I've spent far more time than I'd like to admit on my journal in Season. It's a digital journaler's paradise, allowing you to arrange photos, soundbites, and little stickers on each double-page spread in a way that's aesthetically pleasing to document your journey through the game. After all, for the majority of this adventure, it is just you - an effortlessly stylish Black woman riding a bike to the end of the world as we know it.
Release date: January 31, 2023
Platfom(s): PS5, PS4, PC
Developer/Publisher: Scavengers Studio
Season is effectively a road trip game; apart from your roads are quiet country paths that snake through stunning vistas and decaying urban landscapes, and your trip is as much about time as it is about distance. As you journey out from your hometown into the unknown, you're armed with your bike, along with a camera and an audio recorder that you'll use to document what you see and learn. Riding the bike is always a joy, with you having to use L2 and R2 to pedal when you first set off or try to go up a hill, and then being able to enjoy the freefall when you've reached your stride. Taking photographs is easy and filled with the retro charm of using a polaroid-esque camera. The snap of the shutter and whirr of the photo emerging just becomes part of the game's glorious soundscape.
If you're anything like me, you'll end up with an archive of far too many polaroids as you snap away at flowers, unusual architecture, or a tree that's catching the light in just the right way. It helps, of course, that Season is beautiful. It's stylized, with an almost hand-drawn charm that makes you want to capture everything you see that's interesting or beautiful - and there's a lot of that here. It also makes you appreciate the little snatches of audio you find. A goat's bray cuts through the otherwise eaceful countryside scene, some windchimes play a particularly melodious tune, a monkey surprises you in a shrine… suddenly you're leaning in to capture any sound in case it's helpful to building out your documentation.
A stroll down memory lane
It's worth noting that taking these photos and capturing these soundbites are also crucial to progressing Season's story. While you can interact with various objects and items, it's usually the act of taking the photo or recording that allows you to add it to your journal. Initially, your journal pages are just for documenting what you've seen, but then some of the pages are about answering a question, for which you'll have to find specific elements to complete the page. That's particularly true when you reach Tieng Valley, which makes up the majority of the game's second half. The first few hours are pretty linear, and more about exploring and understanding the mechanics, but then the game opens up to a kind of hub area where the central mystery unfolds.
It's here that I truly realized that Season is not quite the game I thought it would be. What's presented as this tranquil, peaceful (some might say cozy) adventure that's free from peril is actually a game with darker and more sinister narrative undertones. It deals with memory, grief, war, and loss at various levels, partly by speaking with the few who are left in the valley. The narrative isn't always clear, and sometimes gets lost in the what rather than the why. Although I will say, as someone who's dealing with a family member with early Alzheimer's, some dialogue did hit home particularly hard.
I also wish there was a touch more to a quest log or a better option for notetaking, especially as the game really doesn't tell you anything about what it expects from you. For the most part, that's fine, but there are moments where blindly cycling around the valley could have been tampered by better notetaking - particularly when some of the cues are a little more obtuse.
Unfortunately, my experience with Season has been plagued by a number of (what I hope to be) pre-release bugs. I've had to undergo a few complete restarts to make maps load correctly, or to force the photos I've plastered across my journal to not show the same image. Some elements the developer assures me should be interactable are also just plain not working, so what should have been a 6-12 hour experience has taken me far upwards of that as I struggle to solve the core mystery with the game serving me technical curveballs.
That hasn't stopped me from finding Season quite the memorable experience, mostly for its peaceful and idyllic exploration and unexpected darkness. Although it doesn't always live up to its narrative, there's something quite special about how its narrative and adventure unfolds. Season is a calming, pensive adventure that's as beautiful as it is quaint.
Reviewed on PS5 with a code provided by the publisher.