Remember that marketing tagline when Pixar’s Brave was coming out? That Scottish-tinged, “If you had a chance to change your fate, would you?” bit. Now, what if you had a chance to change your fate…with a magic 45-vinyl? Across the Grooves from Nova-box tackles that exact question. While a wild premise on its own, Nova-box employs a tried-and-true technique of theirs to wrap players into a world familiar to us, but with far more working beneath the surface.
The story follows Alice, a woman living in modern-day France, who has found herself at a point of comfort in her life, but lacking the excitement she once reveled in. When a mysterious vinyl record appears from an ex-partner, she is sent on a trans-European journey to learn more about what her ex is doing, how to harness the vinyl’s strange, reality-altering power, and to discover what her definition of a good life could be.
Across the Grooves is primarily a choice-based visual novel; players progress through the story, making different action or dialogue choices that influence the journey of the main character, Alice. For anyone who’s played other Nova-box games before, the mechanic feels identical to how their previous games have played. I, personally, have made my way through Along the Edge and audibly snickered when a familiar four-trait “impact bar” was explained to me at the start of Across the Grooves. It deterred me for just a moment, until I remembered that I’d seen instances of “[this character] will remember that” from nine different Telltale/Skybound games and never tired of the samey mechanics. It works, and the spotlight is on the story. I don’t know if I’ve picked up a visual novel for its gameplay elements. Nova-box is good at employing this storytelling mechanic, and it compliments the ripple-effect gameplay/narratives of Across the Grooves wonderfully.
One of the game’s many surprises was during some of the musical sections (it’s a story about a magical vinyl, you knew there would be singing) was the lyrical reflection of my decisions. The songs were adapting to me, sung lyrics and all. The first time that happened, I felt myself leaning forward, more intent, more invested than I was moments before.
Despite taking place in the real world (fantastic elements aside), Across the Grooves holds a wealth of beautifully illustrated images to accompany the story, giving familiar settings an air of muted beauty. Some of those images are picture-perfect representations of a space, some are realistic with splashes of watercolor, and some images are composed of abstract shapes and colors to paint a picture of a space. I didn’t find a single background that was harsh on the eyes throughout a first playthrough. Character portraits stand out on their own while still conveying the right nuance and subtlety in conversation, illustrated with prominent lines and well-contrasted colors against muted backgrounds. In fact, so much of the visual aspect is wrapped up and emphasized with line and groove motifs, mirroring the topography and design of vinyl albums. It’s a small note, but a nice touch that lends an intentional air to all of the art being done. All of this to say that, aesthetically speaking, Across the Grooves is a delight for anyone looking for a break away from traditional visual novel art, and maybe something a bit more European.
Across the Grooves prides itself on a more immersive delivery format than traditional visual novels. Text bobs up all across the screen, not in a central dialogue box at the bottom of the screen, lending to a more immersive, more graphic novel-esque delivery than its counterparts. It helps to draw the player’s eyes all across the screen, giving them even more chance to take in the art throughout the story, or otherwise emphasize the character’s speaking, their mood, volume, all of which can somehow, implicitly, be conveyed by the text’s position on the screen.
In a story whose entire premise is rooted so deeply in music and vinyl, I was expecting the sound design to be top-notch. Luckily, I was not disappointed. Ambient noise of the various locales, the gentle scratch of vinyl underlying a huge chunk of diegetic music, everything came together to immerse me into this reality-adjacent world I got to occupy. The soundtrack was similarly fitting, but not so overpowering that it detracted from the conversations and story at-hand. The real, and unexpected, runaway for me were the lyrical sections, sung (for me) in English with French overtones; the singer almost breathless as they half-whispered the story to me and Alice, accompanied by a myriad of musical genres throughout. At first, I thought it unsettling, but the more I played, the more I was immersed in the world, the more the style, unorthodox to me though it was, started to fit into place.
While many popular visual novels will have players reading text for tens of hours, Across the Grooves is, by comparison, blessedly short. Players still experience a full narrative over its seven chapters, but can clock an single run-through at approximately three hours. Further, with as short as the experience is, the effects of decisions made are felt more immediately. The game’s length makes each decision weightier, like they have a genuine, noticeable impact in the story. Make no mistake, I love long-burn consequences playing out in games, but there’s something to be said for getting the full payoff in a shorter amount of time.
Perhaps it also feels timely amidst this madcap time we live in, or perhaps I’m just wistful, that Across the Grooves deals so heavily in the themes of regret and change. The snowball effect of both. The power of art, magical or not, in the eyes of the world and our own perspectives. It’s comforting to me to experience those things in stories, and it may have a similar impact for you.
Across the Grooves continues Nova-box’s streak of well-crafted, branching, and touching stories. Even though it treads a well-worn path to a familiar rhythm, the narrative, the art, the themes all contribute to a unique melody the likes of which the developers haven’t touched on yet. I’m excited to see what the developer’s next adventure is, but until then, I’ll happily move the needle back to the start of Across the Grooves.