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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.

 

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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.

 

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.

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