When tragedy strikes, we crave the ability to go back and change things. We grieve and yearn for a real-life rewind button that gives us a do-over. We often assume that future events are delicately determined based on every little decision that we make. Of course, in reality, events don’t work like that–there’s probably no one flashpoint that could be prevented to stop something from happening in the future. Last Day of June deals with the frustration, anger, grief, and hope that comes from this belief that changing one little thing could reverse a tragedy perhaps save a person from death.
In Last Day of June, Carl and June, deeply and happily in love, have taken a day to go on an outing to one of their favorite places. They spend the day relaxing and simply enjoying each others company. A thunderstorm cuts the day short, however, and on the way back home, the couple experiences a horrific tragedy. Suffering a car accident, June is killed and Carl is paralyzed from the waist down.
You take control of Carl years after the event, alone and still bearing the injuries of that day. Carl is presented with the opportunity to relive over and over the short time before June’s death, from the perspectives of every other character who lives in their small community. You can change the outcomes of each character’s story, slowly modifying the events of that day in a desperate attempt to somehow save June.
Throughout the story, Carl’s grief is palpable. Although the story unfolds with no real dialogue or words, the game’s beautiful art style and animations effectively convey his emotions–you’re drawn into the desperation that Carl feels, and the faint hope that the portals to the past give him. This is true of all the characters; the love, loss, fear, and joy of all of them are made real. At first, it’s confusing to follow the language of the characters, which is composed of nothing but indecipherable grunts and muttering. But after growing accustomed to it, verbal intonation and subtle body language sufficiently communicate the shape of conversations and the color of the characters’ emotions, if not specific content.
This is made possible through Last Day of June’s gorgeous art style. The entire world is rendered as if was a watercolor painting, with soft pastels, blended colors, and visible brushstrokes. Character models are Tim Burton-esque, with unnatural proportions and few defined features. But they fit the painterly environments, moving and interacting as if in a storybook. It’s Last Day of June’s best quality, and the story wouldn’t have nearly the emotional impact without it. The likely narrative wouldn’t even make sense without it, as the storybook quality provides the encouragement you need to fill in gaps (especially with the characters’ communication) with your own imagination.
It’s disappointing, then, that the core gameplay reliving these moments again and again to try to change them–results in frustration. In Last Day of June, you do nothing but move around and complete quicktime events, which isn’t inherently a problem if it’s done effectively and paced well. But Last Day of June is based on performing repetitive actions–move down the road, press X, move, press X, complete the day, see what unfolds–while also watching the exact same scenes. Last Day of June’s formula sounds interesting and engrossing in theory. In practice, it presents you with moments that feel little different than being forced to watch an unskippable cutscene.
This is particularly damaging in a game that relies so strongly on its emotional impact. The first time June died was heartbreaking. The eighth, ninth, and tenth times were just annoying. It’s potentially a fatal flaw, because replaying the past is the entire conceit of the game. If it can’t hold your concentration, or if you’re desensitized to a critical event, then the resolution won’t have any impact. There is something novel about simply inhabiting Last Day of June’s world and trying to figure out what you need to do to change a character’s outcome, but scenes are repeated too often for the positive moments to overcome the annoyance.
Further, the puzzle elements of the game–trying to figure out how to change the course of events–are themselves affected because, to succeed, you actually have to go back and redo characters’ arcs that you’ve already completed previously. In a way, it’s similar to the Tower of Hanoi: you can see exactly what you need to do to get a desired outcome, but the mechanics of the game force you to play through scenes multiple times to get the right combination of outcomes that you’ve already witnessed.
The game’s final moments are robbed of some of their potential because of just how many times you sit through the same events. Last Day of June does compress events to a certain extent, accelerating you to a point where you take control of the character at an important choice. But it never abridges the cutscenes enough, especially when it comes time to “end the day” and see how your choices had affected things. The day’s conclusion changes slightly as you progress, but it would’ve been vastly improved had the game returned to its gameplay sooner.
Moreover, the Groundhog Day-esque nature of Last Day of June is even more frustrating because of loading times that are long enough to break immersion in the narrative. When each day concludes, you must load back into the game. Any time you jump into another character’s perspective, you’ll have to stare at a loading screen for about 30 seconds. It’s worse on a PS4 than a PS4 Pro, but either way it’s an issue. Traveling through a portal is far less exciting when you have to look at a white screen for several seconds.
It’s a testament to the game’s writing that many story moments still shine in spite of the frustrating mechanics and loading times. The small community of characters feels alive with a deep familial history and personal flourishes that made these characters believable. For example, you may empathize with the young boy who has no other child to play with and resorts to begging adults for companionship, and feel the weight of June’s best friend’s struggle with her own secret infatuation with Carl. The vignettes of the side characters give the game’s story richness and flavor; you end up knowing them much better than you know Carl and June. Although that may also limit how invested you are in Carl and June’s romance at any given moment, you appreciate the gravity and importance of the unintentional role each of these characters played in June’s demise.
Last Day of June’s brevity is its saving grace, buoying up a story that isn’t done any favors by its gameplay loop. There is undoubtedly potential in a game that allows you to alter past events to reshape the present, and Last Day of June shows glimmers of promise; however, it also ruins the emotional impact of its most important event by forcing you to repeat it so many times. It’s a big problem when players grow irritated with the story arc of the character that the game is named after. But this repetitiveness is mitigated in part because of touching, relatable side characters and because Last Day of June explores the philosophical struggle between determinism and free will in a way that’s fairly rare in video games. Last Day of June succeeds when it doesn’t focus specifically on the love story of Carl and June, but rather on their entire community and the way they confront mortality and fate.