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…
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.