’t a new conversation. Humans have been speculating on AI for years, arguably going back to the late 19th century. A markedly more recent take on the subject is Creative Bytes Studios’ Return to Grace, a post-utopian game about AI, religion, the ultimate destiny of humanity, and the everlasting truth that your sports team will, in fact, never win the championship.

Content Guide

Foul Language/Crude Humor: One usage of s***. God’s name is misused once. Pal eagerly anticipates Adie coming across a dead body, but she never finds one. 

Violent Content: Adie takes a few falls and spills but is never seriously hurt. 

*SPOILER*

It’s revealed that Adie’s family perished in a shuttle crash. Adie learns that, once Grace shut down, the pilgrims launched a siege on Keeper Everett that eventually turned into a riot. It’s unclear if anyone was harmed or killed in the riot.

*SPOILER END*

Sexual Content: A recording implies that the pilgrim was in a homosexual relationship. Upon examining a large bed, Adie wonders aloud if Keepers ever had partners.

Spiritual Content: *SPOILERS*

The entire game is heavily themed around religion. Grace became a sort of deity to humanity, and it is revealed that humans made pilgrimages to the Spire to give their wishes to Grace so that she could learn more about humanity. Control has a god complex and sees his word as the only truth. He applies the first of the Ten Commandments to himself, commanding Adie that “you shall have no others before me.” This is never portrayed in a positive light.

*SPOILER END*

Positive Elements: While the game critically examines humanity’s tendency to create religions, it never ridicules or belittles religion. In fact, Empathy consistently reminds Adie (and us) that humans have needs that religion can help fill. The game asks a lot of questions of its audience and never talks down to them.

Review

Return to Grace opens with our protagonist, Adie Ito, as she lands on Ganymede. She and her AI companion Allen are on a mission to discover the fate of Grace, a long-lost AI “god” that shut down over 900 years ago. They’ve tracked Grace across the solar system and have finally arrived here. Over the course of the game, Adie finds the Spire, a structure that housed Grace and the various humans who came to visit her over the centuries. Within the Spire, Adie finds various fractured elements of Grace’s consciousness, each with their quirks and personalities, and together, they work to discover the truth behind Grace’s mysterious disappearance.

Return to Grace describes itself as a “first-person narrative adventure,” but I think a better term is “walking simulator.” And that’s not a dig. It’s a slower-paced, narrative-driven adventure with little in terms of gameplay but a lot of fun writing and an intriguing, if a little cliché, plot. 

Most of your time in Return to Grace will be spent walking around the Spire as the various AI constructs help Adie reach Grace’s central processing units. You’ll find some simple puzzles throughout the game, but they’re never even remotely challenging, considering the AIs simply give you the solutions. In fact, there’s an option for some of the constructs to just solve the puzzles for you if you don’t want to bother with them. This is an excellent accessibility feature for those who want to get on with the story, but it does cheapen the experience a little.

The real highlight here is the writing and voice acting. The voice direction is excellent, and each character feels fleshed out and unique, with distinct personalities and voices. Their interactions are genuinely entertaining. A special shoutout goes to Pal, the eager, childlike AI construct that just can’t wait to see if any dead bodies are waiting for Adie as she goes along, as well as the Grace pilgrim who comes to Ganymede to wish for his team to beat their rival. I got genuinely attached to these characters, even over my short playtime, and I was a little sad to say goodbye at the end.

I said the plot was a little cliché, and that’s true only because it’s about a god-like AI. That’s not exactly anything new. But Return to Grace wisely focuses more on humanity’s response to the AI rather than the AI itself. Having Grace’s various personality constructs as your guides makes the entire experience a strange blend of charming and unsettling. You’re constantly wondering if you’re walking into the loving arms of a mother or the gaping maw of a beast. The game also touches on some pretty heavy themes but never does it in a way that feels patronizing or heavyhanded. Return to Grace is perfectly content to let you piece things together as you explore, and if you’d rather rush through, it won’t stop you. You’ll just miss a lot of the details on the way.

An absolutely gorgeous art direction backs up the entire experience. The Spire might be one of my favorite fictional environments I’ve ever explored, with a Neo-Egyptian style that hits the perfect blend of beautiful and creepy. The colors pop, making it fun to explore the environments to find the hidden bits of lore.

However, my biggest complaint with the game is its central mechanic: your walking speed is too slow. It takes ages to get anywhere, and there’s no way to run. This turns exploring environments into a game of holding forward long enough for Adie to finally reach where you need her to go. I think the slow speed made room for the plentiful dialogue, but that doesn’t make it any less monotonous, and it took me out of the experience multiple times.

But if my only complaint is the slow walking speed, that’s not so bad, right? Well…it’s not so bad until you realize that the game expects you to play through it multiple times to see the various endings. See, throughout Adie’s journey, she’ll have to make some decisions. Some of these are minor, but some of them change the entire trajectory of the story. She’ll choose which constructs she trusts and which ones she doesn’t. Depending on your choices, you’ll get a variety of endings. On the surface, this adds a ton of replay value, especially for such a short experience. But the slow walking speed, the lack of an option to skip dialogue, and the fact that you must start each playthrough from the beginning all combine to make repeats obnoxiously monotonous.

I did two playthroughs, one taking my time exploring and another rushing through. That second play took me about an hour and a half, but most was spent waiting on dialogue I’d already heard. I understand the choice not to let you start wherever you want, as the options stack up to impact the ending. I also appreciate being unable to skip dialogue you’ve never heard before. But if you want me to experience more endings, give me the option to skip the stuff I’ve seen before or at least walk faster.

Conclusion

Return to Grace has a lot going for it: an intriguing plot, solid writing, and gorgeous art direction. But its insistence on repeat playthroughs without any options to make those repeats less monotonous takes the luster off what would otherwise be a stellar experience. In addition, if you’re a hardcore science fiction fan, you might be a bit bored by the story offerings.

If you’re more patient than I am or are a sucker for games with multiple endings, then I think Return to Grace is worth a playthrough. Even if you just go through it once, but take the time to explore everywhere and discover all the bits of lore hidden throughout, I think it’s a worthwhile investment. But just keep in mind that if you really want to see everything the game has to offer, you’re in for an endurance test, and I don’t think the game provides the player enough to justify that kind of pilgrimage.

The Bottom Line

 

Return to Grace offers a unique and engaging experience, with stellar voice acting and art direction, but repeat playthroughs are a chore due to the game's sluggish pacing.

 

7.0

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Wesley Lantz

Wesley's first memory of video games is playing through Super Mario World with his mom when he was 3 years old. Since then, he's been a classic Nintendo kid, but has branched out to the far lands of PlayStation in recent years. He enjoys the worlds that video games create and share with their audiences, and the way video games bring together collaborators from so many different disciplines like music, visual art, literature, and even philosophy. He is an advocate for excellency in all things, but isn't immune to a few guilty pleasure games, which may or may not include Disney's Party for the GameCube.

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