Monthly Archives: October 2014

Huntsman: The Orphanage

H

Free a group of orphans from the clutches of an evil creature.

PC Release: September 13, 2013

By Ian Coppock

Much as I’d like to, I can’t shower every entry of the Short Horror Week series in praise and flowers. Indeed, most of the series comprises suggestions from my readers, and I don’t screen these entries before giving them a spot on the roster. I like to praise games and recommend them to people, but I write these reviews to protect consumers from making some questionable purchases. Huntsman: The Orphanage tries. It really does. But I’m not sure that’s enough.

____________________

Huntsman is a first-person survival horror game where you start off in the middle of a vast forest. Your goal is to explore a nearby abandoned orphanage, and investigate the fates of a few orphans who lived there decades ago. Mysterious circumstances have forced the facility’s closure. Your cell phone has no service but it makes a nifty flashlight.

For the grief I’m about to give the rest of this game, Huntsman starts off well. You’re isolated in the middle of a forbidding woodland and finding the orphanage is more a matter of crashing through the underbrush than following a straight path. This was a design choice I found to be most excellent, because it reinforced the sense of being lost and the orphanage itself being lost to time.

H1

So far so good…

Anyway, I entered the building and immediately moused over a portrait of a foreboding orphanage master, who relayed from beyond the grave his decision to surrender the souls of his charges to a monster, in exchange for his own being spared. Paintings of various characters can be found throughout the orphanage, and its through these that the subjects tell their origins and predicaments.

This was a design choice that divided me almost immediately. For the most part, these monologues are very well voice-acted, perhaps even better than the characters I lauded yesterday in Stairs. Unfortunately, some of the stories are simply way too long. I sat there for about 10 minutes listening to one orphan ramble about the seasons or some shit, and while I can appreciate some poetic brevity, taking too long to get the point tends to be frustrating rather than enrapturing.

H2

Jesus Jones, kiddo, I’m sorry you got your finger chopped off, but what does that have to do with anything?!

There’s a haunted chalkboard in the orphanage classroom that tells you to set these orphans’ souls free. They’re not dead; they’re being held in purgatory by some unknown force. Unfortunately, this message does an incredibly poor job of explaining how to go about this task, and it wasn’t until a few walkthroughs later that I figured out you’re supposed to put an item belonging to each orphan on their gravestones.

Great. So, the first question is… where the hell is the cemetery?

LOOOOOOOST

LOOOOOOOST

Despite tearing through this damn orphanage four times over, I never figured out where the graveyard is. It’s a frustration other players have expressed to me as well. Additionally, the items that you’re supposed to be looking for are not in any way highlighted or singled out from the piles of junk around the building. You can guess what you need from the orphans’ monologues, but that won’t save you from hours of teeth-gnashingly frustrating pixel-hunting. Some objects, like the aforementioned severed finger, are simply too small.

Another gameplay element that needs a lot of work are the scares. The orphans will sometimes send you chilling, Ring-esque messages through your phone, but because the phone is in your lower right-hand corner, the images are hardly scary. If they took up your entire screen they might be, but a five-second clip out of your peripheral is really not that terrifying.

The item placement in this game is irritating. Dark-clue-on-that-dark-mattress levels of irritating.

The item placement in this game is irritating. Dark-clue-on-that-dark-mattress levels of irritating.

Now, to be fair, the game has some decent level design. The orphanage is huge and dark, and you can easily get lost if you’re not careful. This was an element of the game that I found to be reasonably engrossing. The grounds surrounding the orphanage are similarly dark and maze-like. So for all of Huntsman’s other failures, level design, at least, is quite good.

By now I suppose I should mention the monster, though I’d rather not. The eponymous Huntsman looks like the offspring of a tarantula and one of those beak-masked doctors from Assassin’s Creed II. A terrifying creature, in its own right. Too bad my copy of the game was bugged as to insta-kill me for even a passing encounter with the damn thing.

H3

…Wait, what?

Yep. I’m told the Huntsman follows Slenderman-style rules: look at it too long, and you die. Its presence is supposedly indicated by the many ticking clocks in its jacket, but the only ticking happening here was my temper, as even seeing the thing out of the corner of my eye for a millisecond sent me into the game’s death state, from which there is no reload. You have to start the whole game over again.

(Tears out scalp in frustration).

H4

This game is haunted. Literally.

My final word on this game is its premise. The developer boldly states that this is the first of a “new breed” of “alt-horror” games that boldly forsake blood and violence, apparently never having heard of the dozens of games that embrace this motif, and have done so for decades. I really have no words for the critics who bought the buzzwords hook line and sinker, except that they have some horizons in desperate need of expanding.

Now look; I don’t like tearing into video games like this. I said as much to the developer of this game, code-name Shadowshifter, during a chat over Steam a few months ago. He/she relayed that this is their first effort and that they’re looking at addressing a few of the concerns brought before him/her over the past year, but a lot of these things are very simple fixes that should have been opened and closed as rudimentary design elements. I commend the developer reaching out to me personally and us having a chat about this, so I will close with this: Huntsman has potential. Please fix it. Thank you.

But in the meantime, I cannot recommend it.

____________________

You can buy Huntsman: The Orphanage here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Stairs (Pre-Alpha Build)

STAIRS

Investigate the rumors surrounding a decommissioned power plant.

PC Release: May 30th, 2013

By Ian Coppock

My God, I’m already on the verge of being broken in by these damn games and we’re only two nights into the series! Guess that means I’m on the right path, in some ways. Stairs is a tribute to old-school adventure gaming as well as horror, and the combination produces both a well-made game and a constipation aid that kicks the crap out of laxatives… no pun intended.

Also, these investigative journalists never seem to learn, do they?

____________________

Stairs sees you take on the role of Peter Johnson, an Irish investigative journalist who travels his home country chasing ghost stories. The latest case, concerning ghost sightings, disappearances and strange noises, causes Peter to forsake common sense and descend into the bowels of an old nuclear plant. Armed with a flashlight and your trusty camera, it’s up to you to see whether these stories have any truth to them… if we absolutely must…

I'm all for journalistic integrity, but these horror game gumshoes might love daring exposes a bit too much.

I’m all for journalistic integrity, but these horror game gumshoes might love daring exposes a bit too much.

With a simple enough premise, I decided to go down some stairs (OH BOY! THE NAMESAKE OF THE GAME!) into a cold, rusting hell. You observe as much from a first-person perspective and can run, pick up items and interact with a few things around the game world. Peter will muse a subtle hint about what the items you find might be for, without outright telling you, giving you some exploration fuel.

Stairs’ narrative comprises a few mumbles to Peter’s self, but the heart and soul of the story is voice over commentary from three trapped workers, whose tragic fate at the bottom of this metal pit quickly becomes the focus of your search. Through some of the best voice acting I’ve heard on the indie scene, Peter will be entrusted with a chilling tale for survival, as the three men squabble among themselves. These dialogues are reinforced by some truly foreboding set pieces.

As Peter gets deeper into the facility, the motives of each of the three workers become revealed to him. Some are trustworthy of each other, others are not, and all engage in a struggle to escape the facility and return to the surface. The voice actors behind the characters are to be commended for all the usual platitudes in that department, but what I want to single out was their ability to create panic and desperation.Indeed, I’d expect nothing less from three people locked in a power plant basement. Gave me the willies.

Stairs is awesome because it shows, not tells. It gives you some dialogue and leaves the environment to help you piece together the whole story.

Stairs is awesome because it shows, not tells. It gives you some dialogue and leaves the environment to help you piece together the whole story.

 As Peter, I began following a dusty trail, beaten and bloodied into the corridors all around me. The game has no music; the only audio is the drafts haunting the corridors (among other things) and the creaking of rusting, forgotten metal. If you can picture these sounds delivered in conjunction with the monologues of three men who fear their approaching doom, you can see as I did that Stairs’ developers crafted a great approach to sound. This is compounded by the game’s twisting, claustrophic hallways, which serve to reinforce the sense of being trapped.

As for the demon thing in the title card, well, he makes it clear that you’re not alone. But, the run-ins with him are timed so as not to overwhelm the player, keeping the focus on story without losing that grip on fear. Normally I advocate monster encounters almost minute-by-minute, but this allows Stairs to strike a perfect balance between story delivery and feeling vulnerable. Most horror games resort to one or the other without fully grasping both, and it’s not like the result is any less scary.

Claustrophobic environments and story-centered monster encounters make Stairs a great game.

Claustrophobic environments and story-centered monster encounters make Stairs a great game.

Stairs’ gameplay is simple without being simplistic. It follows the trail largely beaten into the earth by other indie efforts: muse about locked door, find key or solve puzzle to open said door, and progress. In Stairs you’ll have to explore the entire labyrinth in order to move forward. Creative level design reminiscent of Valve games can make you feel a bit lost but not frustratingly so.

The art department also deserves a tip of the hat. The graphics are nothing to write home about but they’re par for the course as far as indie games go. The game’s textures are sharp and clean, and the developers find ways to stuff a ton of colors into what I’d normally assume to be a monochromatic environment. Everything about this game is just very cleanly and tightly wound, and I honestly don’t have anything bad to say about it. It doesn’t mean it’s a perfect game, but it does everything it sets out to do beautifully. Absorbs the player in a dark environment, delivers a chilling tale, and lets you get on with your life before lunch break is over. Bing bang boom.

A good game is Stairs.

A good game is Stairs.

Because of its emphasis on story and its intuitive approach to monster encounters, I think Stairs is a game for anyone of any skill level. It’s still scary as hell, but it lacks the crushing impossibility horror novices might feel at the hands of Outlast. 

Stairs is like the LEGO of horror games; it’s simple enough for anyone to attempt but still awesome enough that veterans can kick a kick out of it. The game is available all over the web; I’d highly recommend hitting up Game Jolt for a copy. It’s free, so you have no excuse not to.

____________________

You can buy Stairs here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

One Late Night

O

Survive terrifying attacks while working late at the office.

PC Release: January 29, 2013

By Ian Coppock

Ultimately, Short Horror Week III might be just what I need to get my ass in gear again. I managed to write a few reviews over the course of the summer, but most of that time has been spent getting good at my job and dealing with a few things that, sans melodrama, have been resolved. Time to review again, and anyone betting on my return better believe that I’m not going to miss out on what has become an annual event.

For those of you unfamiliar with how Short Horror Week works, I review a short, usually free horror game every day in the week leading up to Halloween, culminating with the scariest of the bunch on October 31st. It’s a lot of fun for all of us; I get to share an obsession analogous to a serious drug problem, and everyone ranging from the curious story-seeker to the hardcore psychotic gets their fix. And on that note, let’s talk about the first entry in our new series: One Late Night.

____________________

One Late Night is a short indie horror game set in one of the dreariest of locales: working late at the office. Fortunately, working late at my company usually includes a lot of ping pong and beer, so I felt an immediate disconnect with my character, some anonymous pencil-pusher staying up late… and by himself… at the office.

Why this poor guy has to stay so late is not explained, but it does provide an excuse for you to be in a big office all by yourself. The first thing I’d do is blast metal music out of the speakers, but I guess this individual had productivity on his mind. Whatever.

O1

If I’m going to die, at least my grave is swanky.

One Late Night impressed me from the get-go. The graphics are exceptional for an indie title, and the game built up a steady drum of atmosphere with thunder clashes outside and the occasional hum of office machinery.

As I toured my space, ignoring the clicks of the fax machine and searching for that bubbly sound coffee makers make, I came back to my office and found a baffling message typed up on my screen.

O2

“I see you.” TYLER?! Are you messing with me?! You know who you are.

As I continued exploring the office, I started finding items out of place and balloons where there were not balloons five seconds ago. These rearrangements were juxtaposed with such lovely jump scares as all the drawers in my office flying open simultaneously, and chairs rounding corners to hit me in the face.

It was only after a few minutes of searching for office keys and clues that my screen went all blurry and this freaking abomination revealed herself to me.

O3

AAAAAAAHHH!!!!!

With this spooky lady as our nightwatchman, it’s small wonder we’ve never had a break-in! Now came to pass what I thought would be a mundane task: leaving the office. One Late Night‘s gameplay is a sequence of locked doors, keys, clues, and more locked doors. You have to make your way around the office floor looking for the path forward, all the while avoiding the gaze of this terrifying widow. She’s unpredictable, and angry, randomly lapsing in and out of existence to scour the office for you. If you’re not hiding under a desk or water cooler when she comes back, you’re dead.

As in most good horror games, you have no means of self-defense. The widow’s arrival is haralded by the screen going all flickery and a melancholic piano tune, letting you know that it’s time to hide. Typically the game will give you a chance to do this before she sees you, because if she sees you, she’ll slowly float your way and do what I can only assume is sucking the eyeballs from their sockets.

O4

RUNAWAYRUNAWAYRUNAWAY!!!

One Late Night has a solid atmosphere base and a monster that’s fairly scary, but it suffers from a few problems in the gameplay and context departments. The game’s frame rate absolutely chugged on my computer, probably because everything in this game is covered in enough lens flares to make it look like the USS Enterprise. Character movements are clunky; sprinting is literally running in slow motion, i.e. walking, and the items you have to pick up are tiny, necessitating turning down the mouse sensitivity to be able to get them. You can run, duck, hide under random objects, and grab items when you’re able to select them.

It’s also not clear what exactly you’re supposed to do in this game. Yes, you have to elude the widow monster and get out, but the logistics of this goal are left up to thin air. Ostensibly, you’re supposed to break into your troubled coworker’s office to get answers, but this took some sorting out. The most frustrating thing about this game is that items will spawn where there were no items before. That may not sound so bad, but it means tearing through the same office 4-5 times to complete different goals, and with the widow skulking around, this takes up a lot of time. If you’re patient, it can be done. But it’s not exactly fair to the player for items like batteries and keys to suddenly appear.

O5

Captain’s Log, Conference Room Sweep #46, still no sign of batteries that will be there in five minutes. Wait, what?

Still, for problems like these, the game does do a decent job of switching up your goals and using intricate item combinations to escape from the office. And, there’s a lot to look at. A lot of indie games are pretty sparse in the art department, but this is a fully decked-out environment that looks and feels like a real office. The developers’ meticulous attention to detail, from coffee mugs to computer manuals, is to be commended.

As far the story goes, well… there really isn’t one. I guess technically you can glean together some things from your coworkers’ panicked faxes and the things written on your mentally unstable coworker’s white board, but the focus here is on survival. The thing I didn’t understand is why this old widow would be haunting a suburban-looking office. It’s a question that has potential for a fascinating answers, since offices are rarely covered as the main environment in any game, let alone a horror one, but those answers never came.

O6

This game’s strength lies in artwork and level design. It excels at capturing the mundane realism of an office.

I believe that what One Late Night set out to do was take a topic of utter boredom and turn it into something of fear. I jumped quite a few times when I saw the widow floating around the corner, and some of the jump scares, while cheesy, make for a solid 1-2 punch alongside the rearranging items. Yeah, we don’t know why the widow’s haunting this office or why items are appearing or re-appearing, but none of this occurred to me during the actual game because I was under a bit of duress. No one likes getting their eyeballs removed by a scary widow at 11:00 PM on a Tuesday. That’s just messed up.

Despite some gameplay problems, One Late Night is well-worth the 20 minutes I spent playing it. If you turn down the graphical settings and are willing to be patient with this game’s dolling out of clues, you’ll enjoy it. This, combined with the unpredictable arrivals and disappearances of the widow, makes for a solid indie effort. One Late Night is available on the eponymous website. And with that, Short Horror Week III has begun! Tomorrow’s game involves investigating a decommissioned Irish power plant. Unusual locations seem to be a recurring theme this year.

____________________

You can buy One Light Night here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.