After the fateful plane crash that kicks off The Fidelio Incident, the panicked wife of our protagonist begs him to find the pages of a diary lost after impact, exclaiming, “They can’t find out who we are!” That statement ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy for a game that, outside of first-person exploration, seems confused about what it really wants to be.
In part, The Fidelio Incident is a loose, modern interpretation of the Beethoven opera referenced in its title: a heroic tale of a faithful wife disguising herself as a man to rescue her falsely imprisoned husband. It’s certainly a narrative we don’t see terribly often in games, but alas, the only strong ties back to the opera here are the names of our main characters–Leonore and Stanley (Florestan in the opera)–and one particular bit of backstory found halfway through the game.
But there’s an even more unique narrative about the Northern Ireland Conflict afoot, using Stanley and Leonore’s burgeoning relationship in the mid-1980s as an access point to explore what 30 years of ugly, small-scale warfare can do to a country and its populace. This aspect at least gets a bit more room to breathe in The Fidelio Incident, delivered as part of Leonore’s scattered diary and Stanley’s own hallucinatory flashbacks, but this, too, ends up a secondary concern.
Ultimately, all of this is really the window dressing for a graphically impressive but mechanically undercooked journey where Stanley seeks to rescue Leonore after their prop plane crashes and burns in a freezing, desolate area of Iceland. Leonore ends up trapped under the smoldering ruins on a mountaintop. Meanwhile, Stanley is stranded at the mountain’s base and has to take the long way up, braving deadly sub-zero temperatures and looking for life-saving heat sources.
This ends up being the crux of the game: Stanley moving up the mountain, on foot, while trying to stay warm. It’s a “struggle” that turns out to be conveniently easy; the plane crash has strewn fiery debris across the entire area, steam geysers are rampant, and a seemingly abandoned scientific research facility still has enough working mechanisms to let Stanley turn up the heat with the twist of a valve.
The turning of valves ends up being the core gameplay mechanic, supporting the rudimentary puzzles that dominate The Fidelio Incident’s brief playtime. For example, turning a newfound valve will create a new heat source, which will lead you to the next checkpoint. Lacking in real challenge, the valve-based puzzles are an unimaginative substitute for any number of other survival tactics that could’ve been employed–although, ironically, every attempt made to momentarily shake things up also falls flat. One of the game’s scant attempts to introduce variety to the formula is a puzzle involving a hailstorm that’s unrealistically localized to a small area of the mountain, an odd choice that forcefully breaks your immersion in the otherwise natural and believable setting.
The fact that much of the game’s story is delivered via diary pages–pages that so conveniently happened to fall unscathed next to scattered pieces of burning debris–feels similarly contrived, but the tale told within those diary pages tends to be when the game springs to life. Leonore’s rapturous Irish lilt tells a tale of young love and attraction that, thanks to political and familial strife and one major, playable shocker of a criminal act, turns elegiac and regretful leading up to the present day. The Stanley and Leonore stranded on the mountain are middle-aged adults at the stage of their relationship where they’re together because they don’t know how to be with anyone else.
Their identities are further reinforced by strong vocal performances from Glenn Keogh and Bess Harrison. Stanley states the obvious with the fierce, all-encompassing realization of what he stands to lose if he can’t locate his wife. And Leonore, hot-blooded and larger than life in the pages of the diary, is now tiny and frightened coming over Stanley’s radio. The activities you engage in may be lacking, but the motivation to get through them is strong thanks to the sheer force of emotion.
Still, The Fidelio Incident being nice to look at and listen to doesn’t necessarily make it interesting to play. The haunting, frozen vistas and enthralling backstory constantly trip over uninspired gameplay. Though there’s a measure of forgiveness to be had considering the length of the experience, even that concession is fragile in light of the obvious disparity that exists in the quality of the narrative and the gameplay that’s forced upon it.