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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

REVIEW: Harold Halibut is a grand artistic achievement and a humbly quiet adventure

Never before in my time covering games have I been so consistently awed by the artistic scale of a production. I've also never before been so shocked at how such a grand artistic achievement was used on something so realistically mundane, so dry, so naturalistic. And again, never have I had those spells of confusion so broken by moments of heart-stopping beauty.

Harold Halibut is a fascinating beast of a game, and I cannot wait for more people to witness what this tactile stop-motion adventure game has in store.

An in-game screenshot of Harold Halibut. Two men sit in a yellow postal booth, looking down at a letter. One of them is the postman, an older man with white hair and a vest full of various packages and letters. The other is Harold, with his gaunt eyes, a tan button-up shirt, and white overalls. Behind them, shelves are lined with packages.

​Just the Facts

Developer: Slow Bros

Publisher: Slow Bros

Platform(s): PC*, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series S and X *denotes platform reviewed on

Price: $34.99

Release Date: April 16, 2024

Review key provided by developer via popagenda.

Harold Halibut's "happy" humdrum life

Back in 2012, a small group of 13 artists in Cologne, Germany, got together and shared love stories about stop-motion animation and old-school adventure games. Soon after that, they found themselves filling their houses with tiny dollhouses and tiny clay people to fill those dollhouses. What this all spiraled into eventually was a decade-long journey to make the game we find ourselves awed by today: Harold Halibut.

We've all heard about hand-drawn adventures. We've all seen long development cycles. But what Slow Bros has in Harold Halibut's 10 years of hand-crafted development feels like something brand new. There's lots to talk about with a game of this artistic scale, so let's start with Harold's story.

Harold Halibut is a handyman: a maintenance worker and lab assistant. He's a lonely, purpose-seeking, earnestly mundane hero on a journey he never asked for. He works and lives on the Fedora I, an ark-like generation ship that has traveled for the last 250 years in search of a new home for humanity after this ship and its people left Earth sometime in the 1970s after the Cold War sent them running. Then, 200 years ago or so, the ship finally delivered these refugees to their prospective home... only to find it unsuitable for human life. Before they could adjust to that, a solar wind blew through and sent the ship tumbling into the ocean of a planet below.

We catch up with Harold and his fellow ship-dwellers after they have somehow survived for the past 50 years in this ocean that serves as home to all aboard the Fedora I.

Harold has never known life outside of this ocean-wrecked ship, and most of the folks around him just barely know what life was like in space before that. This is all the life they've ever known. There are shops, schools, bars, an arcade, various seafood adjacent restaurants, and more aboard the ship that keep these folks in relative comfort. Corporations have even made a comeback in the post-crash era, with the bureaucratic and red tape-heavy company All Water popping up and establishing themselves as the de facto government aboard the ship.

For much of the game's first half, you witness the slow, surprisingly mundane, and quiet day-to-day life of the Fedora and its inhabitants. The game opens with Harold being brought in by a security officer because of transportation fines, of all things. Most of the action to start is Harold running to and fro doing chores for his boss — the Fedora's foremost scientist, Jeanne Mareaux — and simply keeping up with the people in his community. It's Harold bonding with Buddy, the affable postman who jogs through the ship's corridors with Chris, a robe-wearing teacher with flowing locks. It's Harold listening to the marital issues of local shopkeeper Tommy. It's him stumbling his way into helping the likes of Cyrus, the closest competition Mareaux has in smarts on the ship, and Brigitte, Tommy's wife and, most importantly, the overseer of energy production on the ship.

Conversations unfold with an awkward, natural delivery that you'd expect from a batch of folks who've been around each other (and only each other) underwater for 50 years. And the conversations they have are so dry and technical at times that it's hard to imagine where the story's going.

But then you see Harold, in his moments alone, whispering about a version of his life that he wishes he had. You hear him refer to himself as Agent Haroldson, tasked with missions of grander scale than the mundane laboring he's got. You watch as he sings to himself in the filter he's tasked with cleaning on a daily basis, crooning out lyrics about striving for something more in this life. It's a deeply human story about aspiring for more than you've been given and seeking connection where you otherwise struggle to get it.

And, as if on cue, he gets it after all, when a fateful encounter with an alien being changes everything — for Harold, the Fedora, this being, and the planet they all share. What ensues is a 12-18 hour story about what it means to feel different than the people around you, a story about struggling to find purpose in a world that tells you what your purpose is.

An in-game screenshot of Harold Halibut. Harold, a man in bland clothing with short brown hair, is standing at a cupcake stand in what looks to be some sort of marketplace. Around him are a variety of stores: a bar, a winter sports store, and some kind of restaurant on a higher level. Giant windows show the ocean they're submerged in just outside.

A low-key beautiful adventure

Narratively, it's hard to pin Harold Halibut down. It's like... if Wes Anderson directed a strange European mish-mash of Sealab 2021 and Bioshock... but took out most of the complicated drama and crass humor, and instead injected it with genuine slice-of-life glimpses and a humor so understated you sometimes fail to recognize it.

Its moments of complete commonplaceness actually serve as showcases of the incredible world Slow Bros has built, as you fully integrate into this underwater society and the oddities it holds. The hours of listening in on dry conversations only make the moments of surprising beauty hit harder, creating a payoff that helps you develop a stronger bond with this quirky world and its characters.

One ongoing sequence in particular that highlights this is the letter-reading you can do with postman Buddy. The two of you pore over letters that have, for one reason or another, been left undelivered for years. As you read them, you get these intimate glimpses into moments of the lives of people whose time on the Fedora has long passed. They're brought to life with excellent bits of voice acting and accompanied by subtle piano and the low hum of the ocean surrounding you. The actual content of these letters wasn't always grand, but sharing the moment of reading them with Buddy felt personal and cultivated a bond with this character that I never could have seen coming.

I spend a lot of time talking about these moments because... it's kind of the whole game. While Harold's narrative adventure has roots in the point-and-click genre, you take full control of his movement about the ship, running around and hopping into conversations, and occasionally tackling a fun little minigame for brief interactions related to Harold's work, like helping fix a 3D printer or assisting with the assessment of samples for the ship's energy production potential. But mostly it's talking and fetch-questing.

It's so realistically mundane that you'll often go out with some goal in mind — an object to grab or a person to ask for help — only to get there and be rejected. The thing's not there. The person doesn't want to help. And Harold's just got to go back and say sorry. It's a narrative that pushes back against you all the time, but still in that understated way, as none of it has the kinds of stakes you might be used to in games.

I won't say the game always compelled me — often, the dry sequences in between the moments of beauty took me out of the experience — but it always awed me.

Every day you spend on the Fedora comes with some change in the environment around you. Folks are going through their routines just as much as Harold is. And while it isn't quite Shenmue levels of social sim, there is a Shenmue-like quality to how the ship, its people and your relationships evolve as the game goes on; to how you learn the ship's layout like the back of your hand and look forward to peeking in rooms to see who might be waiting for you.

The experience of playing this game may certainly not be for everyone, but fans of narrative-first adventures that border on being interactive films should certainly sign up. Puzzles aren't really a thing here and the minigames are brief distractions more than anything. There aren't even really any major choices to be made. Dialogue choices aren't timed, outside of one that I'm certain would happen the same way no matter what. And the only pieces of content you can miss out on are little events in the world if you choose not to explore.

But that all gives way to the most important aspect of Harold Halibut that elevates it to another stratosphere: its tangible physicality makes it feel more real than even the most photorealistic games out there.

An in-game screenshot of Harold Halibut. It depicts a conversation between Harold and the character known as Cyrus. Cyrus is facing the camera and he wears a tan hat that reads "No. 1 Dad", a tan unbuttoned vest, and a green sweater with a yellow smiley face stitched into it. He looks to be explaining something, with a scientific chart on an easel behind him.

Handcrafted art that commands attention

This game left me in awe, often because I sat there wondering how exactly they pulled it off — how miniature sets were built, clay was formed, tiny textiles were stitched, and then all of it tossed into a video game engine with the power of photogrammetry. I'd bask in moments where realistic lighting reflects off of Harold's clay-formed hair, emphasizing the detail in his clothes and the paint strokes of his face, and I'd think about how the rooms Harold meandered into were real spaces, constructed and designed in someone's workshop. These realizations are frequent as you play Harold Halibut, and they give players a feeling of physical comprehension of every space in the game that many games lack.

The game's retro-futuristic design aesthetic adds to its strange familiarity, capturing the vibes of the '70s and beyond, with all its bubbly athleisure and neon signs. A brilliant use of color communicates Harold's blandness, with his off-white clothing, especially when juxtaposed with the bright rainbow colors of the alien landscapes he eventually explores.

Despite the stop-motion aesthetic, Slow Bros decided to bring their puppets to life using motion capture, giving these detailed stop motion figures deeply human animations.

These decisions all make for an experience that was oddly more immersive than anything else I'd played this year. I felt like I could feel the human touch on literally every prop, every character, every set. In some cases, I was almost certain I could see their literal fingerprints on the scene. Tied to the oddly realistic approach to storytelling, these wholly crafted beings became little humans on my computer monitor.

I felt like I could feel the human touch on literally every prop, every character, every set.

Toss in the reserved and natural performances of its actors, and you see how bits of clay can turn into fully realized characters. There's the soft-spoken awkwardness of Andrew Nolen's Harold; the pitch-perfect brainy-toned scientific ramblings of Pat Garrett's Jeanne Mareaux and Edwyn Tiong's similar, but slightly more dorky and bristly, Cyrus Soleil; all wrapped up with the beautiful pairing of the "ooh" "aah" alien language from Ilja Burzev and the warm translated robot voice from Sally Beaumont that bring Harold's alien pal to life. The cast is incredibly talented all around.

Every aspect of the experience is built to be as natural, as human as possible. Awkwardness and all. And some people may not want that in their games. Not unlike an indie arthouse film whose artistic achievements are obvious but whose moment-to-moment experiences are so out of the box, Harold Halibut suffers simply for being so different. I won't say the game always compelled me — often, the dry sequences in between the moments of beauty took me out of the experience — but it always awed me.

An in-game screenshot of Harold Halibut. Harold is a young man with short brown hair, he wears a tan shirt and white overalls. He is looking off screen at something in an alien landscape he's in. Behind him, unfocused, you can see the colorful evidence of the alien cave he's inside of. Just to his right, a small green orb attached to a rope can be seen.

Harold Halibut is an artistic achievement that I've not quite experienced in gaming before. Every game is handcrafted in some way, but Harold Halibut takes that concept and cranks it up to 11. And while its world and story are made up of inorganic materials, Harold Halibut's clay, wood, and paint communicated humanity even more than some games that aim to directly replicate it through photorealism or otherwise. With its occasional dryness and true depictions of life's ordinariness, it steps a little too far in that direction at times. But, if anything, the fact that it isn't perfect makes it even more human.

Video Games Are Good and Harold Halibut is . . . GREAT. (8/10)

+ an unprecedented showcase of handcrafted art, a wholly original sci-fi adventure, a deeply human experience

- can be dry and understated to a fault (definitely more than gamers may be used to), no real engaging mechanics, your mileage may vary on the impact of its best moments

The key art for Harold Halibut. A collage of scenes from the game can be seen. In the center, Harold Halibut himself with short brain hair and a bland button up tee stands with his hand pressed up against a glass window. On the other side, in green water, a fish-like alien reaches back. From left to right, you see a man in a cap and glasses drawing scientific documents, formal looking folks stare pensively, another older woman scientist holds up a glowing screen in front of her face, a young man with a headlamp looks back intensely. On the right side, a woman sits at a desk, her face illuminated by a screen. Two younger folks in stylish clothes are mid-conversation. A ship of some sort can be seen moving forward and a man with red hair watches from an office.

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1 Comment

Apr 30

I'm very excited for this game. I just want to experience the world for myself!!

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