With each decision in Erica, player feel closer to unraveling a mystery, all the while knowing a single playthrough will only just crack the surface.
Gathering a few friends on the couch to watch a movie has evolved over the years. There were the days where someone had to own the movie (likely on VHS), followed by the hallowed days of Blockbuster. Now, practically every movie is available in some form online, be it streaming or download. But the ways we watch movies aren't the only things that have changed; it's also the ways we interact with them. Erica may not be the first interactive live-action fiction game, but it's a shining example of where the medium is heading.
Netflix's Bandersnatch is the most easy comparison to make when playing Erica. While the former is formatted like a film and the latter a game, they share a certain logic and level of interactivity. Other games with a heavy story focus, like the Quantic Dream and Telltale catalogs and the recent Mad of Medan, are certainly predecessors to Erica's easy-to-pick-up gameplay and dialogue-branching narratives. But what sets this PS4 exclusive apart is the way it embraces its movie-influenced roots.
Erica tells the story of a young woman plagued by visions, who becomes entangled in a dark conspiracy involving her deceased mother. There's the mysterious hospital known as the Delphi Club, strange symbols, and deadly hallucinogenic perfume. The game has all the workings of a spooky cult thriller. The haunting score from Austin Wintory (Journey) perfectly cements Erica in its genre, as do the rich visuals.
Shot almost entirely in live-action (with some CGI in more interactive-heavy close-ups), Erica truly straddles the line between film and game. From a perspective of length and price, it makes a hard right towards movie categorization. At around 2 hours per playthrough, the game is best played in one afternoon or evening, ideally with a group of friends to argue about dialogue options. And the $9.99 price tag is perfect for those to indecisive to choose a movie to rent. Why watch a movie when you could be in control of the main character in one?
Well... Erica sort of answers that question. Throughout a single playthrough, the player(s) will make about a hundred or so odd choices (estimated), leading to plenty of different endings and hidden scenes. It's a fascinating premise, and one that for the most part, works. The performances and arresting cinematography help to color a confusing script. There's too many ideas left uncovered, and paths left unexplored after one play; the game wants you to hop into the action again and try to make different decisions. It's what makes Erica different from a film; a film must stand alone after one viewing, a game can feel incomplete... but that doesn't mean it's satisfying.
The primary gameplay in Erica is making decisions for the eponymous character, whether that be through dialogue or actions. Players can decide to answer a phone or go down a hallway after a disturbing vision, they can choose to be aggressive or docile, etc. Other interactions include using the PS4 gamepad (the only part of the controller one will use throughout the game) or a mobile device (using the companion Erica app via PlayLink) to slide open curtains, brush fog off a window, or maneuver open a dresser drawer.
It's light and generally feels smooth to use, though sometimes it is difficult to tell the interaction a player should input before the choice timer runs out. Other times a press might be too fast or too slow to successfully turn a knob. After a few clunky minutes, players will likely get used to the necessary movements, just as the story starts getting more involved and interesting.
Erica, like many of the games in its aforementioned category, is difficult to judge. Should it be thought of as an interactive film or a short-fiction game? Looking at it as a film, the story is hit or miss; a times intriguing and disturbing, other times too game-ified to feel immersive. There's clunky dialogue and strange, stilted delivery among stronger performances. As a game, interaction is limited and options can seem a bit to hand-holding. But as a game and movie hybrid, as neither one nor the other, Erica somehow works.
Perhaps it's because of the novelty, assisted by strong production values. With each decision, the player feels closer to unraveling a mystery, all the while knowing a single playthrough will only just crack the surface. The days of streaming services may be in full swing, but in a niche corner of the popcorn-entertainment and chill night-in, leave a space for interactive stories. Because if Erica is any indication, they'll be here to stay, and that's not such a bad thing.
Erica is out now on PS4 for $9.99 USD, $13.49 CAD. The companion mobile app is free to download on iOS and Android/Google devices. Screen Rant was provided with a digital copy for the purpose of this review.