For me, the biggest appeal of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine was in the concept of the “narrative adventure”. What I didn’t realize I was getting was a fantastic story-telling collectathon. After losing big at poker, you are tasked with wandering the United States collecting stories to pay your debt, and along the way, you’ll meet other wanderers like yourself and swap stories.
I kept an eye on it for awhile when it first released, and then it faded from my radar. When I spotted it on XBox Game Pass for PC, I knew I’d have to at least give it a shot to see how the concept panned out.
Let’s start with the things I thought were amazing. The voice acting in this game is top-notch. I am frequently guilty of pushing through dialogue as quickly as I can read it, but I found myself wanting to sit and listen to the stories rather than just reading them quickly. This is not a game you can play in the background – you are going to want to sit and take it all in. The music is also pretty fantastic, although with how slow you tend to mosey around the overland map, it does start to get a little repetitive when you spend too long in one portion of the country.
Then there’s the artwork in the stills. Simply stunning. So stunning in fact that when I started playing the game proper, I was a bit disappointed that wandering the countryside didn’t look better. It’s not bad, but it’s not up the quality I was expecting.
You should be aware that traversing the country is every bit as tedious as you might expect. You can whistle to walk a bit faster, but for me, it only served to distract slightly from the plodding pace. You can hop trains and hitchhike, but when you do so you lose control of how far you’re going to travel, making it easy to miss things along the way, and usually requiring you to backtrack significantly. I’m not sure how detrimental it is to miss stories along the way, but I had to walk back to revisit the major characters, so I picked up everything I could while I did so.
Also, the actual “game” mechanics feel poorly explained. Money can be obtained when you randomly search locations, or by panhandling or looking for work in major cities. This is important because travel will make you hungry and tired, and if you ignore either of those things for too long, they will kill you. In major cities, you have the opportunity to purchase items to refill your meters, or you may get lucky and find opportunities to rest or eat while looking for stories. If you get unlucky, and have no money, you may die. The first time it happened to me, I thought it was game over, but it’s not, so at least there’s that.
For me, the most frustrating part of the whole game is story swapping mechanic. The stories you pick up along the way are automatically sorted into categories and cannot be changed, and once you swap a story from a given category during a camping session, the other stories in that category are no longer available. There are plenty of categories, but you don’t know what types of stories your companions will request. Over the course of the night, you trade several stories, and I frequently struggled to match the requested type.
Stories may be scary, sad, hopeful, exciting, or funny. It sounds simple enough, but those categories have nothing to do with how the stories are sorted in the interface, and it’s not always easy to figure out which category a story fits into. I was really wishing that the game gave you some way to mark your stories once you discovered their category, but it looks like I’ll have to rely on trial and error and my memory.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine really does keep the focus on the stories, sometimes to its detriment as a game. You can expect to spend 15-20 hours to complete the game, which requires getting all four chapters from all 16 potential companions.
One last note for completionists: This game has an unobtainable achievement, so unless you’re willing to resort to a cheat, you will not be able to get 100% completion.