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Phantasmagoria!

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.

Stories Untold!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Little Nightmares!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Night Trap!

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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.

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.  

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