Category Archives: Halloween Gaming
I arrived at being a Resident Evil fan through a somewhat tortuous history. Despite being a huge fan of the Playstation, I never actually played any Resident Evil games on the system, despite the series being one of the console’s best sellers. I certainly thought Resident Evil looked cool, and I did get to mess around with Resident Evil 2 at a friend’s house, but for some complicated reasons, I never actually got a hold of those titles for myself. The first game in the series that I actually got to spend appreciable time with was Resident Evil 4 which was a marked departure from what had been the series’ convention.
Eventually, I would play those original Resident Evil games through the DS port of RE1 and the PS1 on PSP releases of RE2 and 3, which is to say that my first experiences with those games were through handheld versions. And despite playing those games in their diminutive forms, I thought they were amazing, and it really solidified me as a fan of the series going forward. Resident Evil 2, in particular, left an impression on me. I still vividly remember downloading it to my PSP in college before heading home for Christmas to spend a week with my family and getting some Racoon City action in on the side. Despite that break being a busy holiday week with lots of family stuff going on, I was so enamored with the game that I somehow managed to squeeze in enough time with it here and there to complete both the Leon and Claire campaigns. As I get older, I feel myself getting less and less excited for games long before they release, but I was super pumped a few years back when Capcom announced that Resident Evil 2 would be getting a modern remake.
Resident Evil fans will know that the series can be divided into two separate eras. There was the original era of Resident Evil that used fixed camera angles, tank controls, and limited items and ammo to produce slower, less precise, but more methodical action games. With the advent of Resident Evil 4, the series majorly shuffled things up and pioneered the modern over-the-shoulder action game. While the series has maintained its horror theming, emphasis was put more on precise aiming, less restricted ammo, and linear level design that contrast with the more backtracking oriented earlier games. The shift in direction for the series has been a huge point of contention for some Resident Evil fans, but I personally enjoy and find merit in both styles.
The Resident Evil 2 remake is a case study in wanting to eat your cake and still have it. It tries to combine the limited ammo and less linear level design of the original Resident Evil 2 with the over-the-shoulder combat experience of the more modern games. And for the most part, I think it succeeds at creating a delicate fusion of these contrasting gameplay styles. It even manages to incorporate elements of the offbeat Resident Evil 7 in a way that just clicks.
Resident Evil 2 offers two campaigns, one from the perspective of Racoon City police force newcomer Leon Kennedy and the other from the perspective of Claire Redfield, the biker sister of Resident Evil 1 protagonist Chris Redfield. The game starts with the player’s chosen protagonist making their way into Racoon City, Leon to start his new job and Claire to find her brother who has gone missing. What awaits them when they reach the outskirts of town is a doomed city overrun with a zombie outbreak. In a turn of fate, Claire and Leon cross paths and one of gaming’s greatest duos is born. After teaming up, Leon suggests to Claire that they make their way to the Racoon City Police HQ to figure out what’s going on and hopefully find safe refuge. Upon entering, they find the building nearly abandoned by the living, save for one dying officer who hints at a hidden escape route that could help the pair make their way to safety.
Within the massive RCPDHQ, the player is immediately greeted with a great many locked doors and blocked pathways. Exploration and backtracking is thus necessary to slowly open up new areas and progress in the game. RCPDHQ is essentially one big mystery that players need to work through. Eventually, players move beyond the police department, but each subsequent area is similarly structured.
For those unfamiliar with Resident Evil 2, the game is comprised of two separate campaigns, each focusing on one of the main characters. While Claire and Leon cover much of the same ground in their individual stories, they access most rooms and areas in a different order, gain different weapons, and there are certain important areas that are campaign specific. In addition, each protagonist interacts with a different set of characters along the way, meaning they each have a fairly unique story. When all of these aspects are taken into account, I feel like each campaign is distinct enough that a second playthrough with a different character doesn’t simply feel like a retread, and it’s worth playing both of them to see the complete story in all its glory.
As a remake, the new Resident Evil 2 is a fairly extensive reenvisioning of the classic. Much of RCPDHQ will be familiar to returning players, but new key areas and story beats have been added such that the game feels like a new experience while still strongly evoking nostalgia for its forebear. By far the biggest change is the more modernized camera and combat. Ditching the fixed camera angles and simplistic aiming system of the original for the over-the-shoulder style that became the norm with Resident Evil 4, the new Resident Evil 2 walks a thin line of trying to recapture the elements that made the original resonate with so many players, while also upgrading the game to the standards and expectations of 2019.
Personally, I think it’s very successful. Initially, I had doubts that the much more precise and agile gameplay would work well with Resident Evil 2’s monster design. When Resident Evil 4 arrived, the series replaced its iconic zombies with more intelligent and nimble enemies to compensate. Slow, shambling zombies might have been a threat in the earlier games with their clumsier controls and more claustrophobic environments, but it seemed difficult to believe that such monsters could present any sort of danger when headshots could be easily pulled off with true analog stick aiming. Fortunately, this remake does make them a sufficient challenge through both their herky jerky movements that makes targeting specific body parts more difficult and the fact that they can take a fair bit of ammo to bring down, ammo for which there is a reasonably constrained supply. And of course, zombies aren’t the only monsters that Leon and Claire face off against.
In the original Resident Evil 2, Mr. X, a mutant supersoldier sent in to clean up witnesses to the outbreak, would stalk the RCPDHQ during whichever character’s campaign the player chose for their second playthrough. The new remake turns Mr. X into the star of the show, with both Leon and Claire having to contend with him for a fair portion of their individual campaigns. While Mr. X would seemingly appear at random in the original game, the remake greatly expands his role into a persistent and pervasive threat that is always hunting for the player.
A near unstoppable foe, after his initial appearance, Mr. X’s loud footsteps can always be heard lurking the halls of RCPD. The flow of the game is radically changed by his presence. It becomes a struggle between cat and mouse. The player must always be listening for his approach, and when he does happen to reach the player, the best strategy is usually to cut and run for safety. Furthermore, loud noises like gunfire summons him toward the player’s position. No longer can the player calmly take their time to bring down zombies and other monsters with well aimed shots. The threat of Mr. X means the player must more or less always be on the move.
In terms of scare factor, I must admit that, while it has a moody, desperate atmosphere, Resident Evil 2 is not really particularly close to being the scariest action horror game I’ve ever played. There are definitely some good scares here and there, and Mr. X creates a low boiling tension that always simmers in the back of my mind while playing, but I can think of a few action horror titles that are far better at creating dread and suspense, such as The Evil Within and Dead Space. To be honest, even the original game wasn’t really super-scary, and it definitely injected what felt to be more of an action movie feel into Resident Evil. With that said, I really enjoy the game for what it is, an excellent horror-themed action game, and would rather not dwell on what its not.
Resident Evil 2 will probably be the highlight of 2019 for me (at least in terms of the world of video games). It’s super nostalgic while also standing on its own as an entirely new game. To be honest, the game kind of makes me wish they would team Leon and Claire back up again for Resident Evil 8 or something. They are easily the stand out protagonists of the Resident Evil series to me. And with Resident Evil 7 essentially being another reinvention of the series’ survival horror formula, I can only wonder if the next game will continue what it started or use Resident Evil 2 as its template. Both are excellent games in my opinion, and it’s incredible to see the series turn itself around after the mess that was Resident Evil 6.
Phantasmagoria is a mid-90s horror adventure game from Sierra and the creators of the vaunted King’s Quest series. At that point in time, adventure games were undergoing a decline, not necessarily due to quality, but due to the growing popularity of action and strategy games on the PC. In that light, Phantasmagoria feels like an ambitious attempt to establish a new generation of adventure games that would propel the genre into the next century.
I think in my mind, I’ve always seen Phantasmagoria as a grander and more important game than it actually was. That’s because as a kid I first saw this game when it was featured in a brief segment on the local evening news. While the game did garner some controversy due to its depiction of violence against women, the segment I saw was actually more of a fluff piece extolling the game’s story and use of digitized human actors. In my little kid brain, it was clear to me that if an institution as important as the local Fox affiliate had deigned to give Phantasmagoria air time, then it must be a really great game! As an adult, of course, I understand that segments like these are used by news stations as padding for when they don’t have enough real news stories to cover their 30 minute block. Nonetheless, the praise this game received has been ingrained in my head for two decades since, and I’ve always held Phantasmagoria in high esteem, despite never having played the game.
The lesson here is that you shouldn’t trust what you see on the news.
Phantasmagoria is a horror-themed, story-driven adventure game that follows Adrian Delaney, a semi-popular novelist, and her husband Don, an equally semi-famous photographer who have decided to move to the quiet New England town of Nipawomsett so that Adrian can peacefully work on her next novel. As hip young affluent weirdos, the couple have decided to make their residence in the abandoned (but surprisingly well-kept) home of Zoltan “Carno” Carnovash, a 19th century magician and serial widower. What could possibly go wrong?
Unsurprisingly, Carno’s seemingly bad luck in love was no mere coincidence, as he was in fact under demonic possession and driven to murder his wives by otherworldy forces. And while Carno may be long dead, the dark spirit of his madness still lies dormant in the house and finds a long-awaited vessel in Don. This plot really exists somewhere in a spectrum between Stephen King’s The Shining and one of those terrible Lifetime channel movies where the female main characters are more or less tortured by their husbands for 90 commercial-saturated minutes.
The first chapter of Phantasmagoria starts with Adrian and Don settling into their new home, and the place really is something else. The peculiarities of this quasi-mansion estate include a giant face sculpted into the side of the building, sphinxes guarding an ominous locked door in the foyer, a live electric chair, a room filled with creepy baby laughter, and a secret chapel hidden behind the library amongst other things. As someone who recently became involved in the home buying process and came to realize the intense scrutiny it requires, the absurdity of the house leaves me wondering who would ever buy into something like this. What’s more is that Adrian and Don seem barely cognizant of how bizarre their surroundings are. Early in the story, there are some throwaway comments where they make fun of the builder, but that is the one singular time that I can remember where they express concern over the eccentricities of the house. Never do they ever seem bothered by the fact that there is a WORKING ELECTRIC CHAIR IN THE GUEST BEDROOM.
Haunted houses work best when they have a modicum of subtlety, otherwise the audience will struggle with suspension of disbelief. Characters that choose to live in a place that is overtly unnatural or dangerous just aren’t that believable, especially when those characters are people of means like Adrian and Don who could easily afford to live wherever they want. But to be fair, in the starting chapter where the player gets to explore the house for the first time, the house did manage to capture my imagination even if it clashed with my incredulity. “Hmm, I wonder what’s waiting behind this scary door guarded by sphinxes,” I said to myself. “I can’t wait to see how the story uses the electric chair,” I thought. As stupidly overt as the house is, it sets up curiosity for the rest of the story. Unfortunately, when compared to these expectations, the rest of the game up to the climax feels rather uneventful.
Phantasmagoria is a seven chapter ordeal. At the end of the first chapter, Don becomes possessed after Adrian unseals the demon that’s been trapped in the house, and it feels like the story is about to take off, but then………..well not much really happens. Adrian spends the following chapters somewhat aimlessly poking around town and the house, as Don becomes more aggressive and abusive toward her. It’s hard to articulate how empty the plot of Phantasmagoria can be at times. Adrian’s motivations are often unclear, and she is seemingly oblivious to the growing danger in her own marriage. Most chapters involve her exploring a new area of the estate, and unlocking little snippets of Carno and his victims’ story. The problem is that Carno’s story really isn’t that interesting. It’s the very cliche story of a stage magician whose lust for true magic leads him to becoming the thrall of dark forces.
……And then there’s Harriet and Cyrus. A not insignificant chunk of this game is taken up by a bizarre subplot where Adrian discovers a homeless mother and son living in her barn, who she promptly puts to work doing household chores and lawn work. The questionable undertones of this story element aside, these characters do very little to advance the core plot of Don’s descent into madness or play into the horror that is supposed to be the game’s core. They simply serve to be emblematic of the padding that fills out this game.
While Phantasmagoria aspires to be a grand horror game, there’s not a lot of scares to be had in the first six chapters. Although Don is slowly becoming more and more of a dick, Adrian is never in any real danger. The scares come at specific points in the story when Adrian has visions of the various ways in which Carno murdered his wives. The scenes are pretty gruesome and really exist more for shock value than to develop true suspense and tension. As you can tell from the screenshots, Phantasmagoria uses digitized footage of live actors, and when the game was released, it came under a fair bit of controversy for its depiction of violence against women. The whole affair reeks of 90’s schlock. There’s even a painful to watch sex scene midway that crosses the line into rape and just feels incredibly tone deaf compared to the rest of the game.
Outside of the story, the game is sprinkled with light adventure game puzzle solving. It’s standard adventure game fare: find items to get other items to clear obstacles that are in the path of your progress. The puzzles are actually surprisingly easy. At the point in time when this game was released, adventure games were starting to come under fire for the obtuse and absurd logic they required, with Sierra, the company behind this title, being one of the largest targets. Phantasmagoria is incredibly easy when compared to this standard as a result of taking this criticism to heart and wanting to focus more on the story.
The final chapter of Phantasmagoria is a major departure from its preceedings. The game’s climax turns into more of an interactive movie with Don finally breaking down into a murderous rampage. In an extended chase sequence, Adrian must evade Don while finding a safe path out of the house. This segment is very trial and error in nature: go down the wrong hallway or into the wrong room and Don will meet Adrian with a gruesome death. This is the part of the game where it best approaches proper horror, and yet it still doesn’t quite reach its goals. As a deranged killer, Don, himself, is more cartoonish than threatening, and once again the game falls back on its primary means of achieving horror which is to simply use cheap, gratuitous blood and gore for shock value, although I will admit the practical special effects used in these scenes is quite impressive.
Horror is fairly relative, especially in the context of time. I’m left wondering if I had experienced this game for the first time as a kid in the 90s, would I find it scary? Maybe I would and maybe I’m just too old and desensitized now to get any chills from cheap gore. Certainly, the game reviewed and sold well upon its release. On the other hand, time and age may account for the scares falling flat, but it doesn’t excuse the story for feeling underdeveloped.
Phantasmagoria was a late in life product of Sierra, known for many classic adventure games such as King’s Quest and Space Quest. I have honestly never played a Sierra adventure game other than this one, so I can’t say if its representative of the company’s typical quality or not. Reading the history of this game, it’s clear the team went into this project with a lot of ambition, but became ensnared in practical constraints such as time, budget, and early 90s technology. For its time, Phantasmagoria was an unparalleled production, and I can respect the work and aspiration that went into this game even if I think it has aged poorly.
Dusk is badass. I don’t know of any other way to start talking about this game other than to just get that out there. Dusk is a first-person action game that is more similar to Quake than to the story and spectacle heavy FPS games that come out today. This is immediately apparent when you first get a look at its grungy, low-poly visuals. But beyond the superficial, Dusk perfectly encapsulates what made those early first person action games so much fun, and, in a lot of ways, it exceeds those inspirations. That said, it might seem like a strange choice for a Halloween game, but I was personally surprised to discover that it was one of the most gruesome and disturbing experiences I’ve played in a while.
Dusk begins in media res with the player character waking up as an unwilling cult sacrifice in the basement of a farmhouse guarded by hooded men wielding chainsaws. After managing to escape captivity, the player emerges into a quiet countryside where monsters and cultists lurk in every dark corner. Eventually, the player reaches the government-quarantined town of Dusk, deep beneath which a secretive archaeological site has unleashed cosmic horror upon the world. The player’s ultimate goal becomes traverse a strange parallel dimension that spawned the twisted alien abominations that are assaulting the very fabric of Earth’s reality.
Dusk doesn’t have much overt storytelling. The motives of the mute main character are never explained in-game. There are no cutscenes and no other friendly characters with which to interact. The cult leader will occasionally telepathically taunt the player, but there’s no one to instruct the player on specifically what they should be doing which contrasts with the majority of action games released today. Storytelling is really more environmental in nature. The player learns about the world of Dusk via the places and things they witness along their journey.
I think the low-level storytelling is a key part of Dusk’s appeal. Modern video games, especially big budget ones, tend to have a preoccupation with making sure the player always understands exactly what is happening and what they should be doing. As a result, they often tend to get bogged down with cutscenes, radio conversations, tutorials, setpieces, etc. Dusk, on the other hand, just lets the player run loose. As I have limited free time for games these days, the fact that Dusk just cuts straight to the fun stuff is incredibly refreshing.
The key to this is in how incredibly well-designed Dusk’s levels are. They tend to be highly non-linear, offering the player multiple paths and directions to explore at any given moment. Stages like these could falter by becoming too confusing or maze-like, too easy for the player to get lost, but I never really had this issue with Dusk. It is complex without being confusing. Each area feels distinctive and memorable, which makes it easy to find one’s way around. I really enjoyed exploring this game, discovering what oddities and horrific sights lay around every corner, unlocking the vast number of secrets the game hides, and getting hooked on the adrenaline rush that each enemy ambush brought.
With 33 levels divided across 3 episodes, I was a bit worried that the game would start to get repetitive. Fortunately, the game has a ton of imagination packed into its sweeping journey. What starts off as a struggle for survival in a dark countryside filled with cultists and killers eventually morphs into a trek through secretive high-tech facilities harboring strange and unrestrained experiments and eventually across the warped landscapes of cosmic abomination. With each loading screen to usher in a new chapter, I always felt on the edge of something strange and surprising.
As an action game, Dusk is a lightfooted run-and-gun. Like Serious Sam or Quake, the player has gotta always be moving, less they become an easy target. There is a good variety of weapons, and the enemies are designed in such a way that makes most of the weapons fairly useful to the player. In a lot of Dusk’s classic counterparts, I usually found myself defaulting to using only one or two weapons that were clearly the most powerful, and only grudgingly using the lesser ones when I was out of ammo for the favorites. Dusk, on the other hand, does a good job of designing different situations that uniquely suit particular weapons, thus giving the player fairly frequent reason to mix things up and not simply rely on the shotgun or rocket launcher.
Despite the fact that Dusk is a fairly kinetic and aggressive action game, I was impressed by how well the developers were able to infuse it with the atmosphere and tension of a horror game. You wouldn’t necessarily think that an action game where the player is routinely outgunning dozens of enemies at a time could be scary, but Dusk can often be truly suspenseful. There were a ton of times when I was getting goosebumps because I knew a disturbing reveal was being ominously teased. The game oozes atmosphere, and I thought it was great at psyching me out. One of my favorite levels features the player descending downward through a cave that leads deep into the Earth. As the cave got narrower and more tortuous, I found myself becoming increasingly anxious about what I would find at the end of the long, downward spiraling tunnel. Something that really helps is the grungy, low-poly graphics which go beyond being a sentimental call back to classic games and provide a level of abstraction, aliennes, and crudeness that greatly enhance the murky and unsettling nature of Dusk’s world. Simply put, the game does an amazing job at balancing the power fantasy of taking on huge hordes of enemies with a feeling of vulnerability toward the hidden threats that lie in wait for the player.
Dusk is a quintessential example of a nostalgia trip done right. It doesn’t merely exist as a desperate attempt to recapture the fond memories of the past. Rather, it understands the elements that made those classics so great, elements which are often discarded or downplayed in modern game design, and then it enhances and advances those elements with its own ideas in a way that exceeds its inspirations. I honestly have no hesitation in saying that Dusk truly outdoes many of the action games that it seeks to honor.
The Inpatient is the latest PSVR spinoff from PS4’s excellent (non-VR) horror adventure game Until Dawn. Unlike Until Dawn’s first spinoff, Rush of Blood, which was was an arcade action game more akin to The House of the Dead than the original Until Dawn, The Inpatient goes back to the series’ roots and focuses on story, dialogue, and exploration with scant action. In The Inpatient, the player takes on the point of view of an unnamed amnesiac patient at Blackwood Sanatorium in the winter of 1952. I don’t want to spoil Until Dawn, so I’ll be speaking a bit vaguely here, but the events that transpire at the asylum during this time period play a major part in the lore of the series and are described in detail during the original game. Thus, The Inpatient seeks to give a new perspective on the series’ backstory and serves as a sort of prequel.
I’m going to be blunt and upfront here: as a huge fan of Until Dawn (and also PSVR), The Inpatient was a big disappointment. While Rush of Blood was an arcade shooting gallery that hugely deviated from the carefully-paced, story-focused trappings of its predecessor, I still think its a better continuation of Until Dawn than The Inpatient. Rush of Blood had interesting and varied environments, a ton of cool monster designs, and despite a few irritating jump scares, was a more moody and frightful experience. The Inpatient, despite launching at double the price of Rush of Blood, feels like a low budget project, in contrast. It’s an incredibly stripped down experience with few actual scares and a story that is dull and insubstantial.
As a patient at Blackwood, the player spends roughly the first half of the game almost entirely confined to their room at the asylum. Early on, a new roommate is introduced, and most of the time is spent having conversations with him. Unfortunately, he’s not a terribly interesting character, and I found all of these conversations rather unmemorable. Eventually, alarms go off and chaos ensues offscreen, after which the main character and this roommate are left abandoned for days. Those who have played Until Dawn will probably immediately realize what has happened, but I can imagine those who are unfamiliar with the series will be completely confused.
During this segment, the player occasionally rests, only to enter a dream sequence where the player is left to wander the long dark hallways of the asylum as mildly spooky stuff happens along the way. And when I say mildly spooky, I mean it. It feels like a really cheap haunted house. The worst scare of the game happens in the very first dream sequence when something randomly appears in front of the player, screams in their face, and then disappears. Cheap jump scares like this are questionable design in normal games, but as I wrote about in my Rush of Blood review, they are extremely uncomfortable in VR. This one was so bad that I actually reflexively ripped off the PSVR headset. Strangely, this was the only jump scare I encountered during my entire playthrough, but the experience left me anxious (in a bad way) for the rest of the game. I found every other attempt the game made to scare me to be rather tepid.
After a long boring period stuck in the room with Mr. Personality, the main character escapes their cell by way of…..something. As far as I could tell, the story doesn’t even really attempt to give a real explanation as to how the main character gets out of the locked room, but nonetheless the player eventually finds themselves freely roaming the halls after they escape in a surreal dream sequence. After the slow and lackluster first half of the game, one might be hopeful that it was merely building up to a more exciting escape from the grounds of the asylum, itself. Not so, however, as I felt the back half of the game was even more unfulfilling than the first.
After a bit of aimless wandering, the player meets up with a group of survivors who promise to take him/her back to a safe haven. At this point in the story, the asylum should be overrun with bloodthirsty creatures, but the player only has one brief encounter with a monster. The player basically spends the rest of the story following the other survivors through empty hallways and corridors while little else happens.
Toward the end, some (human) violence breaks out, and I could only assume this was an attempt to try to create some excitement for the climax, but I felt it completely fell flat at creating any tension or raising my interest in the story. The ending, itself, felt extremely anticlimactic. The Inpatient has multiple endings which are the outcomes of various dialogue choices the player can make, but I don’t feel the game grabbed me enough for me to give it another playthrough.
Even for superfans of the original Until Dawn, I don’t think The Inpatient is a necessary experience. It’s story simply doesn’t stand on its own, and it doesn’t really meaningfully advance the Until Dawn lore. The outbreak at Blackwood could have been a terrifying event to witness, but everything exciting happens off-screen, far away from the player’s view. This is presumably the end of Until Dawn as a series, and it’s really too bad that it ends on such a whimper.
Stories Untold is a series of four vignettes tinged with horror and modelled after classic sci-fi anthology series such as The Outer Limits and Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories. Each vignette is superficially a standalone experience with the commonality that they each feature stories in which the player interacts with an array of (by today’s standards) vintage electronics such as classic microcomputers, microfiche archives, radios, televisions, etc. The exception is the final episode which manages to tie together the seemingly unrelated events of the preceding chapters into a surprisingly cohesive whole.
Of the four episodes, I felt the first was easily the strongest. It’s also the only episode that I felt leant deeply into the horror genre. In this chapter, the player is rooted at a home desk with a “Futuro” microcomputer, which is essentially a fictionalized analogue of machines like the Amiga and Commodore 64. Loaded up onto the system is The House Abandon, a text adventure that is essentially a game within a game. The entire episode is spent at this desk playing this one text adventure game. The House Abandon begins as a seemingly warm and fuzzy story about returning to a childhood home, but eventually reveals itself to have a more sinister side. All of a sudden, the game turns a dark corner and begins distorting the in-game reality surrounding the microcomputer. While this might sound gimmicky and a little cheesy, I found it to be executed surprisingly well. The metafictional interplay between the reality of the humble desk and Futuro computer setup and the dark residential setting of The House Abandon is one of the most creative mechanisms of producing tension and foreboding that I’ve seen in a game, and the creepiness of the experience left a distinct impression on me.
The subsequent episodes, however, were not quite as effective in creating the atmosphere and mood befitting a horror game. The second and third episodes are more sci-fi oriented. Instead of a cursed computer game, the second episode involves the player operating lab equipment in a government research facility, and the third episode takes place in a radio outpost for an expedition above the Arctic Circle. Horror is subjective, of course, and while I could see how someone might consider these chapters to be eerie, I simply did not come away with that impression.
The fourth episode diverges significantly from the rest and serves as a capstone for the disparate stories that came before it. A more grounded tale, eschewing supernatural and sci-fi elements, the final chapter is, in a certain way, the most chilling episode and deals with tragedy and deeply personal torment. Not scary in the traditional sense of the oft-surreal horror genre, Stories Untold concludes with an upsetting story of loss and regret, real world horror if you will. Beyond that, the fourth episode manages to color the entire experience with an interesting perspective that attempts to elevate the game above the sum of its parts. The blurring of boundaries between layers of metafictional reality is a theme that permeates throughout, and this peculiar aspect of the individual vignettes serves as an important hook for the conclusion.
Surprisingly, the text adventure aspect manages to find its way into the story beyond the initial episodes. Of the actual interactive parts of the game, I found these segments to be the most enjoyable and interesting. Text adventures have a bad reputation of obtuseness due to how frustrating it can sometimes be to figure out the right wording of commands to enter into the text parser, but I didn’t find Stories Untold to be too much of a hassle in this regard. The other various tasks the player is given, on the other hand, can sometimes feel like busy work to fill in time between story beats. One part of the game has the player manipulating the various buttons, knobs, and levers of a microfiche display, and this activity was especially tedious.
Ultimately, I have no strong feelings toward Stories Untold. I can easily see that it’s competently designed with a well crafted story, but I simply did not resonate sharply with this game. I chose this as a Halloween game after seeing it on a number of horror game recommendation lists, but, honestly, I personally have a hard time characterizing it as such. The first episode featuring the cursed computer game was a great experience, but the remainder of the game felt like a different direction tonally. To me, the hook of the game is more for those interested in ‘80s nostalgia than it is for enthusiasts of the horror genre. (Which is ironic, because I felt that one of the main themes of the game was that nostalgia is a coping mechanism that deters us from facing reality.) As a ‘90s kid, I have little attachment to this subject matter, which is probably why the game didn’t leave as strong of an impression on me.
The Evil Within did not make a good first impression on me. I started the game on PS4 near the time of its release, played maybe three or four hours, decided I wasn’t having fun with the gruelling experience, and I sold it off. Years later, The Evil Within II came out to generally favorable impressions, and I thought I might give the series another try. But, I often get OCD around playing a series in order, and the first game was really cheap on Steam. What ultimately pushed me over into giving The Evil Within another shot was some encouraging words here on the WordPress community and elsewhere that gave favorable, if not reasonably measured, praise to the game. And I’m glad I gave the game another chance, as I found I enjoyed TEW after getting past the hump that I got stuck on earlier, and I feel good having seen it to the end. The game is a giant mess, of course, but it’s a mess that leaves a strange and surprising impression.
The Evil Within begins with Krimson City detectives Sebastian Castellanos (the protagonist), Joseph Oda, and Juli Kidman responding to an emergency at Beacon Mental Hospital. The lobby of the hospital has been the site of a massacre, and Sebastian is subdued by a strange assailant in a white robe. He wakes up chained deep in the bowels of the facility, the captive of a large blood-soaked man who has other corpses strung from the ceiling and looks to be cannibalizing his victims. Defenseless, Sebastian manages to evade and escape from his captor, but not before the hospital reveals itself to be filled with gruesome mechanisms designed to slaughter those attempting to flee. In the courtyard, he meets up with Oda and Kidman, and the group finds an ambulance to make their exit. As they race through the city, an immense earthquake strikes. Massive fissures open up in the ground, and buildings begin to tumble down. They narrowly avoid being consumed by the cataclysm that destroys the city, only to fly off the edge of a cliff when their driver loses control of the vehicle. After the crash, Sebastian wakes up alone in the dark countryside. With his colleagues having abandoned him and the overturned ambulance, he begins his long journey to survive the complete breakdown of reality itself.
That long and ridiculous last paragraph perfectly encapsulates the experience of The Evil Within. I feel exhausted just having written it. The game simply never settles down. I don’t think there is ever a moment when I thought to myself “I understand where this is going.” Settings are constantly being shifted, enemies are constantly changing, the story picks up in one direction only to abruptly change course. There’s never any moment of comfort to be found. There is never any expectation that will not be subverted.
There are many types of horror games that are distinguished both by theme and mechanics, and what makes The Evil Within incredible is that it basically tries to do everything a horror game can do. It manages to find a way to merge psychological horror (e.g., Silent Hill), supernatural elements (e.g., Fatal Frame), and science fiction elements (e.g., Resident Evil). Superficially, it is a game that focuses on action and shooting (like Resident Evil 4 or Dead Space), but it also attempts to prominently include stealth (like The Last of Us), run-and-hide sequences (like Amnesia), and survival and resource management mechanics (like the original Resident Evil). By trying to fuse together all of these different approaches to making a horror game, The Evil Within is at its best highly admirably for ambition, but also many times manages to go over the edge and collapse into a clumsy or confusing mess.
In his quest to figure out just what the hell is really going on, Sebastian Castellanos treks across a post-apocalyptic cityscape, an evil mansion, a depraved hospital, an infested sewer, dreamcapes carved out of nightmare, and essentially almost every other popular staple of the horror genre. Each of the different environments absolutely nails the aesthetics of its chosen subject and feature expertly designed atmosphere, mood, tension, and foreboding. The Evil Within never lets the player forget they are in a horror story. And despite each setting being radically different, they all feel as if they are a part of the same gruesome world. There is a distinctive aesthetic style to The Evil Within that it manages to maintain across the entirety of its expansive journey.
Principally, The Evil Within is the successor to Resident Evil 4, the prime connection between the two being legendary director Shinji Mikami. As such, the action focused parts of the game tend to dominate over everything else, which is to say that the player spends a lot of time shooting at pseudo-zombies and other warped creatures. Another important feature of the game are the stealth kills, whereby the player can sneak up directly behind an enemy and execute a sneak attack that results in an instant kill. I found this to be a fairly important element of the game considering that ammo is relatively scarce, and I also just personally enjoy games that let me sneak up on enemies like this.
But aside from these key components, the game introduces a ton of other mechanics. Some of them work really well. For instance, levels are wired with inconspicuous booby traps that can do a lot of damage to Sebastian if triggered. However, if the player is cautious enough and manages to dismantle these traps, they turn into spare parts which can be used to craft bolts for Sebastian’s crossbow. There are a handful of different types of bolts that deal different types of damage (for instance, proximity explosives, freeze bolts, etc.), so the player is offered the choice of determining the best way to spend the spare parts. My favorite aspect of the game, which I’ve never seen any other horror game do, are the matchbooks that Sebastian uses to set enemies on the ground on fire. So, for instance, if Sebastian knocks an enemy to the ground, he can light them on fire with one of the matches for an instant kill. If there are other enemies standing in close proximity to the burning hostile, they will also catch on fire and suffer the insta-kill. This also applies to corpses on the ground, which creates a fun strategy where Sebastian can lure enemies over to a defeated corpse which can then be set ablaze to chain together several standing enemies with the ensuing flames.
However for every good idea The Evil Within puts together, there seems to be at least one bad one. I thought one of the dumbest mechanics of the game were the hiding spots which presumably were meant to conceal Sebastian from enemies. Sebastian can hide under beds, under cars, in closets, etc., but enemies always seem to be able to find him in these spots. There is this one unkillable enemy that chases Sebastian through a mansion, and when I encountered him, I put some distance between him and I, rounded a few corners, and then went into a room and hid in a closet. About fifteen seconds later, the thing chasing me walked in, went directly to the closet, opened it, and insta-killed Sebastian. I looked up the best way to escape from this enemy, and most of the recommendations I saw told me to just circle strafe around him until he disappears. What even is the point of the hiding spots then? And this wasn’t an isolated incident. Each time I tried to make use of the hiding spots, the results were more or less the same: they do nothing to keep Sebastian out of sight.
One of the real highlights of The Evil Within were the boss monsters that the game is really good at building up. The bosses are all really well designed and creatively distinct from an aesthetic standpoint. The boss fights themselves tend to be more creative than simply requiring Sebastian to unload ammo into the creatures. Usually, they require the player to make use of aspects of the environment, almost like a puzzle. This tends to lead to a trial-and-error cycle, which can be frustrating at first, but I also felt was very rewarding once I was finally able to nail it. While there are a few boss encounters that just felt clumsy and confusing, on the whole, I thought these enemies were one of the high points of the game.
Sebastian’s journey took me approximately 16 hours to complete which seems to be typical going by howlongtobeat.com. That’s a huge amount of time for a linear action game like The Evil Within, and the entire quest definitely felt epic as a result. This is in spite of the story being largely meandering and insubstantial for the first three quarters or so of the game. Sebastian’s warped reality is constantly shifting, and at any given moment he can be teleported to a completely different setting with seemingly no rhyme or reason behind it. This results in plot threads being constantly interrupted with no resolution until the very end. In one moment, Sebastian will be trying to help a doctor and his patient survive a haunted village, and then abruptly the world will change around him, and he’ll be trying to survive an onslaught of monsters in the basement of a hospital, all with no thought given to the doctor and patient that were just left in danger in the countryside.
In this way, The Evil Within feels like a nightmare. A real nightmare. When I wake from dark dreams, for the fleeting moments I can remember them, I usually realize that they don’t have any form of sense. Nightmares and dreams are largely illogical, unstable, internally inconsistent experiences. The only reason they can feel the way they do is because the mind exists within them in a semi-conscious, semi-functioning state. When thought and reason are applied, they fall apart. Of course, I don’t necessarily think a desire to replicate the qualities of dreams was the intent behind the sloppy story of The Evil Within. I think they just had a lot of ideas they wanted to include in their game and gave no real thought toward creating more substantial connective tissue between them all.
Nonetheless, The Evil Within is best appreciated when simply opening oneself up to raw, uncritical, moment-to-moment experience is prioritized over the need for overarching narrative to create a coherent world. The Evil Within, as a story, is utterly unsatisfying otherwise. The last stretch of the game does begin to try to satiate the player’s need to understand the events of the game, and for the most part, I understood the broad strokes of the plot. But there’s still so many things I don’t understand, and I don’t know if they’re just the result of plot holes, or if there are things that just went over my head. The game has three DLC chapters that perhaps shed more light (I have yet to play them), but I find it unfortunate that the main game really left me with more questions than answers.
I have basically done a complete turn around on The Evil Within, and I’m glad that I gave it a second chance. It oozes style. It’s boss monsters are well designed terrors. It has a satisfying loop of stealth and action. It’s almost an encyclopedia of horror. However, everyone I’ve known who likes this game will immediately admit that it has numerous flaws and sharp corners. It’s incredibly ambitious, a creation that wasn’t designed to be restrained. This is precisely what makes the game special, as it wouldn’t have nearly the gravity if it wasn’t as expansive as it is. But at the same time, the game struggles under the weight of it all. It has a ton of weaknesses, and patience and perseverance is required to enjoy the totality of the experience. I’m glad I was able to finally get past all of these faults, but I don’t necessarily begrudge anyone who can’t.
Each year for the Halloween season, I try to dedicate my playtime and writing to a selection of spooky games that I’ve always wanted to try. This time I’ve been really excited for these Halloween posts all year, and I feel like I’ve actually gotten a bit ahead on my plans for once, so I’m optimistic that this might be the best Halloween on the blog yet. Previous Halloween posts are all collected on this tab. This year, I’m starting off with Little Nightmares, a creepy adventure game that released fairly recently on basically every modern gaming platform.
A small child shrouded in a yellow raincoat awakens at sea on a mysterious ship filled with danger and foreboding. As she begins to explore her surroundings, she finds other children in cages and begins getting glimpses of the grotesque giants that crew the dreary vessel. The quest that follows pits the defenseless protagonist against the strange appetites of the pitiless but hapless denizens of this otherworldly domain.
Little Nightmares immediately draws comparison to Limbo and its pseudo-sequel Inside. It’s easy to feel like the former was inspired by the latter. All three are puzzle platformer games about a defenseless youth trying to survive in a strange and creepy world. Little Nightmares does, however, manage to differentiate itself from the other two with a few key new ideas. Most importantly, while Limbo and Inside are essentially sidescrollers that confine movement to a 2D plane, Little Nightmares offers movement in fully 3D environments.
Furthermore, while the game starts off mostly about solving environmental puzzles to progress in a similar fashion to Inside and Limbo, later portions of the game become heavily focused on stealth and evasion. The protagonist of Little Nightmares is a small creature in a world of giants. Everything in the world she is travelling through is oversized, both objects and people, very much like Jack and the Beanstalk. Thus as the game progresses, gameplay becomes less about Limbo-style puzzles and more about sneaking through this jumbo-sized world while evading, hiding, and sometimes needing to outrun the ponderous creatures that view the child as nothing more than a pest to be squashed.
Little Nightmares is scary like a fairy tale, not necessarily suspenseful in a traditional sense, but creepy and unsettling in how it contrasts innocence with monstrosity. The monsters the player faces are grotesque and unpleasant to look at, and their designs emphasize themes of decadence and depraved overindulgence. These giant beings don’t feel like highly threatening apex predators, as they’re rather hapless and clumsy at times. But the moments where the girl is discovered and pursued by these beings are tense thrills as she scrambles to find a safe hiding spot. I don’t really feel any reservations in calling this a horror game, even if it is an offbeat amongst the genre.
And while the game is not particularly scary in the same sense as most horror games, the final monster encounter was a surprising exception. While I tend to find that most horror games become less scary as the story progresses and I become more comfortable in the setting, Little Nightmares managed to end on a high note. The final section has an amazing sense of atmosphere and dread, but it was also regrettably the shortest part of the game. After seeing how capable the designers of this game were at creating such an unnerving experience, I kind of wish they had imbued earlier parts of the game with this kind of atmosphere.
However, my principle issue with Little Nightmares is the brevity of content. The game is roughly three hours long. I don’t necessarily think a game is bad if it’s short, but I do consider it a negative when a game feels short, and Little Nightmares definitely felt short to me. I thought the game really only scratched the surface of the concept and world it introduced. The ending felt like it came on way too abruptly. The final area of the game should have been a bit longer, and the game could have really used one more major monster to encounter. Frustrating the issue is that there is a $10 DLC pack that offers three additional chapters to the game’s original five and features a different character from the original story. (I do not own the DLC, so I can’t comment on its quality.)
I like Little Nightmares. I thought it was a cool game. But for the reasons above, I think it’s a little hard to give the game an unqualified recommendation. I find it hard to provide justification for purchasing the game at full price, and I would also recommend playing Inside, a similar game, first, as I thought it was a considerably better game, although it doesn’t lean as much into the horror genre. Little Nightmares is a good Steam (or PSN, eshop, etc.) sale game, interesting and fun and worth playing, but not necessarily worth paying full price, especially when the DLC is factored in.
Halloween has come and gone, but I’m not done yet, and here’s the epilogue to Halloween Gaming 2017. Night Trap is a sort of interactive movie released for Sega CD way back in 1992. It’s kind of a legendary game, not because a lot of people played it, but because it was one of the focal points of the 1993 congressional hearings on video game violence that directly led to the formation of the ESRB. I missed out on the Sega CD, but fortunately, Night Trap finally saw re-release this year for its 25th anniversary.
In Night Trap, you take the role of an unseen systems controller for the Special Control and Attack Team who have been investigating mysterious disappearances occurring around the lakeside winery of the Martin family. An unnamed SCAT operative managed to hack into the house’s video security system to discover footage of guests being unwittingly captured by a complex series of traps laid throughout the home. To make a short story shorter, the Martins are essentially vampires and constructed the various traps in the winery to capture victims for eventual exsanguination.
As the game starts, SCAT is preparing to catch the Martin’s red-handed as they welcome a new set of victims, six high school girls and one tag-along little brother, for a weekend stay at the lake. As the control operative, your job is to watch the hacked video feeds coming from the house and use your override of the traps to protect the guests if necessary. Things get complicated as the augers, mysterious men clad in black from head to toe, begin to invade the house and attempt to capture and drain the guests’ blood for themselves.
The goal of the game is to essentially capture augers and protect house guests. The player has eight video feeds spying on different rooms of the house and must look out for auger activity by switching between these feeds. When an auger on the screen comes near a trap, a blinking bar at the bottom of feed changes from green to yellow to red. When it lights red, the player can set off one of the house’s traps and eliminate the auger as a threat. Eventually, you begin to memorize where the traps are, and don’t need the assistance of the indicator as much.
In the early parts of the game, the augers merely move from room to room searching for the Martins’ secret passages. They stay away from the guests and don’t threaten them directly. However, if the player lets too many of them escape out of sight, the SCAT commander will interrupt the connection and explain that the mission has failed. Later in the game, Augers begin attacking guests directly using a strange device that they hook to the victim’s neck to draw out blood. The player must closely watch for these confrontations and use the traps to save the victim. If any house guest is killed by the augers, the game ends. In addition, sometimes the Martins will change the color access code to their security system, so the player must pay close attention to them as well, and change the access code when the Martins attempt to break the connection.
In parallel to the action with the augers, there are several scenes with the house guests and the Martins which advance the plot. The game’s storyline is not particularly serious or complex. It’s a fairly cheesy affair that to me just screams that it’s a product of the late eighties/early nighties. Nonetheless, I did find it amusing and wanted to keep up with what the cast of characters were doing.
The problem with Night Trap is really that there is the way you want to play Night Trap, but then there is also the way you have to play Night Trap. I really enjoyed following the plot involving the actual characters, but my ability to focus on these scenes was continually being interrupted by the need to switch to other rooms so that I didn’t miss any opportunities to trap augers. So you’re left in the position of choosing between whether you will watch the story threads play out and hit a point where you can’t progress further in that playthrough because you missed something important, or your ignore the plot development and simply focus on the stuff that is required to move forward, such as capturing the roaming augers or listening for changes to the code.
Really, Night Trap is a game that the player is probably meant to replay multiple times, and probably fail on most attempts. When played this way, there would obviously be more opportunity to see all of the scenes in the game. In a way, that makes sense for the time Night Trap was released. People bought fewer games on average back then and games tended to be shorter, and so each game had to offer a lot of replay value to keep gamers occupied for longer periods of time.
There is another reason that Night Trap requires so much replay: Night Trap is hard. Particularly, the second half of the game gets quite hectic, and there are a lot of do-or-die moments that are easy to miss. This leads to frequent abrupt game-overs. You have to play the game quite a few times to correctly get down the sequence of where and when you need to set off traps. From start the finish, the whole thing takes roughly 26 minutes, but there is only a single save spot at the halfway point (at around the 13 minute mark). I’m not sure if this checkpoint existed in the original version, so it may have been even harder then. I’m glad there’s not frequent checkpoints, because that would make it harder to see all of the scenes. But I think at least one more checkpoint toward the end of the game before the final confrontation with the Martins would have been appreciated.
Night Trap isn’t a particularly scary game. I think the game was originally intended to have the atmosphere of a horror movie, but this didn’t pan out for various reasons. The My Life in Gaming Youtube channel did an excellent documentary on the game which revealed a lot of interesting facts about its production. Originally, the set was intended to be darker and more grim, but it seems like they had to make things brighter and more colorful so the image wouldn’t become excessively pixelated during the digitization process. And despite its place in video game history, it’s not particularly violent. It’s crazy to think that this game was held up at one point alongside Mortal Kombat as an example of video games corrupting American youth. Compared to the over-the-top gore of Mortal Kombat, Night Trap is incredibly tame.
Overall, I enjoyed Night Trap. But to enjoy it, one has to have a lot of patience with it. I doubt it’s for everyone. The people who made this game were trying to do something completely new with the use of live action video, which I can certainly appreciate. But it’s definitely good to have an easily accessible version available now so that everyone has the option of trying out this important piece of video game history.
White Day: A Labyrinth Named School is a recently remastered horror game for Steam and PS4 that was originally released on PC in 2001 in Korea. No official English version had existed until the remastered edition that was released this year, but there was an unofficial English fan translation that managed to garner a strong cult following. This was my first time playing White Day, but for years now, I’ve heard tales of it being the scariest game ever made, so it’s been something I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while.
Hee-Min Lee is the new kid at Yeondu High School (frequently referred to as Y High School). One day during school, he finds the lost diary of So-Young Han, the girl all the boys crush on, and decides to sneak into school that night to return the diary to her desk along with a gift of candies. Alone in the school, he suddenly finds himself locked in the building, and while creeping around looking for his way through, witnesses a student being captured and brutally beaten by the janitor. Hee-Min soon realizes that the patrolling janitor is not the only danger lurking within the dark corridors of the school, rather the entire place is haunted by a menagerie of ghosts born from its shadowy and tragedy-stricken past.
Like the previous two horror games I reviewed, White Day is another run-and-hide game. The main threat of the game, the janitors which patrol each school building, spend their time searching for the player, while the player attempts to evade their detection. When caught, there’s no other option than to simply try to outrun the adversary and find a hiding spot. What makes White Day a little unique is its age. These run-and-hide horror games have really only become popular since the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but the original version of White Day was released in 2001, meaning it significantly predates the current trend.
Despite the fact that the place is haunted and guarded by a psychotic crew of custodial staff, the students of YHS seem to really like to sneak onto school property after hours. Hee-Min frequently crosses paths with three other female students who are on their own missions in the school. In addition to So-Young, there is the brash and suspicious Sung-A Kim and the timid and bookish Ji-Hyeon Seol. Interactions with these girls are a big part of the game, because the dialogue choices the player makes will have an impact on the ending (as I found out maybe a bit too late).
The ghost encounters at Y High School often play out like a puzzle, and usually require the player to already be in possession of certain items or documents to survive. Thoroughly exploring the school is critically important in White Day, as scattered about are tons of documents, from faculty and staff notes to rumors to ghost stories, most of which contain snippets of information that are needed to solve these puzzles. In addition, many ghost encounters require the player to be in possession of specific key items to even be able to initiate or complete the encounter. Via the ghost stories and objects the player receives, the game does a fair job of giving color and lore to each ghost.
This, however, leads into one of the biggest flaws I found the game to have: there are a few out-of-nowhere deaths. For instance, I specifically had trouble with one enemy toward the end which requires a specific power switch in the school to be flipped beforehand, or else there’s no way the enemy can be defeated (and at a certain point, they will perform an instant kill on the player). As far as I can tell, there’s no way to know that this switch needs to be flipped until you fight the enemy and see the instant death sequence. There’s a few instances of this, where the player needs to die to certain enemies at least once before they have an idea of what they need to do. Fortunately, the game is pretty good about checkpointing right before you initiate these no-win encounters, so it’s not a huge setback, but it can still be confusing when it happens.
Going back to what I said earlier, White Day was introduced to me long ago as “the scariest game ever made”. As it turns out, this was…………a significant exaggeration. When the original version of this game was released in 2001, I could perhaps see this maybe being the case, but even then, it has easily been surpassed in the many years since. I think perhaps a lot of this may be due to the fact that it was a game where the player is mostly defenseless released in a time when survival-horror games were still mostly focused on characters that carry guns. Still, even though it might not be the scariest game ever made, it definitely has a very thick and moody atmosphere, and most of the monsters and spooks the player encounters in the game are definitely creepy enough to leave an impression.
In particular, White Day really excels in sound design, and the sound effects and music go a long way to elevate the nightmarish atmosphere that pervades the school. There’s a handful of music tracks that seem to play randomly through the course of the game, and I felt they all really nailed the sinister feeling the game was going for. This one in particular really struck a chord with me.
That being said, the main foe of the game, the prowling janitors, can be a mixed bag. They definitely are the prime driver of tension throughout White Day. Their presence is always telegraphed by the silence-shattering jangle of their keys or the creepy tune they whistle. It’s definitely an alarming experience when they enter close proximity. But the janitors can also just become a nuisance sometimes. There were a few situations where I had to stay in my hiding spot for just too long a time while I waited for them to leave the area. Sometimes, you’ve just got to make a break for it and try to outrun them and get to another part of the building, but other times you can’t leave the area where you’re at because there’s an important puzzle that needs to be solved there.
White Day has multiple endings and I think I might have gotten the worst one of them all. Reading over online guides, it seems that the ending changes based on a few key dialogue choices the player makes when talking to the girls. I guess if you only intend to play through this game once, these multiple endings can be a bit annoying, since it seems to me like you would need a guide to get one of the better ones. But it certainly adds replay value to the game, especially if you want to tackle the harder difficulty levels. I’ve read the game has additional content on the higher difficulty levels, which I think further helps to create incentive to replay.
White Day might not be the scariest game ever made, but I think it’s still highly worthwhile for horror game fans. The game has easily been surpassed since 2001, but I think the remastered version available on Steam and PS4 presents a package that has aged reasonably well. I’m certainly grateful that we’ve finally received an official English version.
Last year, I did three posts for October, but I had actually meant to do four. I had been meaning to finish off my Halloween series of reviews with some words on Soma, but, unfortunately, I just wasn’t able to finish the game before Halloween ended, so I decided to hold off until I started doing spooky games again in 2017. Fast forward a year, and I boot up Soma again to realize that I was only like 20 minutes away from the end of the game, which was much closer than I had thought. Had I known that, I would have just powered through and completed it last year………. hindsight is 20/20.
Soma is the story of Simon, a terminally ill man from the modern day who agrees to have his brain scanned as part of a medical experiment. Upon waking from the scan, he finds himself not in the present day, but flung a century into the future to the abandoned and decaying deep sea station, PATHOS-II. He soon discovers that the WAU, the biological computer which maintains the facility, has gone awry, and in its misguided attempt to preserve the life of the crew has created a number of deranged cybernetic monsters which now roam the facility. As Simon contends with the threat of the WAU and its creations, he sets out to discover the ultimate truth of the new world he has awoken to and the ultimate fate of humanity.
Soma is a run-and-hide style of horror game, similar to the studio’s other infamous horror title, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Simon has no real way to fight back against threats, and instead must make use of stealth and evasion to steer clear of dangerous encounters. Unlike Amnesia, however, Soma puts considerably less focus on handling the enemies, and a far greater focus on story and exploration. It’s one of those games where there isn’t a lot of interpersonal interaction, but instead most information is relayed in the past tense via computer terminals, written messages, and something akin to audio logs.
To be honest, most of the horror in Soma isn’t really derived from the threat of the wandering enemies. Rather, it’s the bleakness and existential nausea of Soma’s plot combined with the oppressive and alien atmosphere of the deep sea that makes the game unsettling. It’s less of a horror story that focuses on mysterious physical threats (like zombies or monsters), and more a kind of cerebral horror that is focused on questions that rattle the comfortability we have with our own human existence It’s more Eraserhead than Friday the 13th.
As a consequence, I’ve read more than a few opinions that state that Soma is best played with the enemies turned off. There exists a popular mod on Steam that basically makes all the monsters disappear, allowing the player to fully engage with the atmosphere and story without any distraction. Personally, I played through the entirety of the game with the monsters fully functional, and I found the encounters with them to be a mixed bag. There were a few that were really exciting, but there were just as many that I thought were rather menial. None of them were particularly hard to handle, save for one that I found unusually annoying. I recommend new players start the game with the enemies on, but if they become too much of a nuisance, just download the mod and turn them off. Don’t let them stop you from enjoying the things that the game truly excels at.
And the things that Soma excels at, it really excels at. There are tons of games that are set in sci-fi settings, but few games that really create stories that contend with the best sci-fi literature and film out there. It’s often said that sci-fi is best used as a tool to frame questions about the nature of human existence, but few games actually tread into this territory. Games like Halo and Half-life really just boil down to power fantasies of humans taking on overwhelming alien invaders. They don’t make the player actually question the world in ways they’ve never done before. They’re basically popcorn flicks like Independence Day. But Soma really digs deep into the ideas that it wants to explore. It’s the video game version of Blade Runner or 2001: A Space Odyssey.
PATHOS-II is also just incredible to explore. At a technical level, the graphics in the game are far from the most sophisticated, but the team behind the game made up for it with an incredible use of lighting and their own aesthetic design. The picturesque quality of so many areas had me constantly hitting the screenshot button. These environments do a great job of evoking disquiet and wonder. My favorite moment in the game is one in which the player character is trekking on foot across the bottom of a dark abyss filled with strange deep sea creatures, and I was just left in awe by the sheer alienness of the experience.
Finally, I have to talk about the ending, but I’ll keep it spoiler free and merely offer my reaction to it. At first, I found the final sequence of the game to be incredibly anti-climactic, and I wondered if I had gotten a bad ending. But after the credits were over, there was a significant playable section that made me reflect on how the game had ended before. Lots of horror games have multiple endings, often times some are considered “good” and others considered “bad”. As far as I know, Soma has one ending, but it could be considered both the good and bad ending. It’s definitely a troubling ending that drives home the ideas and themes the game focuses on. It goes back to how I can’t stress enough that this is a story-driven game first and a survival horror game second.
Soma has received an enormous amount of acclaim since its release, and I can definitely understand where all that’s coming from. It’s an exceptional storytelling experience that synthesizes an intricate and thought-provoking sci-fi narrative with a dense and immersive atmosphere. But the monsters in the game definitely feel vestigial to the whole experience. It’s unfortunate that they couldn’t make something more out of this aspect of the game, but, on the other hand, the fact that the monsters are so disposable means that players who choose to turn them off aren’t going to have a compromised experience. Definitely, Soma has become one of those games I feel I can recommend easily to anyone.