Tag Archives: bizarre horror

REVIEW: Decay: The Mare – Episode 1

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.

Decay - The Mare - Episode 1 - Screen

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.

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REVIEW: Saturn 9

No beating around the bush on this one; I owe Saturn 9 (80 MSP) and developer Raoghard some serious credit. After ragging on the studios’ previous, multiplayer-only efforts, Vampire Slayer and Bulkhead (which serves as the visual inspiration / foundation for this new game), I wondered if the effort wouldn’t be better spent in crafting a single-player, adventure-minded game that combined the Sunburn Engine’s penchant for gorgeous visuals with a meatier premise.

Saturn 9 is the answer to that criticism, or perhaps the developer’s plan all along, a sci-fi horror adventure that channels Event Horizon’s hellish hallucinations, Eternal Darkness’ psychological / meta-mindfucks, and tops it off with a well done twist of Slender. Those individual ingredients all add up to a pretty good recipe, one of the strongest (and, sadly, shortest) horror adventures you’ll come across.

Given the previous games, that focused on gunplay and constantly being in combat, you might be surprised to find there is none of that in Saturn 9. While you’ll make use of a small assortment of tools (trusty flashlight, screwdriver, …a man’s hand), you won’t be killing anything. The game is all about setting a mood, be it through the excellent lighting / shadow work, or the scientists’ journal entries that catalog the ship’s slow decent into chaos (narrated to you via some very decent voice-acting). There’s no heavy story arc or much explanation in the end, but it is effective in creating a palpable unease.

Instead, your chief impediment is the ship itself, dark and cold as a tomb, locked away from the prying eyes of ‘The Company’ that sent you to investigate. Moving through the incredibly claustrophobic halls and rooms, there is some light puzzle work to be done (almost entirely in spotting clues for the various password-locked computers) that’s also completely optional if you prefer to cheat your way to open doors.

Saturn 9 - Screen

Through some scares and cleverly-done hallucinations (that I won’t spoil), you’ll eventually wind your way down to the cargo hold of the ship. The final act of the game is a tense showdown with the menace aboard the station, though it’s not a fight, but flight, as you gather up the data (all Slender-like) you were sent to collect and make your escape. The game will last you just under an hour, but that hour, preferably spent alone in the dark, is well worth it.

It’s light on puzzles, difficulty, and playtime, but Saturn 9 is a very pleasant surprise, one of the best ‘cerebral horror’ adventures you’re likely to find on the indie channel. If there is a sequel or expansion that continues in this style of storytelling, I will definitely be the first in line to play it. Easily recommended.

REVIEW: White Noise Online

Call them the odd couple, rushing into things so soon after their introduction, but for better or worse, Slender-like psychological scares and online co-op are married in White Noise Online (80 MSP). For the sake of space, I’ll spare you the game’s premise. If you do need some perspective / background, the original’s review is here, though trust that the game is just as gorgeous, the darkness still as disorienting, as ever.

Tape collecting returns (each recorder now comes with a brief yet effective playback), with the benefit (and potential mood-breaker) of online co-op. Don’t worry, it’s not a Slender Man FPS, more a co-op excuse for people who need their hand held during horror movies. It’s only competitive in the sense of who can acquire the most tape recorders and survive the longest, though, as progress is shared between the group. And teamwork is necessary; getting too far ahead of the other players will spell your doom, and them likewise. Hearing the screams of your group getting picked off by the creature one by one, sometimes right next to you, is as unnerving as if you were playing alone.

‘Dying’ isn’t permanent in multiplayer. When you’re ‘found’ by the creature, you’re simply transported to a spirit realm of sorts, where you gain an illuminated view of the grounds. Your body is turned to stone on the spot, and your avatar becomes an outline of a ghost. From here until the last player survives or perishes (or disconnects), you can either follow the paths of others still in the hunt, or help them find additional tapes (being a ghost with enhanced vision has its advantages). At the end, a summary will show you and your crew where and when you found your tapes / demise, and how many times you walked in a circle like an idiot. All in all, the online play works well, even in the context of horror and isolation.

This time out, you can choose from three stages. ‘Chateau’ is the level from the previous game, and hasn’t changed much, outside of the weird, green ‘creature’ obelisks (do not stare at them for long) and avatar ghosts. The added locales, ‘Saint-Martin’ and the snowy ‘Kvitoya’, feature their own unique layouts and monuments, a church and cabins, respectively. Character selection is a first for the franchise, and goes beyond simple preference or gender choices. Each choice comes with its own skill set, like more flashlight power, better scouting abilities, or less susceptibility to fear (vital when you’re the last man standing, or searching, as it were).

White Noise Online - Screen

Pro-tip for real life: if you ever find yourself in a secluded wooded area with a statue like this, run in the opposite direction.

There are extras in the form of unlockable characters, some of which can be obtained by collecting a set number of tapes over your career, while others are accessible only via codes you’ll find in other Milkstone releases you own (effective advertising at its finest, eh?). It’s nothing to get worked up about, just palette swaps, though it is a neat perk if you’re into showing off that you’re a loyal customer.

Leaving the Slender comparisons aside, and if you’re still in the market for scares or too chicken to go it alone, I definitely say you pick up this version of White Noise over the ‘barely two months old’ original. You still have the option to play solo, and the new areas and addition of online play are solid points to this otherwise very early sequel.

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Review on Indie Gamer Chick

REVIEW: White Noise: A Tale of Horror

Let’s just get it out in the open. It is impossible to mention White Noise: A Tale of Horror (80 MSP) or any of the harm / good it does, without first invoking Slender. Their two cores are so intrinsically-linked that it’s not out of order for you to call White Noise a straight-up rip-off. It is. It’s also a no-brainer. I can say I entirely don’t mind a console version (unoriginal as it may be) that can replicate the fear the indie PC release did such a masterful job at creating.

As much as I can claim to be better equipped than some, I’m still a wuss in a lot of respects. I don’t like to feel scared or helpless. The same applies for horror games and their manifestations, especially being at the mercy of a threat you cannot fight no matter how much courage you muster. Your only choice throughout is to walk (or, better, run) in the opposite direction. The patch of ground the entirety of the game takes place in is no ally either. Each play starts you off at a random point within it, keeping you disoriented and constantly plying the darkness and terrain for clues, with no safe port to anchor in.

You’ll undoubtedly walk in circles your first few tries, which is entirely the game’s intention. How better to appreciate the odd layout of the land, the heavy foliage and wandering ghosts (harmless), a running stream or architecture that’s even Silent Hill-esque in spots, like a street that unexpectedly drops off into a foggy void? Milkstone certainly has the programming chops to evoke uneasiness. White Noise has a really nice-looking 3D engine that I hope to see employed in other, lengthy and more original horror endeavors. That’s not a dig at the company, more so a ‘thumbs up’ for them to aspire to do more.

Both the environment and ambient sound effects superbly set the tone. Disembodied screams, or the coughing of your own character, ratchet up nerves. The subtle images in the darkness, like trees that take human forms, or statues whose shapes are a little off, too, spawn a sense of dread. The predator here is just as effective. Granted, Milkstone’s creature is no Slender Man, but the same visceral tension is present in every near sighting, every corner-of-your-eye glance. You won’t suffer from any nightmares, but if Slender scared you enough to avoid playing with the lights off, expect White Noise to do the same.

White Noise - Screen

Again, collection of a set number of items is the engine for transporting scares. While Slender had you retrieving eight scattered pages, in this game it’s tape recorders. There’s no map or set route to follow, and only the sound of static will point towards the next recorder. You don’t get to listen to any dialogue upon collection, but the accompanying music change lets you know you’ve just made a mistake. The creature begins stalking you after the first pickup, and doesn’t lose your scent for long if you manage to avoid it. Count on it standing right behind you. There are several cues, audio and visual, that will warn you of trouble.

And that’s it. It plays like the original. White Noise is obvious copycatism, though it does succeed at beating everyone else to the punch (i.e., Slender on console). It’s light on additional content, only a code to unlock items in other Milkstone releases (EDIT 1/27: An update has added new unlockable visual filters: Night Vision / Smiley Face / brighter flashlight, and a new Hard mode), but as a homage (or rip-off, depending on your word choice) to one of the most unnerving games I’ve played, it fills the role much better than expected. The fact that someone will pay a dollar willingly in order to be terrorized is compliment enough.

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Bonus! Watch the always-entertaining Alan from The Indie Ocean blindly play White Noise.

REVIEW: The 4th Wall

I would’ve demoed The 4th Wall (80 MSP) regardless, but when something looks this blatantly strange and gets all dodgy and interrogative, my involvement is a foregone conclusion. What lies beyond The 4th Wall? asks the marketplace description. Indeed.

A remake with better art and more content (the PC original can be found here, for the extra curious), the game could be described as a first-person ‘puzzle’ (the developer has coined it an ‘abstract horror puzzler’), but that’s not entirely truthful. The only ‘puzzle’ comes in the form of a maze, the rest boils down to trial and error and weirdness, so I had to go and create a new designation for the game— ‘Other’.

And unfortunately, I must invoke the first rule of Fight Club, as to talk about The 4th Wall is to spoil playing The 4th Wall. You’ll have to rest on brief and disjointed phrasing— exploring the white noise, a bleeding worm, a room constructed entirely of words, and eyes watching you.

See?

What I will say is if you decide to give it a try, you shouldn’t suffer any bouts of boredom. I blinked twice the whole time. The continual ‘resets’ of the visuals keep you going, as do the questions. It’s wall-to-wall WTF. Maybe the bleeding worm is a metaphor for the state of the planet, or maybe I’m supposed to be the worm? Or the blood? Maybe it’s just a really long penis. Who knows. The 4th Wall isn’t forthcoming.

Nor is it scary, in the traditional sense. One or two ‘pop-up’ or ‘corner of the eye’ instances. Unnerving? You could definitely say that, mostly in the spatial relationships between you and the ‘screens’, how a much larger room can exist inside a smaller one. That part reminded me of House of Leaves, which (partially) explored the sudden occurrence of a constantly-expanding labyrinth in a family’s closet. That scared me, the idea of a place folding, shrinking, or twisting itself without pattern. Something like this would be worth a whole game on its own, were it properly managed and expanded upon.

Exactly how my parents taught me things.

As it is, I won’t downplay the strangeness of The 4th Wall, which warrants a look if you’re into oddities, but I can’t call it a ‘buy’ either. Your time with it will probably run under an hour, mostly out of confusion and wandering, and there’s no real payoff. The ‘ending’ makes about as much sense as the rest of it. It’s a art house game, easily gathering a crowd to stand and gawk, some tension achieved, but with only the minimum in satisfaction after the ‘show’ takes its bow.