Teenagers often have a – mostly unfair – reputation for making their problems seem like it's the end of the world. Well, in Goodbye Volcano High, a coming-of-age tale about a group of teen dinosaurs during their last year of high school, it turns out the world really is ending. Sure, an asteroid is speeding towards the planet, but developer KO_OP manages to find the calm in the calamity. High school teen drama collides with the warm synth-pop beats of a rhythm game (think We Are OFK meets Life is Strange) in a story about being young and queer, and being confronted with an uncertain future in the face of an impending disaster.
Release date: August 29, 2023
Platforms(s): PC, PS5, PS4
For high school senior and non-binary dinosaur Fang, they can't wait to get out of the doldrums of school and finally live their life. As lead singer and guitarist in their band Worm Drama, the dream is to win the upcoming Battle of the Bands and hit the road on a tour trying to make it big. Their fellow classmates are thinking of their futures too, but instead of scribbling potential band logos in math class and organizing band practice during free periods, they're thinking of college applications and potential career plans. The asteroid collision is just a rumor at this point, but as the threat looms closer, the gang not only have to grapple with what they want to do about their futures but if those plans will ever actually happen.
More than a feeling
Events play out over a couple of in-game months as Fang hangs out with their friends and prepares for Battle of the Bands. With the gang's future now sealed forever in a single upcoming event, the biggest decisions you'll be making involve choosing Fang's dialogue options. Interestingly, these dialogue bubbles can display certain characteristics giving you more insight into the response. A dialogue option might pulsate like a heartbeat letting you subtly know that Fang is chatting to someone they're catching feelings for, or squiggles will cloud options that Fang is insecure about. Others require you to press multiple buttons simultaneously, letting you actually feel the struggle that Fang feels saying those words. It's a brilliant insight into how Fang is feeling without actually having to say it explicitly. It's a fantastic way of communicating a character's emotions beyond simply speaking them, and one entirely unique to Goodbye Volcano High.
Choosing different dialogue options and deciding how you speak to your friends influences their placement in Fang's circle (accessed via the menu), a visual representation of how close Fang is to certain characters. Your choices also shape Fang's character and affect the story too – but I can't say I saw much difference when I did switch up my decisions. On a second playthrough, I played Fang as more abrasive and cold, and the difference was minimal. The story hit the same beats, characters followed the same train of actions, and said the same dialogue if ever so slightly differently to fit with what chat bubbles I picked.
The only major difference, as far as I can tell, is that you miss out on a handful of secret scenes that you would have otherwise unlocked if you had been more personable with certain characters. There's also an end-game sequence that changes depending on who you're closest with, but it's a ten-minute segment out of a six-hour game. Having your dialogue choices underpin the entire experience, not just to unlock secret content or for a single gut punch at the end, is a missed opportunity, especially considering the incredible dialogue system KO_OP has built.
Together with its smart dialogue system are Goodbye Volcano High's music mini-games, the game's second brilliant system. As a song unfolds, you're tasked with keeping track of several mini-games simultaneously happening on screen, each one requiring different button inputs and joystick directional movements all while being in time with dreamy synth-pop beats. You need to split your attention in several different directions but it's never too much to feel overwhelming, and makes for a more exciting and satisfying rhythm game than just hitting A in time with the beat.
And the music, it's the kind of shoegazey pop that you can daydream to as you stare out the window in the back of your parent's car. It's the perfect accompaniment to Goodbye Volcano High's visuals, a bubblegum palette of pastels. Every scene is fully animated too, and together with the voice acting (the teenagers actually sound like teenagers, could you imagine?), it feels like a playable cartoon. The production is brilliant, and it just makes every scene a treat to play. I genuinely liked hanging out with the dino squad – discussing song names in band practice, playing D&D together in a parent's garage, or chatting about the amount of mucus a slug produces (apparently it's a lot).
It's apparent KO_OP has been incredibly sincere in recreating the lives of these teenagers, and that includes thoughtful representations of queer relationships and identities. A lot of care has been given to the experiences of these teens that it's almost a queer fantasy – one that'll make the hearts of many ache because it's a reality they never had. But there's also conflict, mostly on the part of Fang's parents who don't understand their identity.
These moments include deadnaming a character, which doesn't feel ignorant on the part of KO_OP but more like the team is trying to make a point of the unfortunate reality many queer folk face. These moments highlight the rifts that can open between teens and their parents, but it feels a little out of place in a game that's, for the majority, queer-positive. It might have been more tactful for KO_OP to use its dialogue characteristics here, like a squiggle to erase the words but to signify they're being used, for example.
Faux pas aside, there's still a lot to love here, but Goodbye Volcano High's biggest achievement is how deeply it makes you care about its cast. Part of the challenge when creating teen dramas is making you actually give a shit about the troubles of teenagers, but Goodbye Volcano High does an excellent job of doing that. There are some high school drama staples at play, but Goodbye Volcano High manages to avoid the biggest tropes of the genre. There are no jocks or nerds, no segregated lunch tables, no dizzying encounters with drugs and alcohol. Heck, there's barely any actual teen angst.
The result is a high school story that feels more sincere in its approach to teen drama. The problems of these characters are more earnest and truthful because there's no frivolous excess. This group of dinosaurs are facing problems that are universal. Just as they figure their lives out, a giant event threatens to cut those plans short. There's an incredible sense of loss for what could have been, for who they could have been. A future is lost, and the main drama in Goodbye Volcano High is how these teens deal with that loss. It's so absorbing that you almost forget that you're cheering on a pterodactyl in a tank top and Doc Martens.
There's no melodrama here, but actual tragedy. Goodbye Volcano High isn't really about the giant rock hurtling towards the planet, but how dark times can lead to human connection and self-actualisation. Its earnest story is compelling, its dialogue system acts as a new gateway into wordless communication, and its dreamy pop ballads will set your heart on fire. Sure, there are some hiccups, but Goodbye Volcano High's message – to be strong in the face of uncertainty – overshadows them all. A bold, heartfelt sentiment from KO_OP.
Goodbye Volcano High was reviewed on PC, with code provided by the publisher.