A Date in the Park is out to surprise you, whether it is through its digitalized 1990s visuals and animated sprites, the brazen stride forward it takes to leave you in the dark when it comes to translating Portuguese, or its twisted, tragic tale of love at first sight. I finished it the other night feeling…perturbed. Shaken. And a little more cautious of empty parks in the middle of the afternoon.
You play as Lou, who looks like he should be either the lead singer of an early 2000s emo punk rock band or a recently homeless man living under a beach boardwalk given his adoration for flip-flops. Lou recently moved to Lisbon, in Portugal, to take up a new job and start life anew, though A Date in the Park never really goes into specifics there; it doesn’t matter. Lou is a catalyst, a way forward, a love-sick boy with fantasies of picnics and skinny-dipping in his head. The night prior, Lou meets Catarina, an enchanting woman to say the least, at a bar, and the two of them hit it off great in the way that many first encounters do, where you eager say “me too” when something you enjoy as well is brought up and the hours simply drift by in a fascinating lull. She told him to meet her the next day at Tapada das Necessidades, her favorite park.
I’ve never been to a foreign country by myself. In high school, I had the chance to go to France with my French class, but I chickened out for reasons I won’t go into here. I have to imagine that it can be scary, to know no one, to be up against a language barrier when trying to meet someone. And so, when you do make a connection, like Lou with Catarina, you have to pursue it, wholeheartedly. This means that despite Catarina not appearing at the park when they agreed upon, Lou will do whatever he can to see her again, even if it involves chasing after floating balloons and solving mechanical puzzles.
A Date in the Park, in terms of a point-and-click adventure game, is fairly straightforward. You have an inventory accessible via the top of the screen, you can click to walk around, you can click to either interact with an item or look at it for a description, and you can right click on the corners of the screen to instantly exit to the next screen. Alas, there’s not very many people in the park to interact with, meaning no dialogue trees or experimentation with items on people. The person you do interact with early on, a gardener, speaks no English, leaving everything one-sided. The puzzles are limited and fairly easy to deduce, save for the one where you need to get the water pump working for the statue pools; I got through it guessing, and I also have to imagine some players might have trouble not realizing that many screens scroll, meaning there might be an exit to a new screen off to the right or left, but it’s only visible if you move over enough. Some of the back-tracking proves annoying, but not too much.
This is a surreal piece of horror, no doubt about it, and things quickly escalate once Lou discovers the wounded duckling. I have some big problems with the plot in terms of believability, but then again, it’s just a game, and I can look past a lot of things, but given how real of a setting it takes place in, as well as realistic sprites playing the roles…I wanted something real. Part of me would have been totally okay with a straightforward date in the park, with hand holding and skipping and looking at the historical sights. The tension builds to a horrific horror–think Se7en–and it drives last few minutes of the game with a palpable panic. I was certainly caught off guard, maybe even more than Lou; like him, I was here for a stroll in the park. We got that and then some.
All in all, A Date in the Park took me about an hour to get through, but again, I got stuck for a bit on that water pump puzzle. Others might move through it faster. You can grab the game for free right over here, but only after you finish feeding the squirrels and sitting quietly on a bench to take in nature’s beauty for at least five minutes. Oh, and after you get through A Date in the Park with your heart intact, check out Mudlarks, another free adventure title from the same developer Cloak and Dagger Games. I plan to soon enough.