Track down and arrest two serial killers before they can take any more lives.
PC Release: September 20, 2013
By Ian Coppock
Mystery is the reason that ghost stories are always in vogue. With Halloween just around the corner, print and digital media have become especially rife with thrills and chills. That feeling of suspense that comes with reading about an unknown force (supernatural or otherwise) is quite thrilling. The story of a single protagonist pursuing that force, or running away from it, is equally thrilling. That motif made its way into video games years ago, and few titles chase it more eagerly than Doorways: Prelude.
The Doorways games are a series of episodic survival horror titles developed by Saibot Studios, an Argentinean outfit. The series consists of four episodes that cast players as a mysterious agent who makes a living apprehending dangerous men and monsters. Doorways: Prelude covers the first two episodes of the series and introduces players to a weird world of dreams, nightmares, and bloodthirsty creatures.
Doorways: Prelude puts players in the shoes of Thomas Foster, an investigator who works for the titular Doorways agency. Doorways is a covert organization dedicated to hunting down and snuffing out malicious threats, be they monsters, ghosts, or unhinged serial killers. Foster is voiced by Sam A. Mowry, whom longtime horror fans might remember as the voice actor of Baron Alexander in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It’s weird to hear him voice the good guy this time, but damn if he isn’t good at it.
Doorways: Prelude begins as Thomas receives orders to hunt down and apprehend two criminals: a history professor suspected of kidnapping and torturing his students, and a Swedish sculptor who fashions corpses into his newest works of art. Both criminals reside in spooky worlds implied to be of their own creation, but Foster dives in undaunted and determined to bring them to justice. Players have no weapons and can only run and hide if a monster shows up.
In that latter regard, Doorways: Prelude draws clear inspiration from survival horror titans. Whenever players aren’t busy avoiding monsters, they’re solving puzzles and exploring environments to find the way forward. Occasionally, Thomas will also stumble upon notes that shed light upon his investigation. Sometimes they’re his own musings about his rather “unique” job, other times they’re interesting details about the criminals he’s pursuing.
To expand upon the puzzles for a moment, Saibot Studios makes the audacious claim that Doorways: Prelude‘s puzzles are “ingenious.” Not really. Players can expect the same mix of key-hunting and machinery-fixing endemic to Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the Penumbra games. It’s a perfectly serviceable mix of puzzles, but hardly ingenious. They’re certainly not puzzles that haven’t already been done a dozen times in a dozen other horror games.
Additionally, Doorways: Prelude is only a survival horror game in the most liberal sense. Players are only in mortal danger if they stray too far from the lit path. Sure, it’s scary when a monster shows up in the darkness, but that only happens at the player’s discretion (or carelessness). There’s only one segment in which players truly have to elude a monster, and the thing moves so slowly that doesn’t make for a challenging encounter.
Doorways: Prelude doesn’t suffer all that much for keeping the monsters at arm’s length. The game has a delectably spooky atmosphere, reinforced by lots of low, forbidding sounds. The entire game is also done out in a muted color palette; even the forests that Thomas traverses feel lifeless and morbid (which is to say nothing of the Moria-like marble halls that the murderous sculptor is hiding in). Doorways: Prelude also hems players in with claustrophobic level design, leaving them few places to hide.
Doorways: Prelude makes a few steps forward with its level design and ambiance, but takes more steps back with amateurish missteps. The game is way too enthusiastic about film grain, applying it thickly across the screen under the misguided notion that more film grain equals more spooky. Thankfully, the film grain can be scaled back in the game’s options menu, which is surprisingly in-depth and gives players a lot of performance leeway.
Despite having a decent options menu, Doorways: Prelude doesn’t run very well. No amount of tinkering in that menu seems to help the game achieve a consistent framerate. Most players can expect to land somewhere in the 30-45 FPS zone with this title, no matter if they’re running it on an old laptop or a monster rig. Reducing the film grain definitely helps a bit… but only a bit. For some reason this game isn’t all that well optimized and chugs pretty hard.
Poor optimization must be the reason for Doorways‘ sluggishness, because to be frank, the game isn’t all that visually impressive. The environments’ textures are alright but could stand some sharpening, while character animations are lanky. The title’s biggest visual issue, though, is that it’s simply too dark. Most areas are lit so scantly that players are lucky to be able see a few feet ahead. Meddling with the contrast only does so much to ameliorate this situation and serves more to whiten the screen than to brighten it.
Doorways‘ darkness does more than obscure the game’s environments; it makes the entire production more difficult to play. It makes it more tedious to spot puzzle elements, especially in sections where players have to step on certain floor panels a la Indian Jones: The Last Crusade. The overuse of shadows also makes it difficult to spot monsters, which can suddenly loom out of the darkness two feet ahead of the player. This makes them inadvertently scarier, but unless Thomas is legally blind, there’s no reason the game’s field of view should be this short.
This problem also represents a missed opportunity to give Doorways some spooky lighting. Using lighting effectively is one of the best ways to give a horror title some atmosphere, but Doorways‘ near-complete lack of lighting gives the game a samey, distracting look. It’s damn lucky for Saibot that the game still gives off a spooky vibe because of its level design, because sans that, Doorways: Prelude wouldn’t be all that terrifying.
Tragically for Doorways: Prelude, there’s something about the game that’s even more difficult to see than its poorly lit environments: its narrative. Doorways‘ exposition is more a series of existential ramblings than concise details about Thomas or the criminals he’s pursuing. The character is more content to talk at length about abstract emotions than, well, the story. While Sam A. Mowry does an exceptional job voicing the character, the writing is opaque. The exposition often contradicts itself, implying at various points that the game takes place in the real world, an ethereal realm, or some combination of the two. It’s really confusing.
In the end, players are left with little concrete information other than the case details they receive at the very start of the game. Every other detail that the title tries to give players is either buried in a heap of run-on sentences or poorly written. To be fair to Saibot, English probably isn’t this Argentinean dev’s first language, but that consideration does little to improve the final product. It certainly leaves players wondering what story direction future episodes will take.
At the end of the night, Doorways: Prelude‘s charm is too scant to outweigh how rough around the edges it is. The title presents an interesting concept of bringing monsters and murderers to justice, but loses itself in a string of bad design choices and vague, obtuse writing. There are worse horror games with which to kill a few hours this Halloween, but there are sure as hell much better horror games, too. Give Doorways: Prelude a miss.
You can buy Doorways: Prelude 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 email@example.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.