Headliner: NoviNews (Switch) Review
Multiple storylines and likable characters keep replays fun and interesting.
You can get a pet drone and it is cute.
The writing is sometimes screamingly unsubtle.
The game’s ideas and goals aren’t clear on a first playthrough.
Watching the news is stressful enough that the thought of playing a game about controlling the news might not sound instantly appealing. In Headliner: NoviNews, you play as a new employee of a news channel in the fictional nation of Novistan, tasked with choosing what a national news outlet will or won’t publish. This isn’t instantly engaging, but as it becomes obvious that your choices have effects ranging from the interpersonal to the international, this sometimes flawed game can get very addictive.
When I completed my first playthrough of Headliner, I hated it. I thought it was deliberately soul crushing, with politics so slippery that it made the whole game feel smug and insincere. The gameplay in this consists, on a first playthrough, of choosing which stories a news network will or won’t run. This task involves choosing which side you’ll take on a number of current political issues, such as health care, immigration, and policing. After choosing the day’s stories, the character then goes home and talks to people on the way, choosing how to respond in conversations. Players are forced to take political sides, both professionally and interpersonally. However, no ideological slant could prevent one character or another from facing irreparable harm, and despite my best efforts, the majority of the game’s characters, including my poor, starving dog, were left in ruins. I didn’t think it was a bad game, really, but instead, an infuriating troll of one.
I’m not certain that my earlier evaluation of Headliner’s flaws was wrong. The writing lacks subtlety, with real world political parallels impossible to ignore, the themes regarding bias and human nature all but shouted in players’ faces, and characters flat out saying which slants news stories will make their lives better or worse. It’s also maybe a little too gleeful about spotlighting how helping one character will doom another, with every member of the cast being just likable enough to turn half the late game conversations into guilt trips.
At some point in my second playthrough, though, I really started enjoying it. A lot of the choices, though they doom one character while saving another, are binary enough that it’s easy to figure out how to help people. Seeing some of the characters succeed made the rest of the game feel less oppressive, which made focusing on the subplots and minor characters more fun. Some of the weirder narrative choices make it clear that, while politics are still the game’s unsubtle window dressing, there’s more of a personal twist to things than might be obvious upon a first playthrough.
Plus, upon replaying the game, which takes an hour or two at a time, new storylines are added, while making different choices have an extremely noticeable effect on the story and interactions. This stops futile quests to steer the named characters of Novistan towards new fates from getting too tedious. By the end of my last playthrough, more characters than not got half decent endings, and I’ll definitely return to see how many other uncomfortably won good endings I can rack up.
The graphics in Headliner are fine, but unremarkable. Most of the graphics are done in blocky, untextured 3D, which isn’t terrible. It’s always easy to tell what’s going on, and they’re not ugly by any means. They also don’t act against the game’s dark, paranoid atmosphere. The music, dark colors, and NPCs vomiting in the street go too far to make that atmosphere easy to break. Their low res style is jarring against the sharp and stylish character portraits, though, which convey characters’ personalities and emotions quickly and effectively.
Headliner: NoviNews is an interesting game that isn’t for everyone. I enjoyed fiddling with characters’ lives time after time, and will probably return to find more endings sooner rather than later. However, it’s a text driven adventure game about controlling the mass media that requires countless replays. If that doesn’t sound interesting to you, the slow start, blunt writing, and often frustrating endings will probably be more than the annoyance that they were to me. If it does, though, and you’re impatient enough to play multiple times, Headliner is worth a try.
By: Allison Bates