The Decay series (four chapters in all) came before my time in reviewing. Generally well-received by fans, I nonetheless held off on catching up on the games, not being a fan of the point-and-click Myst-style format. Though the fourth game announced some finality to that tale, Decay: The Mare – Episode 1 ($2.99) starts up the thriller / horror grinder for another episodic run, conveniently bringing back its brand of dark, disturbing puzzles and narrative in time for Halloween.
Protagonist ‘Sam’, only having recently been admitted to the ‘Reaching Dreams’ clinic to kick a drug habit, wakes up to find the institution has undergone an extreme makeover. No one is around, and everything left behind has taken on a darker, off-kilter appearance. The architects of this new place obviously spent too much time playing Silent Hill and watching all of the Saw movies, back to back to back. Leaving his room and exploring the grounds, Sam finds himself in the proverbial nightmare he can’t wake up from.
Like the previous entries, the entirety of the new game takes place on pre-rendered backgrounds, enhanced by brief, disjointed clips like what you’d find in The Ring. The static screens are given some added life (ironic considering the blood that’s liberally applied to most of the game’s surfaces) with the use of lighting and animation. The cheap scares return as well, causing a jump here or there, and the general unease of each new room or hallway does a good job of setting the mood. From blinking pictures to befriending a talking purse (…you’ll see), foreboding is an accurate description.
Interaction is limited to certain items and furniture in the environment, though you can change your ‘view’ to take in the scene from different angles, often finding something important. That said, it’s still a point-and-click game, and most of the intended scares and spooky lighting lose their appeal once you’ve revisited the rooms. And ‘revisiting’ is a common theme for The Mare, as the smallish spaces you explore will most times double as a puzzle or integral item you’ll return to later. Bemoaned by many, backtracking has its place in games, and here it’s stretched almost to the point of shattering your patience. If you’re not the type to scrutinize and analyze every clue or item, The Mare doesn’t make it any easier for you. Expect to wander a bit.
There’s only a handful of puzzles in the episode, most of which involve some light investigation and / or matchmaking (a reassembled sledgehammer, for instance, will take down a shabby brick wall). Of the two or three that may cause stumping, it’s not always obvious what to do next or how some particular items are used. Even triggering the cliffhanger ending was more about blind luck than fluid storytelling / design. Some will argue that’s part of the appeal in these games, and I’d usually agree, were the payoff a little better. About an hour’s worth of puzzle-solving, with very little exposition, does not an intriguing adventure make. Especially at $3.
Your own mileage may vary. Decay: The Mare – Episode 1 retains the atmosphere and creepy setup of its predecessors, which is sure to satisfy fans. For newcomers like myself, the cost may be prohibitive unless future installments can find a better balance in content and storytelling to match the excellent (and demented) visuals.