Cibele, the latest game by Nina Freeman and Starmaid Games is, to put things gently, a hot mess. I went in wanting to be moved and impressed by this game and while it managed to be profoundly moving in a few moments, the rest of the experience was so drudging and unpolished that I simply cannot overlook its mistakes.

Cibele is a work of game-autobiography by Nina Freeman. The game follows Nina and her romantic paramour, Blake, as they fumble through the difficulties of a burgeoning online relationship.

Gameplay is split between three modes of presentations, segments where the player picks through Nina’s desktop looking at the digital trappings of her burgeoning romance; segments where you play through dungeons in the fictional MMO, Valtameri; and live action cutscenes at the end of each chapter.

In spite of them being a relatively short portion of the game, Cibele truly shines during the desktop segments. Having chat logs, school assignments, and pictures from Nina’s life in front of you combines an element of discovery with a visceral and slightly uncomfortable feeling of voyeurism. This short, half minute piece did a better job of showing how Nina felt for Blake than any of the words they exchanged throughout the rest of the game.

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The second portion of the game puts you in control of Nina’s online avatar, Cibele, as you go through the actions of an MMO while listening to Nina and Blake talk about life, love, and sex, but predominantly how they are both definitely in love with each other. Though it is certainly possible to criticise these segments for being repetitive, boring, and not really a game due to its grinding nature, I feel that this is an excellent example of storyline and gameplay integration. For Nina, playing Valtameri must have felt more like the background to her interactions with Blake than anything else; making the ‘gameplay’ secondary to listening to Blake and Nina interact is an admirable attempt to use gameplay to work the player into the same headspace Nina would have experienced during the events detailed by the game.

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The main problem with the game is that while it relies on its central romance as the core experience, that romance is utterly uncompelling. There are several reasons for this narrative failure. The first reason; the game is vastly too short. The whole of the game feels like a rush to get to the various milestones of the characters’ relationship and it leaves no time for us to actually get to know or, god forbid, like the characters. The entirety of Nina and Blake’s interactions essentially boil down to both of them stating how much they like each other without any time being given to suggest that there might have actually been anything to their relationship beyond the kind of love that only develops out of nowhere in the most lazy of romance B-plots. Nina and Blake’s chemistry is an entirely informed trait, though I am hesitant to blame the script entirely. Cibele’s story is blighted by having some of the most bland and passionless chemistry ever to be put to game be delivered by some of its worst voice actors.

Apart from the art direction and soundtrack of the game, Cibele suffers from a pervasive amateurishness. Each of Cibele’s ‘acts’ is punctuated by live action footage of Nina looking at herself in the mirror, taking selfies, talking to Blake, or, as a grand finale, having extremely awkward, clothed sex with Blake. These live actions segments are positively tumorous additions to the experience. The shot composition of each of these scenes is loose, poorly lit, and unfocused, reminiscent of what a teenager with a cheap camera might be able to provide with less than an afternoon of work. These live action segments clash with the fairly immersive game and desktop segments of Cibele.

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By far the greatest shortcoming of Cibele is its terrible, awkward voice acting. At best, the voice acting in Cibele is reminiscent of student film; at worst, cringe humor videos. This may seem like a petty gripe, but when your game lives or dies based off of how it can emotionally affect the player, bad voice acting can be a killer. Though I admire the artistic integrity of having Nina Freeman play herself in the game, she is, to be frank, a bad voice actress. Her deliveries are stilted, her reactions are obviously forced, and every line she says fails to convey the passion that we are told drives her interactions with Blake. The voice actor for Nina’s paramour, Blake, doesn’t fare much better. If anything, his performance is so jaw-droppingly wooden that it elevates Nina’s by comparison. Every criticism I applied to Nina applies every bit as much to Blake and then some. While I admire the decision of designer and autobiography subject to voice herself in the game, I’m left thinking that the game would have been a better, more effective experience if they had actually used a professional voice actor.

While I try to avoid criticising a game for being too short or too expensive, the price point of this game is higher than either the length or quality of the experience warrants. If there is one thing you ought to take from any of the prior review, it is that Cibele is a flawed experience with few redeeming qualities, but I should also disclose that playing this game to completion two times took me less than two hours.

I went into Cibele ready to like it. I want to like games that try new things and discuss things games rarely touch on, but I’m not willing to like Cibele just for that. It does unusual things, but they are usually directly to the detriment of the experience. It talks about rarely discussed topics, but it does so witlessly and ham-handedly. It has beautiful artistic design, but, set against such a tired, poorly delivered narrative, the quality of the visuals only further highlights the failure of the story. As a product, it fails to justify its price and as an experience it is too deeply flawed for me to recommend to anybody who isn’t a die hard Nina Freeman fan. Even passing fans of Freeman will likely be disappointed by how bland the experience is compared to her usually bizarre and interesting works.
If you really want to give this game a try, it is available on PC.