Sunday, May 19, 2024

Goodbye Volcano High review — An essential teen story that hasn’t gone extinct

Due to its fairly troubled development, I wasn’t really sure what to expect going into KO_OP’s Goodbye Volcano High.

After contending with rescoping the game’s story, delays thanks to a global pandemic, and a targeted alt-right harassment campaign, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume this game would be a mess. But I’m happy to say that these changes and delays actually seem to have come together cohesively into an experience that, while does have a few rough edges, is ultimately an engaging and well-written story about growing up and trying to make the most of what you’ve got.

Goodbye Volcano High screenshot of Worm Drama band. From left to right: Reed on drums, Fang on guitar and vocals, Trish on guitar
Image Source: KO_OP

Goodbye Volcano High casts us as Fang, an anthropomorphic flying dinosaur who is entering their final year of high school. Unfortunately, just as the school year starts, the residents of Caldera get news that an asteroid is heading for the planet. This causes a communal sense of urgency (along with random power outages) which lead many of the cast to change or make moves towards achieving their ultimate goals before the end. Change is good, but it also creates tension between everyone as their time ticks away.

For their part, Fang is serious about pursuing a career in music with their band Worm Drama (made up of Fang and their two best friends, Trish and Reed). After multiple rejections to even audition for the local music festival, they’ve written a song they think could get them in, but as school gets going, it becomes apparent that their bandmates aren’t quite on the same page when it comes to time for the band.

Practicing and performing with Worm Drama is where the main traditional game mechanic comes into play in Goodbye Volcano High. Each time Fang and co. play a song, you enter a rhythm game section where you have to hit directional and button inputs at the correct time to keep Fang from messing up. It’s not a super challenging system, the only thing I really struggled with was feeling a little overwhelmed visually when multiple button and directional inputs came up on the screen at once. These sections were harder for me to follow, and were usually where most of my mistakes happened.

Goodbye Volcano High screenshot of Reed eating pizza while sitting next to Fang
Image Source: KO_OP

Beyond these mini-games, Goodbye Volcano High is purely a visual novel that you can click through at your own pace. It is also fully voice-acted, and while I usually don’t really care one way or another about voice acting in VNs, it adds a lot to the characterization in GBVH. Hearing the different intonations these actors provide really emphasizes the relationships between characters, and how they interact with each other. Since we get to make some choices regarding these conversations and other interactions, hearing those vocal differentiations depending on your choice makes the story feel more alive.

Another aspect that adds a lot of dimension to this game is its tabletop roleplaying game sessions. These sections feel very similar to the ones in Life is Strange: Before the Storm in a really good way. We get to see different parts of the cast’s personalities during these interludes, and they also serve as platforms to work through some of their interpersonal issues in a less confrontational way. These sections also serve as a really clever way to put Fang, who is largely too cool for school, into situations that are outside of their comfort zone. Fang has never tried a TTRPG before, even though their whole friend group has started playing thanks to DM, Reed. This discomfort is ultimately good for Fang though, since they get to see their friends in a new light.

Screenshot of two of the characters from Goodbye Volcano High playing a TTRPG together
Image Source: KO_OP

This group of teens is forced to grow up extremely quickly thanks to the looming threat of a global catastrophe, so every opportunity they get to develop emotionally is an important one. Goodbye Volcano High effectively captures that feeling of impending doom, and the claustrophobia that many young people experience when facing their future post-high school. It’s a precarious balance, and at times some of the conversations these kids have feel more mature than they should, but the looming apocalypse does a lot to make that maturity feel earned. I honestly can’t imagine playing this game as someone who was a senior in high school during the United States’ COVID-19 quarantine period; it seems like it would be a cathartic, but also somewhat devastating experience.

There’s only one section of Goodbye Volcano High’s narrative that I felt didn’t get as much attention as it needed. During the first blackout that hails the incoming asteroid, Fang receives an anonymous text message from someone confessing their romantic feelings to them. The two decide to keep talking, and we get interludes of their text conversations throughout the game.

Obviously, this person eventually reveals themselves to Fang, but with everything else going on in the story they don’t have the bandwidth to talk about it in the moment. This does make sense within the context of the story, but after that, this plotline is pushed to the side. We don’t get to have another conversation with the secret admirer until almost the end of the game, and it doesn’t have the same depth or intensity that many of the other important, emotional talks in this game do. The shallowness here does a disservice to this portion of the story, which makes up a decent part of the journey, especially since Fang’s reaction to the revelation leaves a lot to be discussed.

Screenshot of Fang's brother Naser (left) and Fang (right) looking up at the night sky
Image Source: KO_OP

That said, I still walked away from Goodbye Volcano High largely satisfied with my experience. This is a well-written, visually interesting visual novel that contends well with multiple themes surrounding growing up, deciding who you want to be, and facing your own mortality. It’s the queer, indie teen movie many of us wanted before the advent of films like Booksmart and Bottoms, but we’re put into the driver’s seat alongside Fang for a slightly more serious, somber experience.

GBVH may not be as silly as the aforementioned films, but that doesn’t mean it’s humorless. This is a well-balanced story that weighs its apocalypse against the little human (or dinosaur) pleasures to be found in the world, and that includes jokes and laughter.

Score: 4/5

A copy of Goodbye Volcano High for PC was provided to Gayming Magazine by KO_OP.

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