There’s a point in Far Harbor where you’re accessing the memories of DiMA – a synth who hosts a refuge for other synths – and I wanted to throw my controller through the wall and stop playing the new Fallout 4 downloadable content, forever. What makes it worse is that I was enjoying myself thoroughly up until that moment. I persevered after cursing at my TV for about an hour or so, and then found myself sucked back into the tantalizing ideas Far Harbor tries to wrestle with. Besides this terrible misstep that will make a lot of players turn away from Far Harbor‘s excellent story, this is the kind of downloadable content that truly enhances an experience.
Players will be taken off the grid in more ways than one as they travel to a remote island that houses a small fishing village, which serves as the titular Far Harbor. After taking a missing persons case from the Valentine Detective Agency, all roads lead to a war about to bubble to the surface on the island. Your job? Find out what secrets lie in the fog and decide whether Far Harbor is worth saving, or if it should be engulfed in conflict forever. These decisions are what makes Far Harbor the kind of story that makes you more than willing to push through an hour of tedium and frustration.
Let’s just jump right to the DLC’s biggest issue: the settlement mechanics. Yes, remember that part of Fallout 4? Well, in the midst of a war between the townsfolk of Far Harbor, the Synths taking refuge in Acadia, and the religious rantings of the Children of Atom, players will get to spend a good chunk of the main quest fumbling with 3D puzzles that utilize the settlement interface from the base game. There are also settlements to be found in Far Harbor, but this is easily the worst implementation of Bethesda’s clunky system.
DiMA’s memories have been locked away and can only be accessed by going through levels of a tower defense game with puzzles that are generally pretty easy. However, the final level of the game doesn’t put the things you learned to good use, and instead showcases how frustrating the settlement interface is. You will spend a lot of time going back and forth as you move blocks around constantly trying to figure out what to do next. The largest issue is that the settlement mechanics have been clunky from the beginning. You can’t move a block further away from you, so if you don’t have much room to move, you have to set the block down, distance yourself, then pick it up again. Then there’s the added frustration of trying to make it snap onto the right area, which is sometimes like trying to pull teeth. The worst thing is that it is clear Bethesda knew the final level was going to be frustrating and time-consuming, so they essentially made the tower defense mechanics moot once the puzzle was solved.
This is more than just a speedbump in an otherwise well-paced adventure. It is cool when you first see it, but then it’s more akin to someone pulling the rug out from under you and then commencing to beat you with the rug. It’s also just bad because it requires platforming from a game where its jumping has always seemed like an afterthought built in to help players scale mountains quicker. I wanted to stop playing Far Harbor, and actually would have if my last ditch idea for how to solve the puzzle didn’t pan out (and I didn’t have to review it). The problem isn’t with the puzzles themselves, but interacting with them.
Largely that has been one of Fallout 4‘s core issues – having to interact with things – but its strengths reside largely in the writing. With Far Harbor, they have exceeded even their main story with what is perhaps one of the best quest lines Bethesda has written in the Fallout universe. It starts off as just a girl running away from home, but you soon discover how intricate Far Harbor’s situation truly is. The townspeople depend on the Synth’s technology to stop the fog (which harbors very dangerous mutated sea creatures) and the townspeople reluctantly accept their Fog Condensers to keep it at bay. Already isolated to a small area on the coast of the island, there is a third complication in the form of the Children of Atom who wish for the fog to engulf the island completely.
This is the setup to what may seem like trivial political matters on the surface, but it’s a very nuanced story that rewards players who dig into character interactions. I found myself wanting to hear more about the Children of Atom and why they wish the island to be fully irradiated. You actually feel the urge to hear everyone’s side of the story, which helps when it comes time to make decisions that feel important and you can tell major characters in the story wrestle with how they feel about you and your decisions.
One character though who kind of feels wasted is Longfellow, a native to Far Harbor who becomes your companion on your journey through Far Harbor, if you so desire. I took him along for the ride, thinking he’d add quite a bit to the narrative. I was mistaken. He was helpful in combat scenarios, but his views were pretty much unnecessary. He’s a native to the island, and isn’t really a fan of people hurting what he’s comfortable with. That’s about as interesting as carrying a block through a tower defense grid over and over again.
Far Harbor adds other worthwhile content to the base game of Fallout 4 that can be taken out of the DLC’s remote island. Most of it feels genuinely useful as you get a meat hook that allows for faster melee attacks, some decent marine armor, a really nice power armor suit that I loved, and a melee weapon that I used a lot: the Bloodletter. Yes, it was basically just a hook on a long stick, but it made enemies bleed out after hitting them and did a pretty good amount of damage. It was the one that translated best to outside of the Far Harbor location, alongside a new lever-action rifle.
I think there’s a lot to enjoy with Far Harbor, but it does run into problems which only highlight Fallout 4‘s ever-present issues. I didn’t even mention the fact that the framerate on the PS4 version was generally not particularly great, especially in close quarters firefights. Occasionally, I got a nice silky smooth 60 fps, but it was more often that I was moving at 30 or less. For every problem I had though, I loved Far Harbor‘s stories and characters enough to find forgiveness. The intricacies and nuance that could be found in isolating a conflict on a remote island proved fruitful, demonstrating the powerful themes and motifs that Fallout 4 already firmly established.
Fallout 4 "Far Harbor" Review
- The story in Far Harbor is one of the best Bethesda has told in recent years
- New weapons and armor are neat and extremely handy
- Brisk pacing in narrative allows for a fairly entertaining experience
- New characters are interesting and feel fully fleshed out
- Inventive and difficult new creatures to fight
- Memory subplot contains one of Bethesda's worst gameplay experiences ever
- Longfellow doesn't really add much flavor text, despite being a member of the society involved in conflict
- Performance issues like sub-par framerate