STAFF REVIEW of Grotto (Xbox One)

Friday, June 14, 2024.
by Adam Dileva

Grotto Box art Grotto: A cave, artificial or natural, used by humans from prehistoric to modern times. The game titles also shares where your experience will take place in this narrative adventure.

Have you ever been asked for advice? I’d like to say I’ve got a sound mind for some helpful advice when asked, but what if the advice you gave made the person do something unintended, or they took your words a completely different way than expected? What if the only advice you could offer was between two very poor choices? Do you ever find that you overthink your words when replying to someone? Grotto is about interpretation, so if you’re someone that over-analyzes or over-thinks their responses, you’re going to have your work cut out for you.

A game where you’re playing as a prophet of sorts, a Soothsayer, using the stars and constellations to find hidden meanings and messages. Grotto at its core is somewhat like a visual novel, as there’s not much in terms of ‘gameplay’ aside from choosing a constellation and having dialogue with those seeking your advice and guidance. Your advice has a lot of weight, as your words are like gospel to those that seek meaning and advice, so beware, as there may be unexpected consequences in what others interpret your words as.

You play as the unnamed Soothsayer, residing in a grotto where those seeking answers come to for guidance. Those that come are from primitive tribes, and your ability to read the stars will give them purpose and answers, though what you say versus what they understand may be drastically different things. Your options of responses are based on which constellations you ‘see’ and how you interpret their meaning. Your guidance will not only affect the person your conversing with, but possibly the tribe as a whole.

While you never see yourself, the world is populated with anthropomorphic creatures that can walk upright and speak. This primitive tribe seeking answers has you turning to the stars for answers as they come to your grotto each evening. As you awake from your slumber each night, you don’t have many possessions, only a special stone to stand on to gaze the stars and a small bonfire where locals will come for your advice. How you interpret the stars could vastly differ from how they understand its meaning as well, not always lining up or playing out exactly as you expected. Do you look at each constellation and overthink what each could possibly mean or symbolize, or let your mind freely flow and go with your feelings instead? There’s no right or wrong per se, but different meanings can have drastically different outcomes, from prosperity to possibly even death.

Grotto is the epitome of a slow burn. Events unfold over the 5 hours or so campaign, seeing the outcomes of the advice you’ve given. Each night you’ll have a visitor, you’ll talk to them, then choose which star constellation will act as an answer to their question. You never actually leave your grotto, which is an odd feeling when you start to understand their hardships and plights, even more so when an outcome sounds horrible, only able to imagine what’s happening outside from their tales. While you think you’re helping, sometimes the next day or later the person you gave advice to returns only to tell you something tragic happened, due to how they interpreted your words.

Actually, the majority of the time, the outcomes were nothing that I expected, usually resulting in one of two awful results. A perfect example of choosing a lesser evil is when a parent comes for advice of what to do with their child, either being ritually killed or sold into slavery. Heavy stuff when you legitimately think you’re helping by rationalizing your own reasoning. Be prepared, as there’s some heavy content that should probably have a trigger warning, with themes of abuse, death, torture, and other dark topics. That’s not to say that it’s not done tastefully, but it was certainly unexpected.

As for the gameplay elements, Grotto is set in a 3D world, your small grotto where you can move around and explore, but it’s really just a small room. The characters you interact with nightly are 2D cutouts, and it’s generally always so dark that there’s not really much to see aside from the dimly lit campfire making the cave lightly glow. The character design is well done, and even if you’re not a fan of the anthropomorphic character choices, seeing the different races did make it appear to be set much further in the past.

When someone arrives in your grotto for advice, you’ll listen to their question or plight, then making way to your standing stone where you can gaze upon a small hole in the cave ceiling to see the distant stars. This is where the majority of Grotto’s ‘gameplay’ comes in, connecting stars in the sky to figure out different constellations. This will allow you to ‘read’ the stars and use it as an answer to your visitor(s). How you’re supposed to know what stars need connecting to create and unlock each of the constellations is beyond me. There’s nothing that explains this, so I just started to randomly connect different dots/stars, eventually unlocking a handful of constellations I could then use as answers. Without a guide I’m unsure how you’re supposed to figure out which star connections make each.

Once you’ve unlocked your constellations, great! Well, now the issue is that you can’t simply give the same answer to everyone each time, as after a few uses, it’s no longer a valid option. This meant that sometimes I’d be giving an answer I didn’t necessarily think was the best, but was one of my only options. Turns out you can again connect the stars in the sky, but this wasn’t explained at all either. Thankfully the constellations on your large wall in the grotto show what stars need connecting to ‘get’ it again once unlocked. There are a few moments later where you’ll do something slightly different, like reading bones or going to another plane after smoking something to meet spirits. The vast majority of your time though is waking up, talking to a visitor, choosing which constellation is the answer/advice you want to give them, sleep, then repeat as you see the outcome.

Going through my second playthrough, I expected that given how many different answers you could give to each visitor, the storyline would branch wildly different each time. While I did get some slightly different results, it does seem as though the narrative eventually funnels towards the same direction near its end regardless of your decisions. There is more than one ending, but given how grim most of the results are, it feels almost futile at times to try and ‘save’ everyone, as what I thought was good intentions at times resulting in a drastically different outcome than expected.

While simplistic, I did enjoy the aesthetics for the anthropomorphic characters, they all had their own personalities and designs, yet looked as though they did belong to the same primitive tribe. I’ve always been a fan of the 2D in a 3D world since Paper Mario and Parappa The Rapper, and while a very dark and gloomy design normally wouldn’t appeal to me, it makes sense when the entirety takes place within your grotto during the dead of night. At the same time, there’s really not all that much to look at being confined to a single room. The soundtrack is fitting for its atmosphere, catchy at times even, though could have benefitted from a few more tracks. While there is a little bit of spoken dialogue, it too creates an uneasy atmosphere and tone.

Gameplay is simplistic and rarely changes, and while it is repetitive, it’s more akin to a visual novel. I did make the mistake of playing quite late one night, falling asleep with my controller in hand due to the mellow soundtrack, having the character waiting for my answer for about an hour. That’s not to say Grotto is boring, as it has an interesting premise, but you’re going to need to be in the mood for a narrative heavy adventure with a side order of stargazing and ambiguity.

I’ll be honest, when the credits first rolled I put down the controller and my initial reaction was quite apathetic. I didn’t hate Grotto, but I didn’t really enjoy it either, as I don’t normally gravitate towards visual novel-like games. That said, as I let my thoughts simmer for a day, and especially while writing this review, it just somewhat ‘clicked’ with me, and the more I reflected, the more I realized Grotto was actually quite memorable and how I appreciated what it was going for. I kept thinking of the questions I was asked and how my interpretation of my answer vastly differed from the person seeking the advice. It made me wonder if something similar has happened in real life with advice I’ve given, as there’s usually not always a ‘right’ answer to many questions. While some won’t enjoy the lack of ‘gameplay’, Grotto is a unique experience that makes you think of how you interpret situations and what you would do in times of desperation.

**Grotto was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 7.0 / 10
Gameplay: 7.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 7.0 / 10


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