Category Archives: Halloween Gaming

Night Trap!

Night Trap

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.  

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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.

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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.

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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.

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White Day: A Labyrinth Named School!

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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.

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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).  

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Soma!

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Yomawari: Night Alone!

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I love October.  The changing of the seasons always gives me a tinge of serenity.  But it’s not just the arrival of fall that makes October great, but also the fact that I love the atmosphere of Halloween time.  For my blog each year, I like to take the month of October to play and write about a few horror games I’ve been meaning to get around to.  This year has been kind of rough, and I haven’t had a lot of time to write here, but I’d like to get that back on track, and I’m also hoping these Halloween posts can kick off a reasonable amount of regularity again.  First up this year is Yomawari: Night Alone, a Vita game I’ve wanted to try out for a while now.  

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Late at night a young girl, who I believe is only ever called “little sister”, is walking her dog when she becomes separated from her animal companion.  Upon returning home, her big sister questions the girl about the dog’s whereabouts, but little sister is unable to tell her the truth.  Not understanding what has happened, big sister leaves the house to find the missing pet.  As time passes and she doesn’t return, little sister becomes worried and sets out into the dark, empty night to try to find out what happened to her.  (Where the parents are in all of this is never explained.)  Venturing out into the sleeping town, she finds it has become infested with dangerous ghosts and begins a long journey to rescue her sister.

Yomawari is played from an top-down isometric perspective as the little sister explores her haunted town.  Wandering the town are various ghost enemies that attack if they sense the presence of the player.  The girl is armed only with a flashlight and small pebbles.  The flashlight is used to illuminate the roaming enemies, while the rocks can sometimes be used to distract them.  The player is given no means of attack, which means that if a ghost gives chase, little sister has to either run away and lose them or find a nearby hiding spot, which are things like large bushes and street signs.  The enemies won’t attack if little sister is hidden in one of these spots, so if the player can reach one, it then just becomes a matter of waiting for the enemy to leave before proceeding.

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Behavior patterns among the basic enemies are fairly varied.  For example, one enemy type is sensitive to sound, while another type stands perfectly still and will only attack if little sister crosses their line of vision.  Aesthetically, the different ghost types aren’t particularly horrific in appearance.  While they’re not at all gory or grotesque, I did find a few of them to be oddly unsettling.  In addition to these smaller enemies, each chapter of the game tends to feature a more elaborate monster as its focus.  I guess you could consider these the bosses of the game.  The encounters with these boss ghosts tend to be a little bit more complex than just running and hiding, and require better reflexes and sometimes puzzle-solving.

What really creates tension in the game is the fact that most of the basic enemies are invisible unless the flashlight illuminates them, which results in an atmosphere of suspicion and unease in the player’s surroundings.  If an enemy is nearby, however, you can hear little sister’s heart beat increase, which is the telltale sign that the player needs to be careful.  Furthermore, the flashlight will only shine directly in front of the player, which means that when a ghost is pursuing little sister, there’s a greater sense of suspense, since the player can’t tell exactly where the enemy is behind them.  Unfortunately, horror games always tend to walk a fine line between tension and frustration, and at times the invisible enemies can result in a lot of irritation.  This is compounded by the fact that the game operates on a one-hit game-over principle, so if a ghost touches little sister, the player is immediately sent back to the last checkpoint.

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The one-hit deaths in the game are by far my greatest complaint.  It can be really frustrating to randomly die to an unseen enemy when you’re busy trying to figure out a puzzle or find an important item that you just can’t seem to locate.  In addition, little sister’s movement is quite slow (even when running) and a bit stiff, which sometimes made evading even the enemies that I was fully aware of a clumsy experience.  Particularly late in the game, there are several enemies that require a high degree of agile movement to avoid, and the game became rather tedious at points.  Getting past those sections felt more like luck to me than skill.

On the positive side, I found the story to possess rather interesting themes, and little sister definitely has a surprising character arc that I didn’t quite expect.  Little sister is scared by the supernatural dangers she faces, but her resolve to save her sister keeps her steadfast in the face of her fear.  The entire story is approached with a level of innocence that I found unusual for a horror game, probably because most horror games feature adult protagonists.

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Yomawari is one of those games that I kind of wish I liked more than I actually do.  That’s because it’s both tonally and mechanically trying to do something different as a horror game, and I always appreciate when games set out to try to be something original.  I found little sister’s quest to be really endearing.  Unfortunately, particularly in the second half of the game, it can become rather tedious for the reasons I’ve described above.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is a bad game, but I don’t feel like I can give it my highest recommendation either.  But it is certainly good enough that I’m looking forward the to upcoming sequel, Yomawari: Midnight Shadows.  I will definitely check it out if they can clean up some of the frustrations I had with this first iteration.

Halloween Gaming: Until Dawn: Rush of Blood

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This past week, I tried something a little different for my Halloween Gaming series.  I was able to try VR for the first time on the new Playstation VR headset from Sony.  When I say “for the first time”, I’m not including the old Nintendo Virtual Boy, which I played a ton after I was able to snag one for cheap when it was discontinued.  You want to know something weird?  The first time I put on the PSVR headset, I immediately recognized that it smelled like my old Virtual Boy did.  I think it’s the foam around the eyepieces (the part that makes contact with the player’s face) that gives the two such similar odors.

Anyway, weird Virtual Boy sense memories aside, one of the PSVR games that I’ve been most eager to try is the spinoff to last year’s excellent PS4 horror title, Until Dawn.  Until Dawn was one of the highlights of 2015 for me, and I had a great time writing about it for last year’s Halloween Gaming series.  While I’ve been really hoping to see the game get a proper sequel, the announcement of Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, an arcade-action spinoff of the original Until Dawn’s story, naturally had my interests piqued.

I don’t know if I can think of two games more different than the original Until Dawn and its spin-off, Rush of Blood.  Rush of Blood replaces the somber tone, slow pacing, and nuanced character development of its progenitor with a bombastic on-rails action experience.  The story of Rush of Blood is somewhat abstract and obtuse, but from what I can gather, the game is essentially a nightmare sequence being had by one of the original story’s cast members.  It’s never said specifically which character, but those who have seen Until Dawn all the way through should be able to figure out which one.

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The game starts with the player character entering an eerily destitute amusement park where a carnival barker implores him to take a ride on a rollercoaster that was once the site’s star attraction. This is one of those rides where the attendees are given toy guns to shoot at targets that line the sides of the tracks, and so it serves as an interesting tutorial for what’s to come.  As the ride nears its conclusion, the psychopath from Until Dawn suddenly appears and switches the rails so that the player is separated from the barker and enters the park’s abandoned haunted house, where the psychopath leads a gang of clowns in an ambush.  From then on out, the player is facing live targets whose ranks are largely composed of standard nightmare fuel such as clowns, mannequins, spiders, and a particular gang of beasties that Until Dawn fans will immediately recognize.  Since the game takes place in a nightmare or a hallucination or whatever it is, the ride becomes increasingly surreal and dangerous as it begins to wind through locations that are clearly beyond the limits of the park, such as a slaughterhouse, a haunted hotel, and an abandoned mine.  

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Rush of Blood is pretty much a standard House of the Dead-style light gun shooter, outside of the VR hook.  The player has two guns which can be aimed independently with two different Playstation Move controllers.  The standard DualShock 4 gamepad can also be used as a motion controller in lieu of the Move wands, but in this mode of play, the two guns are always pointed at the same target (since there is only one controller being used).  The action side of the gameplay is reasonably competent, although aiming and reloading two guns simultaneously can get a bit hairy sometimes.  There were times when I was being rushed by large groups of enemies that I had trouble keeping track of which gun needed to be reloaded, and it resulted in a lot of spastic frustration as the monsters just overwhelmed me.  I suppose you could chalk these moments up to my poor skill.  The game definitely wants you to replay each of its seven chapters to the point of mastering them.  True to the game’s arcade roots, there’s a secondary focus on maximizing score through playing at an expert level, and each chapter features numerous branching paths which encourage replay.

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Since the advantage that VR brings to gaming is a greatly increased level of immersion, horror games are something that could hypothetically benefit enormously from the technology.  Rush of Blood is half horror game/half arcade-action, so it’s a bit of an unusual sample for what this new hardware can do for the horror genre.  Regardless, I think the VR aspect of the game did manage to enhance the title’s atmosphere and immersion.  I think it’s the head tracking that really does it.  There were several moments when I turned my head to the left or right or maybe upwards and caught a glimpse of something spooky that I wasn’t aware was there before.  When you move your real-life head and realize that something was lurking just right outside of your own eyes’ field of view, it’s actually quite creepy and unsettling.  

Outside of atmosphere and the creep-factor, Rush of Blood uses a lot of jump scares.  Cheap jump scares at that.  And they’re usually telegraphed in the most obvious ways.  Like, the lights will go off and you just know that something’s going to be standing right in front of you making loud noises when they flip back on.  In general, a lot of stuff yells in your face in this game.  The first time it happened, I found I was actually kind of fascinated by it, because I reflexively leaned away in my chair, since it was standing right next to me.  I would never actually move my body away from something on a TV screen.  I was impressed by how the immersion of VR was able to provoke such a “realistic” reaction out of me.

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Unfortunately, after the initial excitement, the jump scares wore thin pretty quickly.  Like I said, there’s a fair few things in this game which just pop up and scream right into your face, and it’s really unpleasant after the initial novelty.  To mitigate the obnoxiousness of it all, I actually decided to unplug the earbuds from the VR headset and just listen to the game audio off the TV, so the jump scares wouldn’t be so overwhelming.  Jump scares are one of the simplest and oldest methods that horror games have used to startle the player and create tension.  Some would argue that they are a really lazy way of creating cheap scares, but I would specifically argue they have no place in VR, especially to the extent that Rush of Blood likes to use them, simply because they’re just so aggravatingly unpleasant.

Ultimately, I thought Rush of Blood was a fun time.  I definitely do have some frustrations with it, such as the aforementioned issue with jump scares.  In addition, the game has seven chapters, but will only take about two hours to beat, and the finale is unfortunately rather anti-climactic.  But to be fair, the game is only $20 (not including the steep cost of the VR headset, of course), which helps me forgive many of its stumbling points.  Beyond those issues I have with it, it is suitably kooky and spooky for a game that is essentially a launch title for a whole new type of gaming experience.  And most importantly, it impresses me enough to leave me excited to see how future VR horror games will take advantage of the technology.

Halloween Gaming: Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion

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Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion by Lag Studios is the next game on my Halloween playlist.  As an avid enthusiast of history, you, the player, decide to embark on a mission to explore a local abandoned mansion whose past is shrouded in mystery.  Upon entering the abode, you are greeted by the gal ghost Spooky, who challenges you to survive all 1000 rooms of her haunted lair.

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The layout of the massive titular mansion is procedurally generated.  The player is tasked with overcoming 1000 rooms in the house, and a little counter exists at the top of the screen which keeps track of progress.  The house is mostly composed of a limited set of pre-designed rooms which are put together in a random sequence that changes each time the player starts up the game.  Because there’s a much smaller number of these pre-made rooms than the 1000 total, you’ll see a lot of them repeated over and over again across the course of the game.  There are certain specific rooms, however, that always appear at the same spot in the overall sequence.  These rooms are usually considerably more elaborate than the others and serve to give some story to the game and usually set up the appearance of a new monstrous resident of the mansion.

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The monsters of the game, called specimens, are the source of the adventure’s challenge, along with the player’s nerve to move forward.  When specimens appear, they give chase to the main character through the randomized rooms of the mansion.  It’s not the most complex game, and often it is pretty easy to outrun the various specters.  They doggedly pursue you from room to room, but will stop after predetermined points.  Things get a little more complicated later in the game, as there are certain tricks the player needs to figure out to escape the more advanced specimens.  Eventually, the player also gets a weapon of dubious effectiveness.

The story in SJSM is rather minimal and exists purely to provide flavor to the haunted adventure.  The Jump Scare Mansion and its mistress possess a mish-mash of chilling horrors and flippant comedy.  Despite being home to some truly evil supernatural entities, the mansion sometimes feels like an elaborate practical joke.  Spooky comes off like a juvenile prankster who has assembled the horrific deathtrap not out of prime malevolence, but more for her own dark yet frivolous amusement.  In addition to the more elaborate story-centric rooms I described above, little snippets of story tend to emerge here and there.  The player can find bits of text, like notes left behind by other foolish trespassers, and occasionally, Spooky, herself, will come out to interact with the player for a short bit.  But otherwise, there’s not much of grandiose plot behind the game.  All of these little story bits exist merely to enhance the mood and atmosphere.

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Despite the fact that the game is built from a fairly small set of simple rooms strung together by procedural generation, I felt like it still managed to be highly effective at creating atmosphere and tension.  Much of this was due to how the game continually subverted my expectations.  For the first several rooms, you are faced only with goofy pop-out haunted house scares, until you meet the first specimen, a fairly uninspired creature which only slowly gives chase.  But from then on out, the specimens become increasingly disturbing, and eventually the game began to challenge the “rules” by which I thought it worked.  There were times I felt like I was safe, only to be desperately alarmed to find out otherwise.  Eventually, even during the down periods in which there were no monsters present, I felt constantly uneasy, because I realized anything could happen at anytime.  By keeping the player on their toes in this way, the designers were able to create a level of tension and suspense that I felt was highly effective.

It’s often said that the fear of the unknown is the greatest fear of all.  It might be a trite saying, but I find that it is especially true with games.  I’ve noticed in SJSM that the scariest parts of the game are when there are no active threats against the player.  It was those times when there was nothing chasing me that I began to psyche myself out while waiting for the next monster to dreadfully appear.  When the monsters finally did present themselves, I found my stress rapidly dropped off, since I could more rationally assess the threat.

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I often find people say that video games can’t be scary, because the player can just reset to the last save point if they die, and thus there is no real danger to be fearful.  That point isn’t really wrong, but I think it misses a huge element of video game horror.  The true horror of video games, like the true horror of any fiction, comes from withinside the player, themselves.  It’s the dreadful anticipation of what might be lying around the next corner, the internal struggle of the player against their own imagination of the frights to come, that makes us terrified when we otherwise have no rational reason to be.  In reality, I think the monsters are the least scary part of any horror game.  Rather, it’s the atmosphere which creates true tension and dread in these games.

Despite its simplistic gameplay and primitive Doom-like graphics, I found Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion to be a great horror game.  It’s not the most elaborate game, but the setting and atmosphere really make up for it.  I haven’t even mentioned the best part yet, which is that the game is free on Steam.  And with such unsophisticated graphics, it’ll run on even the most basic PCs, so I encourage everyone whose interest I might have piqued to give the game a try.  

Halloween Gaming: Oxenfree

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October rolls around once again, which means it’s time to get into the Halloween spirit.  For the past couple years, I’ve tried to spend the duration of the spooky season festively writing about horror games.  Last year, in particular, I had a fun time with it, and hopefully this year will be just as successful.  For those who missed those old posts and might be curious, I’ve collected all of the previous years’ essays on this page.  First up this time is Oxenfree, a narrative adventure game released earlier this year.

Oxenfree is at its core a ghost story in which a group of teens set out for a night of unsupervised revelry on the beaches of the mostly deserted Edwards Island.  During the course of the night’s events, the teens test out a local urban legend, and, unsurprisingly to the audience, the proceedings go terribly awry.  The group becomes trapped on the island while being harrowed and tormented by reality-bending paranormal entities from the island’s apocryphal past.

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The struggle of a group of teenagers against an overpowering and inescapable threat makes Oxenfree somewhat similar to last year’s teen slasher title, Until Dawn. But unlike the shifting perspectives of Until Dawn, the player only controls one central character, Alex, in Oxenfree.  Alex is joined by four other protagonists, the most important of whom is Jonas, her new step-brother that she met immediately before the opening of the story. In addition to Jonas, she is accompanied by childhood friend Ren, slacker Nona, and Clarissa, the ex-girlfriend of Alex’s tragically deceased brother, Michael.  Alex’s growing relationship with Jonas and the tension that exists between her and Clarissa are the biggest focus of her character arc.

Oxenfree could maybe best be described as one of the much dreaded “walking simulators,” although, as this genre has started to grow significantly in the past years, I seriously wish a better common term for it would take hold.  Essentially, Oxenfree is more focused on story, dialogue, and exploring characters than on providing a solid challenge to the player.  Conversations are a particularly strong focus of the game.

The game’s conversation system is relatively simple, but also fairly versatile.  When Alex can chime in during exchanges, three text bubbles will pop up above her head, each with a potential reaction the player can select.  The player can also always choose to ignore these text bubbles, in which case Alex will stay silent.  Furthermore, the timing of the reply is also important, since Alex can interrupt other characters while they’re talking.  And of course, the game features branching dialogue based on the choices the player makes, although I’ve only given this game one playthrough, so I can’t really speak to how drastically the conversations can differ.

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As the teens progress in their quest to escape the island, the unseen ghostly forces vie to impede their progress.  At certain points in the story, the ghosts trap Alex and company in time loops during which unearthly and threatening paranormal events occur.  Escaping these time loops requires a light (and I mean very light) amount of puzzle solving, and, after the conversation system, serves as the second pillar of Oxenfree’s gameplay.  These time loops, I think, were meant to add an element of a more traditional gameplay style, but they aren’t really much of a challenge.  The solutions are all very simple and more often than not are repeated in later segments.  It’s clear that the designers of the game were far more interested in developing out their branching conversation system than they were in adding these more traditional adventure game segments that require puzzle solving.

Horror is a highly subjective, hit-or-miss sort of thing.  What’s scary to me might not be scary to you, and vice versa.  I try to keep that in mind when assessing stuff like this.  Regardless, I don’t really think anyone would find Oxenfree all that scary.  There are some freaky sequences, but I don’t think the story really develops much tension.  Despite some vain attempts to make the player think otherwise, the teens are never really in “true” danger, or at least it didn’t seem that way during my playthrough.  It’s not like in Until Dawn where the wrong move can have one of the central characters eliminated for the rest of the story.   As a consequence, there’s never really the feeling of dread and apprehension that appears in a good horror game.  

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But I’ve always felt that horror fiction can get away with not being scary if the mystery elements of the story make up for it.  A good horror story has twists and turns that keep the audience on their toes till the very end.  Unfortunately, I’m not really sure that Oxenfree executes so well on this point either.  The plot felt very by the numbers, and there really wasn’t much mystery at all to the game.  Key story points, like the identities of the ghosts, are all pretty obvious, and there weren’t really any surprising revelations to be had.  By the end of it, I had a “that was it?” kind of moment.  It really felt like there should have been more here than there was.  

I’m a bit perplexed by Oxenfree.  I don’t mean to come off like I didn’t like the game.  I did enjoy many parts of it.  But since earlier this year, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of positive buzz for this title on various different gaming communities.  Personally, my experience didn’t really leave me feeling like the game was worthy of the praise lavished on it.  I’m left wondering if there’s something here that I just “don’t get” that others do.  You know, I can only ever really speak for myself.  Oxenfree has some branching story paths, so maybe it’s possible that I’ve missed something big, but looking over various online discussions of the game’s story, I doubt that’s the case.  Ultimately, Oxenfree is not really a game that I can personally recommend unqualified to everyone.  However, I did like the game well enough to recommend it to people who resonate strongly with story and conversation-driven games like Firewatch or Telltale’s various series.  It’s not the strongest of that category of games, but on a Steam sale, it’s worth checking out.

 

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