Last Day of June review: A thoughtful meditation on community and death
Here’s something crafted and beautiful. Ovosonico’s Last Day of June is a game about a handful of hours, played and replayed with the increasing desperation of impotence. “What would you do to save the one you love?” its strapline asks. By the end of its brief runtime, that question will have twisted itself into: what can you do to save the one you love?
Last Day of June is very much a narrative game, and so I will stick to vagueness so as not to ruin the emotional beats that pepper its three- to four-hour playtime. The story centres on Carl and June, a couple who live in a picturesque, nonspecific village inhabited by a handful of characters. Tragedy strikes, and the warm glow of the summer sun is replaced with a dark night of the soul.
Over the course of one night, Carl is visited by some kind of magical force that gifts him the ability to travel back to the fated day, but from the perspective of another inhabitant of the village. There is an old man, a young boy, a neighbour who is preparing to move away, and a wealthy landowner. In a nexus of cause and effect, the actions of each of these people have rippled around the village, leading to the accident Carl so desperately wants to prevent. Therein lies the puzzle at the heart of Last Day of June – how can this jigsaw be reassembled to change the events of the past?
Basing the game around a small cast of characters is a smart move from director Massimo Guarini. Not only is the puzzle made more manageable with a handful of pieces, but there’s also something wonderfully theatrical about the limited environment. The confines of the village become a piece of set design; an artificial limbo despite the realism of its roads, hedges and houses. There are also hints of heartbreak in each character’s life, and these smaller moments of reminiscence and loss permeate the idealised appearance of their homes. Like Playdead’s Inside and Starbreeze Studios’ Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, these narrative beats are best digested in a single playthrough.
Last Day of June’s story is communicated without words, with characters instead speaking in a gamut of sighs and grunts. The decision to unhinge the story from any specific language gives Jess Cope’s beautiful animations room to breathe, with an emphasis on small gestures and body language. The character design – all bulbous heads and eyeless sockets – manages to be both adorable and unsettling, and there is a comparable balance found between the lush brightness of the day and Carl’s nighttime solitude.
Where the game can become frustrating is in the unwieldy way each timeline needs to run its course before flipping into another character’s perspective. If, say, you’ve calculated that something needs to change in the boy’s day before a change can be made in the neighbour’s, you won’t be able to quickly switch back and forth. You’ll need to finish the neighbour’s day, then go through the boy’s, then back to the neighbour’s. The game generally does a good job of avoiding too much back and forth, but when it happens it can slow the pace.
The game also stumbles in its very final moment. The last act of Last Day of June brilliantly ramps up the emotional impact by subverting expectations about control and agency in video games. It works because there is an underlying uncertainty about whether the time-travel magic is real, or simply a manifestation of Carl’s grieving process, and because we have caught glimpses of loss throughout our time with other characters. The closing moment, however, scuppers much of this direction, opting for a resolution that veers on mawkish and goes some way to undermining the whole point of the game.
Despite some last-minute backpedalling, Last Day of June remains a mature, thoughtful meditation on community and death. The story of Carl and June serves as a backbone, but it’s the other characters’ quiet moments of barely visible grief that give the game its depth, and the nameless town its ghosts.