My Backlog… the horror!
When October rolls around, I always try to do my best to keep horror-themed games in-rotation. On the first day of the month, I select a handful of spooky games from my collection with every intention of playing them exclusively. Unfortunately, this is almost always never the case as work, routine, social obligations and other games keep me from sticking to my original plan. Bungie’s latest expansion to their ever-growing monster killing machine franchise, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep, for example, happened to launch on October 1st as well. Given that this latest expansion/update centers around a Moon that is “haunted”, it happened to fit comfortably into my horror-themed month of gaming. The problem, however, is that Destiny 2 continues to be a huge grind (for better or worse) and it’s consumed most of my gaming time this month. With that said, I did happen to sneak in a few scary games since the last time I wrote, so more on the Season of the Undying at a later date…
Stand in the Corner
I saw The Blair Witch Project at a relatively young age and like for many, it left quite the impression on my adolescent-self. In 1999, social media wasn’t the monster that it is today. When it came to any form of entertainment, at least from my experience, word of mouth from your family/friends took priority over any stranger’s opinion on the web. The first movie released during a time when I was still quite naïve and impressionable, so despite everyone trying to tell me that the movie was fiction, I didn’t want to believe it. Blair Witch had a certain mystique surrounding its initial theatrical release that’s difficult to describe for those who weren’t present in the late 90s. The movie felt raw, grounded and very real. The “found-footage” approach to its cinematography made it all the more believable for a teenager like myself, too. Although The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first of its kind, it certainly popularized the sub-genre for years to come.
Films like Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity and even two sequels to the original film (one of which many wish to forget) would follow suit, but nothing could quite capture the spirit of the first movie. Now, let’s fast forward to 2019 and journey on over to Microsoft’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) stage presentation… and surprise! Bloober Team (an independent studio mostly known for indie titles such as Layers of Fear and Observer) showcases a new horror game based on the now dormant franchise simply titled, Blair Witch. Your first and only question might be, “…why? Who asked for this?”. There’s no recent movie tie-in nor is the intellectual property (IP) particularly relevant at the moment. Finally, the game released in August which isn’t even close to the Halloween season, so why does this exist?
The armchair businessman in me wants to say that a) Microsoft wanted more 3rd-party support and a variety of games on their stage to diversify their portfolio, considering their main competitor, Sony, was not present this past E3 and b) perhaps the developer gained an opportunity to pivot themselves towards a more established horror franchise due to their previous titles being similar in nature.
Questioning its purpose aside, Blair Witch is a first-person survival game which apparently takes place two years after the events of the first movie. You play the role of a Gulf War veteran who joins a search party sent out to the Black Hills Forest in Burkittsville, Maryland in order to find a missing boy. Within the first hour or so, the game does not leave a good impression. Blair Witch is plagued with performance issues and although the game is running on Unreal Engine 4 on the Xbox One, it feels/looks like a PS3/Xbox 360 era title that’s running on an outdated engine (and I’m playing on the Xbox One X). Although the performance issues seem to stabilize the further you progress (I’m currently on Chapter 5), the experience is still quite janky and not very consistent.
Blair Witch plays similarly to other first-person, PC-style adventure games in this mold. From what I’ve played, most of the game has you wandering the woods, searching for clues, collecting items and reading files in order to piece together a missing person’s case. The most interesting aspects about the game, however, is both your dog companion and how the game incorporates the iconic “found-footage” technique into the core gameplay mechanics. Your German Shepherd, named “Bullet” (who’s a very good boy that you can pet and even give treats to), can be ordered to do a variety of tasks. For the most part, Bullet will scour the woods for important items (such as tapes which are needed to progress the story), but he can also stand guard and alert you when the slender man-like monsters that inhabit the forest approach. Similar to Remedy’s Alan Wake, these creatures can be warded off by shining your flashlight towards them.
I’m not the biggest fan of the combat portions in Blair Witch as it seems counter to the psychological horror present in the films and instead opts for a more game-y approach. If there’s one thing Bloober Team did nail, however, it’s the design/layout of the woods, as it’s very easy to get turned around/lost in. I often found myself retracing my steps back through the same areas of the forest not knowing exactly where I needed to be (much like the unfortunate souls from the movies). In order to make progress, the player must solve puzzles/riddles by pausing footage at specific moments from the tapes your dog collects. A cam recorder you discover in the early portions of the game has the ability to manifest certain items from the past into the present, which suggests that time does not flow normally in the Black Hills Forest. It was an idea that was explored in the 2016 Blair Witch movie and it’s used here rather cleverly here. Given that Blair Witch is on Game Pass, I’ll likely see it through to its conclusion, but I’m glad I didn’t pay full price for it either. After each session, I’m thinking about why this game exists more than anything else, which is unfortunate.
Castlevania had a huge impact on my childhood. Not only was it one of the more challenging 2D action-platformers for its time, it was one of the first games I played that focused on classic horror, specifically Dracula and his armies of monsters and demons. I revisited the first game through Konami’s Castlevania Anniversary Collection this past summer and although it’s aged rather well, it’s still an unforgiving experience. Getting hit by a flying medusa head and being knocked into a death pit, dealing with enemies that respawn almost instantly off-screen, and missing jumps because of depth perception or the like; it was all part of the learning experience that was being a Nintendo kid in the late 80s/early 90s. In 1997, Konami would release Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (SotN), a title that would go on to become one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time. With its interconnected castle, level progression, character growth, equipment options and a more approachable/easier difficulty, SotN would pave the way for decades and create a sub-genre that’s now known today as “Metroidvanias”.
Many independent studios would do their best to capture the essence of SotN over the years, but most fans would agree that nothing has taken its throne since. In 2019, Koji Igarashi’s (IGA), the man most credited for SotN’s success, and ArtPlay (an independent studio IGA co-founded after leaving Konami) released the true successor to SotN that fans have been eagerly waiting 10+ years for. That game is Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Was it worth the wait? Sort of. Bloodstained was a Kickstarter project, funded by fans who specifically wanted another SotN and that’s exactly what we got, just perhaps not as polished/refined as I would have personally wanted it to be. Everything you love/remember about Castlevania and SotN is here, but it’s lacking a bit of its own identity, which I don’t really fault the game/creators for. I’m hoping, at the very least, the game was successful and IGA and his team can create an even better sequel or perhaps something entirely new moving forward. While Bloodstained was a relatively enjoyable and faithful trip down memory lane, it felt a bit too constrained by its Castlevania legacy. It’s also cool to see your name in the credits to something you helped contribute to as it was probably one of the better Kickstarter projects I’ve backed over the past few years. If you’re a Castlevania/Metroidvania fan, Bloodstained is an essential play.
Rats, Rats, Rats
Another game that seems to have been forgotten in this madhouse year of gaming is Asobo Studio’s A Plague Tale: Innocence. A Plague Tale is a narrative-driven adventure game (think something along the lines of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us) from an independent developer based out of France (mostly known for licensed/Disney titles, ironically). The game centers around a brother and sister as they escape from a plague-ridden France after their home is invaded and their parents are murdered by the inquisition. Both the English and French armies (including giant rats) are on their backs and the player must navigate the countryside while stealthily avoiding its surrounding horrors. While there is a light combat system (in the way of crafting ammunition for a slingshot) and a rudimentary crafting system at your disposal, most of the game is sneaking around rats and evading/running away from guards.
A Plague Tale’s strengths are in its characters, pacing and overall story. Some of the best moments in the game are when nothing of particular interest is happening and you can take in the environmental storytelling, the beautiful vistas/landscapes and the incredible soundtrack. Picking flowers with your little brother or restoring an old abandoned castle to be your new home are just some of the few moments of respite scattered between the many horrors and grief that beset the two main characters. The extremely talented composer, Olivier Deriviere (known best for his work on the Remember Me soundtrack) composed the music for this game too and it’s quite the listen. Honestly, A Plague Tale rivals a lot of “AAA” studios/games and in my opinion, it can sit alongside the big boys. I just wish more people would have played it. Do not sleep on this game if you enjoy campaign-driven adventure games and historical pieces with some supernatural flair!
You’ve Got Detention After Class
I’ve been trying to squeeze in as many horror games as I could before month’s end and among the many I had planned to play, there’s always an unplanned game or two that surfaces. One of which is an interesting Taiwanese 2D survival-horror game that I rediscovered called Detention. This game came out back in 2017 by an independent studio out of Taiwan called Red Candle Games. The game takes place in the 1960s when Taiwan was under martial law, during the White Terror period specifically. Game design-wise, it feels like someone studied all of my favorite survival-horror games from the PS1/PS2 era (like Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Fatal Frame) and distilled them into a satisfying, succinct and compact 2D horror experience with an interesting historical framework. I completed the game at/around the 3 to 4 hour mark, which has slowly become the types of experiences I prefer these days. I can’t say enough good things about the game without spoiling anything and despite the subject material being rather heavy/depressing, it’s one of the best horror games I’ve ever played.
What, These Old Bones?
Finally, I picked-up my copy of MediEvil. I was 12 years old when I first played this back in 1998 on the original PlayStation. It’s been 20+ years, yet here we are again with the remake. I’d like to think MediEvil was from an era that predates today’s independent scene. This game sort of encapsulates a time when developers/publishers could take risks with new characters/IP and develop a game on a smaller budget with a limited scope. MediEvil sort of feels like a byproduct of the mascot-era, too. It’s not unlike Crash Bandicoot, Ratchet & Clank, Sly Cooper, Jak & Daxter or Spyro the Dragon, in terms of Sony chasing that next, new face of PlayStation. In 2019, MediEvil feels like a nice nostalgic trip down into the PlayStation archives and it serves as a comforting palate cleanser between bigger releases. I’ve only played a few levels so far and while the visual upgrades are nice, it still feels like that same game we all played back in 1998, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At the end of the day, MediEvil is a fun, brainless (no-pun intended) hack & slash adventure that perfectly bookends the Halloween season.
This is just part 1 of 2 for the games I’ve played during the third quarter of the year. Until next time…