The end of high school can feel like the end of the world for many of us. I’m an aging millennial now, but I remember feeling that way too. The future is so big and uncertain and nothing is guaranteed, and navigating the relationships in our life along with our sense of identity and what it means to leave a part of your life behind is famously overwhelming. Goodbye Volcano High, the cinematic visual novel that we’ve been waiting for since way back in our own apocalypse of 2020, explores what it would be like for teens to try and navigate those overwhelming feelings when faced with the real end of the world. Also, they’re dinosaurs.
Fang, the protagonist of this emotional tale, believes their life is just about to begin. They are the vocalist of their band, Worm Drama, who have plans to go out on the road after school is over to pursue their dreams of making it big. They’ve just spent the summer apart from their best friends and bandmates, drummer Trish – who was away at bug camp – and Reed, who has spent time focusing on the in-game version of Dungeons & Dragons (Legends & Lore) – and now it’s time to get serious. They’re in a period of reinventing themselves as a punk rock hottie, and it’s working for them, even if their parents aren’t exactly supportive. The future is bright.
Until it isn’t.
Electronics start playing up, and news begins to travel that an asteroid (or a meteor, it’s a hotly debated topic) has a high chance of hitting their home of Pangea in a frighteningly short amount of time. The end is likely to be near – and Fang and their friends have to decide how they’re going to spend their last days together. If those last days actually eventuate, anyway. It’s an oftentimes bittersweet but consistently powerful tale of identity and expression, and is just as much about the small moments as those that can be literally earth-shattering.
The mechanics are simple, but some of the most effective that I’ve ever seen in a visual novel. Dialogue choices can sometimes change in real time to give you insight into how Fang feels about saying them, or might black out entirely upon choosing them when they are avoiding a topic, or are choosing to mask their real feelings or opinions. It’s one of the coolest systems I’ve ever seen, and really tapped into what makes games special as a medium – that interactivity and feedback when crafting a story adds an extra layer to its impact. Ultimately it doesn’t feel like much can be changed when it comes to the overarching story, which will disappoint some people, but having control over the smaller moments and the relationships you choose to invest time into was more than enough for me.
Relationships are at the core of this game, and the dynamics will resonate most strongly with members of the queer community. The cast is diverse, and the game manages to inject moments of how their various identities provide them with extra and unique bits of joy and sorrow in their life, occasionally in equal measure. Characters have conversations about real trauma that impacts so many people and how they navigate it – mostly to do with the reactions of their family to their identity and self-expression – and it never feels forced, or like their trauma is just being brought up for impact. This is just how a group of queer friends interact with each other, and shows the special kind of support you can feel from members of your community. Even in the sad moments it made me feel warm.
There are small rhythm mechanics woven into various parts of the game that showcase the incredible soundtrack, and which pull you into Fang’s world by involving you in the thing most important to them – their music. You’re sometimes presented with choices around lines of lyrics, and it’s satisfying to hear them play out in the song – though it can be hard to focus on the words and hitting the notes at the same time, especially when there are usually also quite busy animated sequences playing in the background. It was a nice way to break up the traditional visual novel mechanics and give you a little more to do, and I’m a big fan of the way they handled it – especially given you’re often rewarded for doing particularly well, but not punished for getting it a little wrong.
I can see why the development of this game took the time that it did. It’s wonderfully animated (who knew I could be so invested in watching an animated pterodactyl sing?) and incredibly polished, and every part of it comes together to take you on an emotional rollercoaster. It’s certainly a unique story, if one that can be a little dark and cause you to reflect on some uncomfortable truths about life – but I’m glad the team at KO_OP have chosen to tell it. I’m also glad that they’ve chosen to release it now that we’re a few years separated from the beginning of the pandemic, when I think it would have hit a little too close to home for many. Now it just shows an awareness of how humanity reacts in a situation like that, and… it hurts less. Sort of. But it still hurts. It hurts in a good, powerful way that only the best stories can – the kind of story that makes you forget about any small technical hitches (of which there are a couple, but nothing that gets in the way of the gameplay). It’s an amazing example of what the genre can be, and one I’m going to remember fondly. Now BRB – I’m off to immediately stream the soundtrack.
Goodbye Volcano High was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a code kindly provided by the publisher.