Simple old-school horror still has a place
- Developer: Protocol Games
- Publisher: Raiser Games
- Release date: 28th May 2021 (console)
- Genre: Survival horror, Adventure, Puzzle
- Platforms: Xbox One, PS 4, Windows PC
- Reviewed on: Xbox Series S
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
It shouldn’t work. It shouldn’t be this interesting. But, yet again, when it’s expertly crafted together, simple and effective game design with very few bells and whistles ends up being more compelling than games with much bigger budgets, and this is what Song of Horror delivers. However, just like the mystery you have to solve, all is not completely well with the game, as it does have its flaws.
It is very clear from the outset that Song of Horror nails down the best aspects of the horror genre. The initial setup is very slow and the graphics at times a little jarring, with the gameplay akin to a walking simulator, however, the slow pace sets up the main course very nicely.
You start the game as one of 13 playable characters, who is tasked with stopping by a writer’s house to see why he hasn’t been in touch for a few days. Whilst there you discover strange things are happening within his house, and also encountering the “Presence” for the very first time. It is your typical horror movie creepy house; no lights, a sinister atmosphere and things that are going bump in the night.
To progress in the game, you have to explore the area you are in, finding items and clues to help you solve rudimentary puzzles in order to progress. For example, opening a slightly open drawer that has a master key in it, or finding a cloth to mop up some water that has spilt across the kitchen floor and short circuited the electrics.
As you are walking around each character has their own light source (think Alan Wake) which is individual to each character. For example, Etienne Bertrand carries a lighter for his light source, and his personal stats favour strength in particular, wich can make dealing with the presence easier in some cases. In contrast, Sophie Van Denard, who carries a candle, has a higher stealth rating, making it slightly easier to avoid the Presence.
Although these stats and light source are there for the player to ponder over in who to play with on a level, the differences are so slight that it never felt like there was any actual gameplay difference between them. However, being chased for the first time, I still legged it for all I was worth no matter how quick they were!
You slowly navigate each area until you go to a new location at the end of each chapter, but each location you visit is very interesting and detailed to explore, even if they are deliberately cliched and overused tropes of the genre (such as the obligatory mental hospital). The only downside to the exploration was the very clunky and at times frustrating gameplay mechanics involved in picking items up; Your character makes a step each time you move, but you may only want to move a fraction of a step to line up with the icon highlight. That one step often takes them too far, so you must walk away and back again to try and line it up.
The graphics of each area were also a mixed bag. Initially, and especially when the screen is motionless, there is a lot of detail in the environments to allow the player to be fully immersed into the world. However, as soon as you move the illusion at times is shattered, with ineffective anti-aliasing manifesting in jagged lines as well as very stiff walking animations and character speech. The lighting, however, which plays a big part in the game, is superb and conveys such a sense of menace that it puts the player on edge just by the way it looks.
Where the game excels though, is in the audio. Anyone who has played the Dead Space series will know how incredible atmospheric sound, or lack thereof, can be used to elevate the immersion of a game higher and ratchet the tension up tenfold. Song of Horror does just that, and it is arguably the best aspect of the game.
As you walk around, the white-noise background makes each step tingle with tension. The ambient noises around you flow into your headset with clarity, so that when you hear noises that you shouldn’t, you jump out of your skin. In one scene I was walking around a dining table, my feet thumping on the wood, the clock ticking on the wall, when suddenly there was a thump and a dragging noise from the room above me, which made me jump out of my skin. Without such brilliant audio design, the game wouldn’t have been anywhere near as gripping as it is.
Not all is well.
As you continue to explore and investigate what has happened and what this presence is, the game leaves a bread crumb trail of clues to piece together and to solve puzzles. Most of the puzzles were interesting and rewarding to complete, but there are a few headscratchers that make you sit back and go, really? One such example is one of the very first in the game – the aforementioned key from a slightly opened drawer. I spent a huge amount of time exploring the surrounding area, looking for something to pry open the drawer. A crowbar, perhaps? When I found a screwdriver I hurried back to try and failed again. It turned out that I needed to oil a wooden drawer to get it to open? Since when was that a good idea?
Another example, again early on, was when I wanted to light a fire in the fireplace. The game kept telling me I couldn’t, despite the fact I had a cigarette lighter, oil, paper, and some wood. Now, I’m no Ray Mears, but I’m pretty sure with those items in my inventory I could make a fire!
Not just dead – Dead, dead
The main hook of the game is the permadeath of each character if the Presence catches them. Before you enter a room, you can listen in from the doorway. If you intend to play the game like a bull in a china shop, and blast your way everywhere then the presence will find and kill you horribly without much trouble, so you have to carefully navigate the world and try to be as quiet as you can. When the Presence does find you there is a mini-game that involves shutting the door behind you or running and hiding before they catch up. Each is equally thrilling and certainly gets the pulse racing, as you have been so careful to get where you need to go, and don’t want to throw your progress away. If (when) you do die, then another character will take their place to carry on the investigation.
However, dotted around the locations are ‘?’ icons to find. These are places where you set off scripted events. Most of the time these are worthwhile, but occasionally they lead to almost instant and at times very cheap deaths. It was very frustrating when I was being so careful to avoid danger only to be wiped out almost instantly, and therefore having to replay the same level again. It’s obviously been designed to ensure that no matter how careful the player is there will always be occasions to ensure they are reminded of the importance of not dying and being careful, but this felt a little too forced.
I’ve tried to keep the review as spoiler free as possible, as to reveal more would give away parts of the excellent storyline. Aside from that, the palpable tension the game delivers is a masterclass of what the genre is capable of. It doesn’t have the best graphics or gameplay, but it doesn’t necessarily need them to scare the hell out of you.
With another layer of polish, this game would have been fantastic, but even as it is, with a few design quirks that will irk the player at times, it still remains an entertaining entry into the horror genre that fans will enjoy.