Where the Water Tastes Like Wine review – I hear America singing

Credit: Dim Bulb Games
Credit: Dim Bulb Games /

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is both celebration and lamentation of manifest destiny, though technical stumbles made it difficult to stay immersed.

Title: Where the Water Tastes Like Wine
Developer: Dim Bulb Games, Serenity Forge
Publisher: Good Shepherd Entertainment
Platform: PC
Release Date: February 28, 2018

The opening is a familiar story all on its own. A shady house, a poker game with shadowy figures, and a wager you know will go poorly: all markers of a great American tale. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine brings a diverse company of writers together to tell the stories of the people who built the United States post-World War I, but with flickers of ghost story thrown in, as our written history loves to do. Alone, these stories have no trouble captivating their audience, but the struggle and slog to progress the tales might prove too much for some.

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine does away with the conventions of video game storytelling in favor of a short story-style approach apropos to the game’s theme. As you travel, you’ll come across people and events that you add to your collection of stories, all sorted under one of your handy tarot cards. You’ll be asked to present these stories at campfires to travelers you meet. Tell them the stories they want to hear, and they’ll reveal their own, lengthier backgrounds, personalities, and feelings about the changing landscape of the country and their role in it. Your newfound power to “see the true shapes” of people marks the culmination of each person’s story and is your ultimate goal to please your boss, Dire Wolf.

where the water tastes like wine
Credit: Dim Bulb Games /

At first, I found the storytelling process frustrating, but by the end, I felt it fitting. Though your stories are sorted by tarot, the cards indicate what your campfire companion will talk to you about in response, and do not designate what they might want to hear. They want hopeful stories, or funny ones, or scary ones, and there’s no indication of which is which. Instead, the player must share some of the load of being an actual storyteller and remember the circumstances under which each story took place in order to tell the right ones. If you typically mash through text in games, this is not a game for you.

Furthermore, you can only carry three stories for each card at a time, but you’ll get far more. Stories will “grow” as you tell them, and you’ll often travel across the country to find a story you told hours ago has become even wilder, and you’ll pick up those details to tell next time. But you’ll find that many of your companions prefer certain types of stories, and you’re liable to run out quickly unless you shuffle your bag around or experiment with ones you’re not sure about. This sets you up for temporary failure at times (there’s nothing you can permanently miss if you mess up), especially early when you have few stories, but the feeling mirrors that of an actual storyteller testing out new tales or falling back on reliable, familiar ones when the audience is dozing off.

where the water tastes like wine
Credit: Dim Bulb Games /

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a fabulous game if you can focus only on the writing, themes, and mood.

All this would mean nothing if the writing wasn’t extraordinary, but Where the Water Tastes Like Wine easily earns that descriptor. It invokes the great short story traditions of early and mid- American literature and frequently references them, which is an extra delight if you’re familiar with figures such as the Headless Horseman or Paul Bunyan. But beyond that, the almost poetic dialogue of those you meet at campfires paints a beautiful, tragic portrait of the people who built recent US history, but were often overlooked for it. Wit, magic, faith, and determination drive these moments home and left me with a greater understanding of and appreciation for certain aspects of history I didn’t learn much about in school. It was a nice and thematically-appropriate touch, too, to credit each individual writer with the story they were responsible for. And it’s all supplemented with haunting, intricate artwork of that provides the final twist in each character’s story: beautiful, often startling revelations of each person’s “true shape.”

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a fabulous game if you can focus only on the writing, themes, and mood. But if you’re not already a fan of visual novels or exploration-based games, this title will not win you over because the messy technical presentation will turn you away before the stories get a chance to do their best work.

where the water tastes like wine
Credit: Dim Bulb Games /

To begin with, the framerate on the overworld you travel around on in 3D is atrocious. I know, it’s a huge map to render and there’s often a lot going on, but the stuttering was so bad frequently that it bled over into dialogue loading or made my skeleton figure freeze for several seconds while the game tried to figure out what to do with me. The long walks from place to place already tread a fine line between tedious and setting a fitting pace, but when the smooth, steady plod of my character turned into a jittery jump, all ambiance was broken.

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You can speed up these slow treks in two ways: unreliable hitchhiking that may just drop you off a few feet from where you started (when it actually works) or catching a train. Money is one of three resources you can collect and spend to keep yourself alive, along with health and rest. It can be used to purchase a train ticket to fast travel between major cities, but if you don’t have money, you can also jump a train and risk a beating if you’re caught. Getting beat up depletes your health, and if it’s low enough to begin with, you’ll die.

None of this seemed to work properly in my playthrough. I would often die after jumping a train despite seeing the event saying I made it safely, or I’d get beat up at full health and die one time and not another. At one point, a weird confluence of these bugs completely broke San Francisco. Don’t jump trains, kids.

where the water tastes like wine
Credit: Dim Bulb Games /

Finally, I want to talk about the music. First, it’s fabulous. Second, I’m tired of Vagrant Song. Though a few other songs played on the overworld in addition to Vagrant Song, this particular tune has multiple versions for different regions of the US. I have heard it on the east coast and the west. I have heard instrumental renditions and a version in Spanish. My skeleton has whistled it. I have it memorized. And I am very, very tired of this otherwise very good song. I don’t know if there aren’t enough other songs on the soundtrack to vary things up a bit, or if the play frequency for Vagrant Song has just been turned up to 11, but I’m so sad that I don’t want to hear this excellent tune again for, like, a month.

There are many pieces to Where the Water Taste Like Wine on which your mileage may vary, bugs aside. I think those with a thirst for storytelling or an interest in the aesthetic will embrace the game despite its technical flaws, but even with a good patch or two, there will still be those who find its slow pace and occasionally obtuse gameplay (features I think support the game’s narrative rather than detract from it) grating. At launch, it definitely needs some technical help to draw an audience beyond those already fully dedicated to the game’s promise.

Still, the outstanding stories at the end of those long roads and broken train rides are worth hearing, and I truly hope they make their way into the world so they can grow in the telling.

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6.5. I want, very badly, to praise this game up and down for doing the main things it sets out to do incredibly well. The writing is exquisite and reflects the joyful diversity of both writers and characters, blending the lines of history and fable to great effect. But the technical framework supporting the discovery of these tales is shaky, with some mechanics simply frustrating and others downright broken. Keep a very, very close eye on this game to pick up after a patch.. Dim Bulb Games, Serenity Forge. . Where the Water Tastes Like Wine

A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.