Month: June 2017



Find your way off of a monster-infested ship.

PC Release: May 20, 2015

By Ian Coppock

The final sequence of many horror movies is a pulse-pounding race to safety. The protagonist’s friends are dead, all other options are exhausted, and now it’s up to that character to outrun the monster. How fitting that Monstrum, the final game of this month’s horror lineup, channels that movie sequence in the extreme. The player is all alone, any potential allies are long dead, and now it’s up to them to find a way to safety while being pursued by a ruthless creature. Running into the night sounds like a fitting end to the horrors that have been witnessed here this month, so prepare to do precisely that with Monstrum.


Monstrum is a spooky escape adventure whipped up by the adrenaline junkies over at Team Junkfish. The game is a first-person exercise in unpredictability and ruthless survival horror, as players attempt to escape an environment while being pursued by a monster. Monstrum‘s usage of scary monsters and unsettling sounds is nothing new to the indie horror genre, but what is novel about the game is the tenacity with which it burns out players’ adrenaline glands. Even Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast have peaceful interludes. Monstrum does not.

Monstrum takes place on a derelict freighter drifting around the Pacific. The player character, a nameless crewman, wakes up stuffed inside a locker and emerges to find their ship devoid of life. The other crewmen seem to be long gone, and there’s a profound sense of something having gone horribly wrong on board. It’s up to players to navigate the dark corridors of the ship and find a way off of it, but they’re not alone. Monsters are about, and they’re none too keen on sharing the lifeboat.


When you see it, you’ll…

Rather than being a linear story-driven game like the other titles reviewed here this month, Monstrum is a hardcore survival challenge that changes every time players brave it. The goal of the game is to find a way off of the ship, gather the resources necessary to use it, and avoid getting killed by a monster all the while. There are no checkpoints in Monstrum; if players get killed by a monster while they’re running around the ship, they have to start over from the very beginning, losing all of their resources in the process.

To make the game even more difficult, Monstrum changes the ship’s layout with every single playthrough, reshuffling corridors and decks to make the vessel look different with each escape attempt. Some decks of the ship don’t change all that much, but others become nigh unrecognizable, and items randomly shift alongside the environment. The player’s spawning location changes along with the environment, so trying to form a strategy for quickly gathering resources or getting to an escape route is a pointless way to go in most cases.


Just bringing my radio to the crew lounge and- oh. This is no longer the crew lounge.

The true terror of Monstrum‘s penchant for randomness lies not in the layout of the vessel, but in the monsters themselves. When players start a new round of Monstrum, the game randomly selects one of three creatures to hunt them down and prevent their escape. Each creature uses different methods to track the player and has its own audio and visual cues. One monster sets traps and crawls around in vents, while another stomps around hallways breaking doors (and spines, given the opportunity). The telepathic creature that can suspend fleeing players in the air is particularly… visceral.

Players’ only hope for avoiding these creatures is running and hiding. Monstrum provides no weapons for self-defense, but does let players get creative with distractions and traps. Players can deploy radios and alarm clocks to draw beasties away or trick monsters into stepping over loose floor panels and crashing through to a deck below. The monsters’ AI is pretty ruthless; players can count on almost constantly being pursued through the ship as they try to find a way off of it. Even if the monsters don’t know precisely where the player is, they’ll usually spawn in too close for comfort.


Where’s the fire escape on this damn ship?!

Players have a few other options for dealing with monsters and making the most of the ship’s environment. Fuse boxes allow players to get into locked rooms full of goodies… provided players can find a fuse. Most rooms on the ship have plenty of places to hide, so players who have a monster hot on their heels can usually stuff themselves inside a locker or under a bed if they have no other choice. Players who aren’t being pursued still have to be careful, though; the ship’s security cameras sound a very loud, monster-drawing alarm if they spot the player.

Players still have to find a way off of the ship while dealing with this kerfuffle of bloodthirsty monsters and hypersensitive security cameras. In this regard, at least, players have a few options: maybe that deflated life raft or that dusty helicopter can do the trick? Some escape methods require more tools and equipment than others, but players can bet that it’s all scattered across the ship and takes some serious legwork to find. A single round of Monstrum can last anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours, but the game’s procedural generation guarantees replay value.


Get to the chopper!

Monstrum‘s procedural environments and random selection of killing machines makes it one of the most visceral, pulse-pouding escape adventures in years. Hardcore survival horror enthusiasts who love the idea of crying in lockers or being two steps ahead of a 500-pound killing machine will want to play the game over and over again. As previously mentioned, the fact that Monstrum‘s environments and monsters change with every playthrough means that the game packs a lot of replay value, even if one round doesn’t take all that long. Despite the rounds’ shortness, Monstrum is quite difficult, hitting that sweet spot between too hard to beat quickly and simple enough to enjoy over and over.

Though Monstrum‘s adrenaline-fueled gameplay is a solid package, some of the game’s other design elements are less tightly focused. The game’s visuals start out strong with sharp textures and a diverse palette of lighting. That latter one is especially important for establishing atmosphere, as even the most brightly lit areas of the ship are illuminated with sour white light to reinforce the gloomy feel. On the other end of the spectrum, players are also expected to navigate dark engine rooms and shipping containers that have just enough light to get around and not a single lumen more.


Alright, let’s not set the ship on fire.

Less excellent than Monstrum‘s ship design is its character animations, which are painfully amateurish. Whether it’s walking, crawling or running, the player character’s limb and body movements are laughably unnatural. What’s more, the character has a penchant for holding items awkwardly in front of themselves, sometimes taking up the entire screen while doing so. The character holds up a fuse like it’s a lantern and hugs larger items like gasoline containers right to their face. Players can’t deselect items without dropping them, so holding them up like this is really the only option. It’s not easy to spot a monster when the character’s burying their nose in a submarine battery.

Monstrum could also do with a few more PSAs on how to play intelligently. The game provides a few basic control pointers but fails to point out a few things that can radically change the course of the game, like how to break through broken doors or stop security cameras from spotting the player. None of these are deal-breakers, but they do cross that fine line between leaving the player to figure things out on their own and flat-out refusing to drop any sort of hint (for the record, players can bust a locked door by throwing a sound-making device through it, prompting the monster to smash it open).


How to get in, how to get in…

Monstrum never claims to be a story-driven game, but that doesn’t stop what exposition the game does provide from being chock-full of spelling and grammar errors. Players can find notes and recordings throughout the ship hinting at its fate and why monsters are running around, but they’re full of bizarre abbreviations and careless alternations between American and British spelling (in addition to the usual rogue’s gallery of unnecessary commas, random capitalization, abrupt line breaks, and written-out ha has). Players notice those errors more than developers realize and there’s little to be lost by taking thirty seconds to look them up on Google.

All of that said, Monstrum‘s background story does a good job of setting a spooky stage for the gameplay. The notes look like something out of John Carpenter’s The Thing, with various crewmen discussing strange goings-on aboard the ship that culminate in the disaster the player wakes up to. Who the player is isn’t really divulged, but again, Monstrum prefers to focus on the visceral action instead of story. Because Monstrum‘s visceral action is so addictive, that’s just fine.


I guess this is the “brigde.”

The final piece of Monstrum‘s horror motif is its sound design. The game’s soundtrack is a fairly conventional mix of low electronic sounds that elevate to terrifying heights when a monster spots the player. The game’s other sounds are an inoffensive mix of footsteps on metal and rustling through lockers and bags in search of supplies. The monsters themselves sound absolutely terrifying, with a mix of hisses and roars that sound right at home in a Ridley Scott or John Carpenter film.

The only problem with all of these sounds is that they have a nasty tendency to be unbalanced. Monstrum cheats a little bit by making its monsters’ roars and growls about five times louder than the rest of the game. It gives players a good little jump, but it feels like a cheap shot. The other audio element of the game that’s way too loud is the tape recordings found throughout the ship, which assault the ears with a huge roar of static and whose words are usually incomprehensible anyway. Monstrum‘s options menu has a lot of toggles, but subtitles aren’t one of them.



Even though Monstrum suffers from almost every amateur design flaw in the book, it remains one of the scariest horror games ever made. Neither its awkwardly spelled notes nor its flat-falling character animations prevent the title’s escape gameplay from providing pure terror. The game’s procedural generation gives it an element of unpredictability that most conventional horror games lack, and its permadeath adds another level of terror to some already terrifying monsters. Monstrum is interested only in burning players’ hearts out with pure adrenaline, so anybody looking for that type of experience should pick the game up immediately. It’s fun, it’s varied, and oh so scary.


You can buy Monstrum 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 with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

No More Room in Hell


Team up with other survivors and outlast the zombie apocalypse.

PC Release: October 31, 2011

By Ian Coppock

When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth. That George Romero tagline is the byword of No More Room in Hell. Apparently Hell is already full (phew) but that means the zombies have arrived once more! No More Room in Hell is not the first or only video game to envision the zombie apocalypse, but it might be the only one that puts such a visceral emphasis on teamwork. When the dead rise, the living can only count on one another to beat back the zombie tide. Even more than that Dawn of the Dead quote, the teamwork of the living is No More Room in Hell‘s central motif.


Created by the one-man band of Matt “Maxx” Kazan, No More Room in Hell is a co-op zombie survival game that draws heavy inspiration from Dawn of the Dead and Valve’s Left 4 Dead series. Like the other multiplayer games being reviewed here this month, No More Room in Hell is a Source mod that leverages gracefully aging visuals and Valve’s powerful programming to deliver its multiplayer experience. Unlike this month’s other multiplayer games, No More Room in Hell focuses less on players killing each other and more on them working together to survive against hordes of zombies.

That’s really all there is to this title’s gameplay. Grab some friends, sort the ones who are good with guns from the ones who are good with melee weapons, and get cracking on surviving the zombie apocalypse. There are only two game modes in No More Room in Hell, and they both revolve around teamwork. Objective mode forces players to work together to find an escape vehicle, while Survival consists simply of outlasting zombie waves. Both modes are fun, though it’s a shame No More Room in Hell only has two of them.


We must stop this bank robbery and bring the zombies to justice!

No More Room in Hell‘s modes are not that remarkable. Anyone who’s touched a zombie game has probably run to the chopper or made a last stand against the horde before. No More Room in Hell prefers to make its mark not with game modes, but with the actual gameplay and an acute focus on realism. In this case, “realism” stands for no heads-up display, limited health, and short-term stamina. Maxx Kazan decided to go with the low-key survivor motif instead of the flashy action hero. Even if zombies have been overdone to death in this medium, games that attempts to bring realism to the scenario are rare.

As a survivor, players have no ammo counter on their firearms. Their character will occasionally yell out how many mags they have left, but that’s about it. Even though the player is flying blind on their ammo, No More Room in Hell makes a curious attempt at forcing teamwork by allowing a player’s teammates to see their ammo readout instead. That’s an interesting choice for a game with such a strong focus on realism, and though it doesn’t make much sense, it does encourage players to keep an eye on each other. Conversely, it also causes players to scream “DUDE BRUH HOW MUCH AMMO I GOT???” every two seconds, which is irritating.


You started with two shells, now you have none. Do the math, Einstein.

Players also have no indication of where their health’s at, at least until they suddenly keel over and die. Indeed, No More Room in Hell‘s HUD might be one of the most minimalist such displays since 2005’s Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. This approach forces players to not only be much more conservative with their resources, but also to mentally juggle how many bullets and pills they’re carrying.

The tricky thing about the abject lack of a HUD is that it’s not necessarily more realistic than having one. No one knows what “percentage” their health is at all the time, but that’s why doctors give the the “scale of 1-10” question—because most people can at least approximate how they’re feeling, and that’s what a health meter represents. Stripping the health meter out is the video game equivalent of suspecting pain but being unable to feel it. As a stylistic choice, there’s nothing objectively wrong with it; but it’s not realism, per se.


Tap your knee? HOW ABOUT YOUR FACE!

All of this HUD business means that No More Room in Hell is quite difficult. Players looking for a cinematic Left 4 Dead-style arcade experience probably won’t get much out of No More Room in Hell, but survivalists and challenge seekers may enjoy it. For anything that can be said about No More Room in Hell‘s severe approach to heads-up displays, the game does a pretty good job of capturing the feel of an average person in the zombie apocalypse. With limited stamina, ammo, and health, the game feels much more like a harrowing escape challenge than a shooter.

Either way, No More Room in Hell could do with a few more tutorials. The game does provide a brief control scheme graphic while the map loads, but a few more pointers on how to, say, get out of a zombie choke-hold would be nice to see in-game. So would a warning that it only takes two swings of the shovel to leave the player character winded. Thankfully, No More Room in Hell‘s controls are conventional for a shooter, and the game leverages that awesome Source options menu to help players get the most out of the game on their machine.


Keyyyyy bindinnnnnnggggsssssssss…

No More Room in Hell‘s level design is more open than that of most Source mods. Rather than the constricting hallways and multi-tiered elevation endemic to Day of Defeat and Fistful of FragsNo More Room in Hell favors large single-story buildings with lots of corners for zombies to hide behind. Good stuff, especially for a game whose modes demand hunting for an exit. Just remember to stick together; No More Room in Hell‘s maps have a way of getting players separated.

The visuals that fill these maps out are more of a mixed bag than the level design. No More Room in Hell looks aged compared to mods and games that came out years before it. Most of the textures are pretty muddy, and the in-game objects could stand some more rendering. Curiously enough, the game characters’ arms look pretty good, but otherwise the game looks rough. No More Room in Hell also suffers from excessively dark environments, as in “too dark to see the room” type of dark. This doesn’t stop the game’s atmosphere from being morbid, but it might stop players from spotting an item.


Ooooh boy.

Co-op multiplayer games are best played with friends, but No More Room in Hell still has an active community for players feeling adventurous. Playing with randos is a mixed bag these days, but it’s a testament to No More Room in Hell‘s longevity that its community is still kicking six years after launch. Still, No More Room in Hell is best enjoyed with a cabal of zombie-killing friends, and the fact that the game is free means that everyone can at least give it a try (it’s fun to misinform friends of how much ammo they have left).

At the end of the day, No More Room in Hell‘s mission is not to create a small-screen zombie blockbuster, but to imagine how a team of normal people might work together to survive a zombie epidemic. Not much of what the game brings to the table is truly original, from shambling Romero-style zombies to getting to the chopper, but few games take to that subject matter with such acute attention to realism. Players need to work together to survive, just as the living might need to do against the dead. That experience is brought shambling to life like no other in No More Room in Hell.


Must… get… out…

No More Room in Hell presents an interesting take on surviving the zombie apocalypse, but the game remains rough around the edges in much of its production. The visuals look muddled, the lighting is mediocre, and the soundtrack isn’t all that memorable. However, the game is free, its gameplay is decent enough with a few wiki consultations, and it comes with nearly two dozen maps. Even though No More Room in Hell doesn’t hit all its notes, Maxx Kazan is onto something with his pursuit of realism and is hopefully refining what the original game missed in the forthcoming No More Room in Hell 2. In the meantime, this title might be worth biting into for the discerning zombie survivalist.


You can buy No More Room in Hell 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 with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Fistful of Frags


Defeat enemy gunslingers and prove yourself the fastest gun in the Wild West.

PC Release: May 9, 2014

By Ian Coppock

If games like Fistful of Frags have anything to teach, it’s that contemporary notions of the Wild West are heavily romanticized. Indeed, there’s probably no other period of history in America or anywhere else that’s looked back upon (by pop culture, at least) with so much affection and unrealistic exaltation as the U.S.’s westward expansion. The reality’s somewhat different, but that’s lost on a lot of people—even though the first hint is in the name “Wild West.” In truth, the West was a lawless place rife with profiteering, robbery, and murder. How much profiteering, robbery, and murder? Ask Fistful of Frags.


Fistful of Frags is a multiplayer cowboy disagreement simulator created by (brace yourself) the Fistful of Frags Team. The game is a Source multiplayer mod built to use the same interface and in-depth options menu as a lot of Valve’s most popular multiplayer titles, but with a few tricks of its own. Rather than focusing on World War II or hunting terrorists, Fistful of Frags takes players back to the Wild West, pitting dozens of gunslingers against each other in beautiful maps. Just make sure the six shooter is full and the whiskey is topped off first.

Players start out each round by picking a primary weapon, a secondary weapon, and which hand their character uses for shooting. Primary weapons usually consist of revolvers and shotguns, but players can also pick more specialized killing tools like a Native American longbow. Secondary weapons comprise throwing knives and more compact guns (like a Derringer), but players can also use their secondary weapon slot to pick a combat perk. Boots, for example, make the player’s kicking attack score more damage.


Negotiations are breaking down.

The most common game mode in Fistful of Frags is a good ol’ fashioned hoedown. And of course, in this context, “hoedown” means “every-man-for-himself deathmatch.” Battles in Fistful of Frags are 10-minute bouts of pure chaos, as players move up, down, and all around a diverse palette of maps shooting varmints and taking names. Being a good gunslinger in Fistful of Frags is all about accuracy; fast-moving players aren’t likely to hit much, so they have to slow down and carefully take aim while shooting. It takes a while to get used to, but a good rule of thumb is simply to move quickly while hunting foes and then slow down near cover when the enemy is within range.

The other combat modes in Fistful of Frags make for standard Source multiplayer fare; the game sports an Elimination mode, a Versus mode, and a Dino D-Day-style Objective mode in which players have to complete specific tasks. Fistful of Frags also features a homemade mode called Break Bad, where players start out as unarmed targets who can’t be shot at without incurring a penalty, but who can also gradually acquire weapons over time. It’s kind of like a Call of Duty Gun Game match where the acquisition of weapons is determined by time instead of kills. A bit clumsy, but not without entertainment value.



Fistful of Frags has maps with diversity to match its game modes. The game’s grand total of maps at the moment is 13, which, while not a ton, is an alright middling number for a Source mod. Each map succeeds in looking distinct from its fellows; players can battle it out anywhere from an old lumber mill to a snowy mountain town. Desert depots, steamboats, and labyrinthine mines round out the game’s impressive environmental variety. By setting each map in a distinct location, Fistful of Frags insures good gameplay variety and avoids falling into the samey environment trap that snared Day of Defeat: Source.

To top all of that off, Fistful of Frags is a beautiful game. The FoF Team has put the Source engine to gorgeous use creating a gritty western world replete with bright colors and object detail. Though it does look a bit aged by contemporary standards, the textures are pretty sharp and the lighting is beautiful. Players can explore brightly lit copses of trees or try their luck in a saloon decked out with pianos and card tables. The attention to detail is excellent and helps catch the eye whenever players aren’t too busy attempting to catch Jesse James. The environmental sound design, from waterfalls to speeding trains, is similarly intricate.


You can feel the desert heat.

Fistful of Frags also has some of the most varied level design of any Source mod available today. Each map has a lot of vertical space for players to explore; this means that it can be easy for players to get the jump on each other as they angle for the perfect shot. Each map in Fistful of Frags has at least three levels of elevation and some have even more than that. These typically range from constrictive, dimly lit cellars on up to saloon rooftops. Thus, running around these maps looking for enemies to murder is made even more chaotic… and fun.

This elevation is what binds Fistful of Frags‘ disparate group of maps together. Even though the maps may vary from a desert adobe town to a wooded village, players who master the rhythm of moving quickly between floors will find success in all of them. Like a lot of the Source mods out there, Fistful of Frags‘ maps also feature a lot of hidden alcoves and out-of-the-way rooms for players to catch a break. Just be careful when making sure someone’s not already hiding in there.


MY mine cart!

Fistful of Frags tries to do a bit more than just be a shooter set in the Wild West, and it’s at this point that some of the game’s more questionable design choices come out to play. One particularly weird little quirk is that the respawn button changes every time the player dies. Sometimes it’s CTRL, other times it’s S, other times it’s something else. The funny thing is that this button gets a prompt on the screen, so it’s not a programming error. It’s an actual feature. Why it’s an actual feature is anyone’s guess, but it’s jarring to see such a thing when players are trying to quickly respawn and jump back into the action.

Additionally, the game has no tutorial or indicators for most of its other gameplay mechanics. Players can buy new weapons between deaths (kind of like CS:GO) but the game doesn’t indicate where the buy zone is for new guns except when telling the player that they’re not standing in the buy zone. The game also omits mentioning that drinking whiskey restores health, which is ironic considering that the game’s “Pass the Whiskey!” catchphrase is plastered all over the place. Drinking whiskey is a great way to restore players’ vitality, but it also causes characters to stumble around, so drink responsibly.


Please direct my team and I to the nearest “watering hole.”

Apart from these small issues, Fistful of Frags has a lot going for it. Its community is thriving, so players can always expect to find a few matches going on at any given time. The FoF Team puts out near-daily tweaks and patches to address issues and is very proactive about interacting with the community and fielding questions and concerns.

The FoF Team is also currently working to add single-player tutorials and challenges to the game, including tutorials on how to use certain weapons and general gameplay guides. Though that part of the game remains unfinished, the team releases regular updates on their progress and the multiplayer core makes for a sturdy, fun experience. Plus, Fistful of Frags is currently free, so there’s literally no harm in downloading it and giving it a go.


That’ll teach Cletus to steal mah bourbon, I tell ya what.

So, once again, what does Fistful of Frags have to teach us? Not just that contemporary notions of the Wild West are incorrect, but that a Source mod set in that time period makes for a lot of fun. It’s free, it runs well, and it has the Source multiplayer options menu so that anyone experiencing performance problems can quickly adjust them as needed. Pick up a copy today and jump into a visceral Wild West world of shootouts and whiskey. But mostly shootouts. And whiskey.


You can buy Fistful of Frags 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 with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.



Discover the whereabouts of three missing people and why they vanished.

PC Release: September 28, 2015

By Ian Coppock

What is it about murder mysteries that makes them so enticing? On the surface, a story about how and why somebody died doesn’t seem like fun fare… and yet those detective narratives (both fiction and non-fiction) are some of the most popular media around. Perhaps it’s the suspense of wondering where the victim went and why? Maybe it’s the challenge of figuring out why someone went missing or the motive driving the killer? Video games have taken to questions like these with gusto, but no game, TV show or movie presents a spin on the genre quite like Stairs.


Stairs is a terrifying plunge into survival and psychological horror created by GreyLight Entertainment, a Swedish indie developer. Players assume the role of Christopher Adams, a struggling freelance journalist who has spent the last few years investigating the disappearances of three people. Adams’ search has been pretty fruitless, but he gets an anonymous tip that one of the trio’s corpses was recently discovered at an abandoned factory. Stairs begins as he sets out for that factory and to write story that will get him back on his feet.

Adams finds the factory easily enough, but there he also discovers that the victim’s body has been moved. The hatch into the basement seems to be open though, and he takes a flight of stairs (hey) into a strange subbasement. From there, Adams quickly discovers that his vaunted story of the year is more horrifying than he anticipated and that he’ll be lucky if he escapes with his life. Perhaps some stories, Adams quickly learns, are best left unreported.



In typical survival horror game fashion, Adams has no weapons or tools to defend himself against the horrors lurking downstairs. He only has his camera, which is the player’s means of photographing phenomena and unlocking notes in his journal. Mysteriously enough, the camera has the power to unlock doors and even create doorways in certain places, giving Adams more flexibility to elude enemies and find clues. Barring that, Adams can only run, crouch, and pray.

The world of Stairs is not a pleasant place. Adams visits three different environments over the course of the game, and though each has its own nuances, they all share the same grim atmosphere. Most of the game focuses on psychological horror rather than in-your-face monster chases, but hardcore horror fans take note: there are plenty of monsters in this game as well. When players aren’t too busy eluding creatures or jumping at the sound of something moving around the next corner, they’re solving puzzles to get further down the rabbit hole.


Charming. Prime real estate right here.

The indie horror world is infamous for producing cheap jumpscares, but Stairs has more faith in its audience than to simply pepper its levels with jack-in-the-box parlor tricks. The game has a great sense of pacing, content to let players wander through the world and for the tension to build organically. Stairs does feature little scares and puzzling sights here and there, but they’re subtle. A can rolling across a distant doorway or the sound of something crashing around the next corner is not as up-front as a jumpscare, but it percolates in the back of the player’s head. It’s far more unsettling to keep hints at horror peripheral. These scares also pair well with Stairs‘ intricate level design.

None of this, though, is to say that Stairs is without much more visceral moments. The monsters in this game are deeply unsettling… not just because of their appearance, but also because of the circumstances under which Adams find them. Sometimes they prefer to stay hidden or on the very edge of the player’s vision, which in many ways is more terrifying than when they actually break cover and pursue Adams. Nothing begs being stealthy more than a hive of sleeping creatures or seeing black-cloaked figures move between misty trees.


Can you see it?

The monsters in Stairs are consistently creepy, but the puzzles that players solve between encounters are not consistently, well, good. The folks over at GreyLight are huge fans of number and letter code puzzles—to the point where they form the bulk of riddles within Stairs. Though not a bad type of puzzle per se, clues as to the numbers’ whereabouts can be a bit too vague.

Additionally, Stairs challenges players to solve a myriad of obtuse symbol puzzles toward the end of the game. These puzzles are out of character with the rest of the game’s slow-burning investigating and don’t even really make that much sense within the context of the story. It’s a bit of a leap to go from creeping around looking at notes to pressing on glowing runes and following floating lights around. They’re not all that difficult to figure out, but players will have a hard time looking at them without wondering why they’re there.


Whaaaaat is happening…

Stairs‘ atmosphere exudes pure dread thanks to a combination of gorgeous visuals and minimalist sound design. The former is a collection of bleak, dreary environments built in the Unreal engine that range from dirty factory basements to abandoned mine shafts. All of these environments rely on a palette of muted colors to convey a sense of morbid lifelessness, as well as dim lighting that is only just bright enough to illuminate the game world. Some object textures look a bit blurry, but Stairs excels at believable object placement. The sense of chaotic clutter makes Stairs‘ world seem real.

Stairs‘ sound design proves that games can benefit from a relative lack of audio. The game has little music, but it’s unmistakable: a mournful piano melody layered over a foundation of quiet strings. More than that, though, the ambient sounds in Stairs are kept to a minimum to leave the player only with the sounds of their own footsteps. Some areas have a bit of ambient noise running in the background, but others are starkly silent… and that silence is deafening. The lack of ambient noise makes Stairs more terrifying, because every footstep sounds far too loud and it reinforces the feeling that something scary will pop out at any moment.


Step. Step. Step. Step.

The sound design in the world of Stairs is rock-solid… except for the voice acting. Adams is voiced by a guy who’s trying to do an American accent and a Batman voice at the exact same time, and the result is… less than unfunny. It’s clear that the voice actor’s going for some kind of tough guy crescendo, but the strain put into making his voice that low is painfully audible. The other voice acting, especially that of a terrified victim found early in the game, is much more palatable.

Stairs‘ lack of eloquence with dialogue digs deeper than the voice acting. The game’s written documents and signage are riddled with spelling and grammar errors. As mentioned in previous reviews, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with English not being a dev’s first language… but that doesn’t mean a game marketed to English speakers gets the same pass for grammar errors. Besides, in this age of being able to Google anything, there’s really no excuse for having lots of misspelled words. Ruins immersion like nobody’s business.


Just look for the Exti sign…?

Despite inconsistencies with its voice acting and its written exposition, Stairs gets props for presenting a unique take on the murder mystery genre. It’s difficult to go into detail without throwing out spoilers, but suffice it to say that Adams’ tourney through hell has more to do with his being a journalist than he might think. The game presents a few interesting ideas simmering beneath its blood-soaked surface: what happens when someone paints a false portrait of another person? How does that affect another human being’s life? These and other questions form the philosophical core of Stairs.

Stairs also succeeds at keeping this central narrative core vague, but not so vague that it’s unknowable. The game relies on a lot of Half Life 2-style show-don’t-tell for its main narrative and backstory exposition. For any of the challenges afforded by Stairs‘ inconsistent puzzle design and hokey voice acting, the game does a good job of wrapping an overlooked question about truth and consequences in a masterful array of level design and pure horror. In fact, Stairs is second only to Soma as 2015’s masterwork of psychological and survival terror.


What does Adams have to do with all of this?

Stairs is worth picking up for hours’ worth of terrifying scares and probing psychological fare that both prevent falling asleep at night. The game runs well, has a decent options menu, and is a gem in a genre overloaded with cheap scares and incoherent narratives. The spelling and puzzle design irregularities won’t suit all tastes, but Stairs punches through these problems with acute level design and a horror atmosphere so thick that it can be cut with a knife. Pick it up and embark upon a murder mystery that poses some novel (and unsettling) questions.


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 with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Dino D-Day


Hitler has created an army of Nazi dinosaurs… because of course he has.

PC Release: April 8, 2011

By Ian Coppock

Is there any supernatural or sci-fi entity that the Nazis haven‘t co-opted for World War II? Hitler bolstering the Third Reich with everything from an army of zombies to a base on the moon to robot spiders has become its own sub-genre in today’s media. Video games haven’t been far behind in appropriating Nazi doomsday plots, taking to that same campy ridiculousness with as much gusto as their film and television counterparts. Take Dino D-Day, for instance, a game that, well… just look at the title.


Ever think about what would happen if Hitler brought back the dinosaurs and put them into his army? Dino D-Day does. That notion drives everything from the game’s visuals to its writing to its gameplay; it is described by developers 800 North and Digital Ranch as their take on “the overdone World War II FPS… that has become a running joke in the industry and the gaming press.” Funny, World War II being overdone is what we discussed in yesterday’s review of Day of Defeat: Source.

Dino D-Day is an entirely multiplayer title that takes team-based World War II shooting and turns it on its head with the introduction of Nazi dinosaurs. Players can join the Axis or Allied forces as a human or dinosaur soldier, but the Axis has way more dinos and is therefore way more fun to play. Honestly, who comes to a game called Dino D-Day intent on playing as a human character anyway? This might be the only context on earth where choosing the Axis over the Allies is the right thing to do.


That guy should’ve held still.

After picking between the team that has dinosaurs and the team that doesn’t, players can choose one of several characters that each have their own firearms and abilities. All but one of the Allied troops is human, and they range from conventional frontline rifleman to more specialized support troops. By contrast, the Axis has a few human troops and a ton of dinosaurs. The game usually enters third-person when played as a dinosaur, so that players can see their gun-toting dino in all its prehistoric glory.

Now for the question that everyone’s asking: how do players become the T. rex? Certain maps will randomly allow Axis players to spawn as a tyrannosaurus, and it’s an absolute god upon the battlefield. In case being a giant eating machine isn’t enough, the Nazi T. rex comes standard with jaw-mounted gatling guns and a thirst for Allied blood. Stomping around the map eating everything in sight is a lot of fun, but anyone who kills the rex gets credit for three kills instead of one, so stomp with some caution.


Put ’em up, Rexy!

Getting to play as a gun-toting tyrannosaurus is a lot of fun, but Dino D-Day has a hard time making other dinosaurs as exciting. Sure, the sight of a dinosaur with a machine gun strapped to its back provokes comic relief, but for all their scales and spikes, most dinosaurs are logistically similar to their human counterparts. This somewhat reduces the novelty of playing as a Cretaceous cannoneer. Most dinosaur weapons are a bit heavier, sure, but only 2-3 dinosaur classes have more novel gameplay. One dino shreds things with his claws, another is a tiny suicide bomber.

As can be expected, humans play similarly to their World War II counterparts in Day of Defeat: Source. Shoot the enemy until they die, repeat. Dino D-Day does change things up a little bit by making characters more durable and adding medkits, but that’s really all that’s done to shake up playing as a human character. As was previously stated, don’t come to Dino D-Day for the humans. Come for the dinos, stay for the dinos—and angle for a chance to play as the T. rex.


Didn’t know Jeanette MacDonald fought in WWII.

Whether players pick human or dino, Dino D-Day‘s controls leave a lot to be desired. The game’s default movement, shooting and utility controls are clunky, but luckily the game allows rebinding. Moving as a dinosaur feels unwieldy, as even the smallest of them have awkward turning radii. Though it makes sense from a premise standpoint that the Axis has all of the dinosaurs, that also makes the gameplay feel somewhat lopsided. All of the specialized, weird dino classes are on one team, and the conventional shoot-em-up classes are on the other. Three guesses which side is more fun to be on.

Dino D-Day also only comes with four game modes, which isn’t a whole lot even by 2011 standards. Players can duke it out in a standard deathmatch mode or in King of the Hill, where checkpoints have to be captured. There’s also Objective mode, which is conspicuously similar to King of the Hill except players fight for control of certain objects or buildings instead of areas. Objective mode allows Axis players to take control of a Panzer-hefting styracosaurus, but for some reason this can only occur in one map. This curious inconsistency, among others, makes Dino D-Day feel unfinished. The most recent mode, Last Stand, sees players face off against waves of enemies for as long as possible.



At least Dino D-Day avoids the samey setting trap that’s snared countless World War II games. Most of the maps are set in North Africa and Italy instead of the same dreary Belgian countryside seen over and over in other World War II titles, and that’s definitely a plus. Even so, Dino D-Day shipped with a mere five maps and only six more have been added to the game since (for an average of one map a year). That’s not a lot of content, even for a multiplayer game that came out in 2011. The Source visuals have helped prolong Dino D-Day‘s aging, but few maps means that there’s little aging to go around.

Still, just in case those Source textures are too much or the AA is too high, Dino D-Day comes with a Valve-sized options menu to ameliorate any potential problems. From multicore rendering to shader and effect details, few aspects of the game’s performance are beyond the reach of players. Modern machines should be able to run Dino D-Day with no performance issues whatsoever, since it’s a Source game that came out six years ago, but sometimes players never know what problems might hit their PC. Better to have an in-depth options menu even for a game this old.


Worst. Deployment. Ever.

Dino D-Day‘s options are more limited when it comes to finding an actual game. Much like the age of the dinosaurs, this game’s community was roaring a while back but underwent a crippling extinction event. Today’s roster of servers is looking a little thin, and most of the few games that do happen are on a private server, leaving lone wolves and randos without playmates. Dino D-Day‘s community perks back up whenever an update is released, but those have been fewer and further between in recent years.

At this point, Dino D-Day has a few options to get itself off the museum shelf and back into the action. Going free-to-play might work, but then the studio would alienate inveterate players who paid for the title and DLC. The gameplay could also be retooled to make the dinosaurs feel more like, well… dinosaurs. Maybe add a dino that can smash into people like a tank or something, because right now, the dinosaurs are functionally similar to humans. This gameplay issue makes Dino D-Day feel more like a funny skin pack than, say, Primal Carnage or Natural Selection II.


King of the dinosaurs, and of Italy.

As of writing, Dino D-Day is a no-go. The chance to play as a tyrannosaurus is more easily experienced in other games, and is not worth soldiering through hours of conventional shooting with mediocre key bindings to get to. If more dinosaurs were rebalanced to feel like terrifying creatures instead of a player skin, the game’s value proposition as a novel, funny World War II offshoot would increase tremendously. For now, though, Dino D-Day is a dying game that makes a humorous albeit shallow attempt at campy Nazi sci-fi. Only time will tell if future updates can give Dino D-Day the depth its concept deserves.


You can buy Dino D-Day 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 with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Day of Defeat: Source


Beat back Axis or Allied forces in class-based multiplayer battles.

PC Release: September 25, 2005

By Ian Coppock

World War II used to be all the rage. Back in the 2000’s, for every one fantasy RPG or puzzle game the industry put out, there’d be five more re-telling the Battle of the Bulge or the fall of Berlin. After the release of 2008’s Call of Duty: World at War, publishers’ interest in World War II games died out, and the conflict has largely remained absent from big-name storefronts ever since. Though new games about World War II are much rarer than they used to be (at least until Call of Duty: WWII hits shelves this fall) the old guard of 2000’s World War II games produced a few famous titles. Day of Defeat: Source is one of them.


The original Day of Defeat was a third-party multiplayer mod for 1998’s Half-Life, which is also how such big-name titles as Counter-Strike and Team Fortress got their starts. As with those two games, Valve decided to acquire the rights to Day of Defeat and took the mod’s creators on as developers. Following that acquisition, Valve developed a new version of DoD that was built in the studio’s legendary Source engine: Day of Defeat: Source, which hit shelves in 2005.

DoD: Source is a first-person, multiplayer-only shooter set in the western front of World War II. Players can pick from one of six different soldier classes and fight for either the U.S. Army or the German Wehrmacht, taking objectives and bombing out each others’ favorite Belgian cafes. It only takes a few shots to bring even the bravest soldier down, and only a few seconds for that soldier to respawn and rejoin the match. (For some reason that last detail is always left out of real accounts of World War II.)



Day of Defeat: Source‘s gameplay is similar to Team Fortress 2‘s in many ways, as each of the six soldier classes can roughly be divided into assault, defense and support roles. Riflemen and rocket troopers make for great party crashers, while snipers and machine gunners can make short work of unwanted guests. In addition to their primary weapon, each soldier comes equipped with a backup killing implement (usually a pistol or grenades) and a trench shovel for when things need to get smacky.

Running around shooting people is not hard to understand, but Day of Defeat: Source having only two gameplay modes is much more of a head-scratcher. Even for a shooter that came out in ’05… two modes? That’s it? Not exactly a smorgasbord of choices there, Valve. The first mode is Territorial Control, which requires players to capture flagged areas scattered around the map and prevent enemy troops from doing the same. The other, Demolition, challenges one side to blow up vehicles and the other side to defend them.


Now… where did those damn Yankees hide the eclairs?

Okay, so there are only two modes in the entire game. Not the end of the world when one considers DoD: Source‘s fast-paced gunplay. Surely these firefights must play out across the whole of Europe? Nope, not quite. It’s hard to believe, but when DoD: Source shipped 12 years ago, it did so with only four maps. Four. That amount is unimaginable by modern standards, and even back then it wasn’t much. Valve released a few more maps in the following years, for a grand total of 10. Still not a lot of maps, especially when compared to the likes of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

One of the reasons World War II games got old in the late 2000’s is that they all had the same setting: a bombed-out European hamlet somewhere between here and Berlin. DoD: Source suffers this problem in the extreme. Remember those 10 maps mentioned earlier? Only one of those is not a bombed-out European hamlet. Yup, with the sole exception of a sandy bunker in Palermo, DoD: Source‘s maps are all war-torn French and Italian villages that no amount of different rubble placement helps diversify. The facade and time of year may change, but the arrangement of demolished cafes and dimly lit house basements does not.


To France! No wait, to Belgium! No wait, to Italy! No wait, to… Belgium?

DoD: Source is hardly the sole offender in its near-exclusive focus on gutted baguette stands and ironically demolished churches, but it is one of the worst. The game’s relentless overuse of the western European setting is indicative of a larger problem, one that helped drive World War II’s power in video gaming down to embers: using the same setting over and over again. By focusing exclusively on the western front, World War II video games became mired in visual repetition, which helped interest in these titles die out by the end of the 2000’s.

Funny thing about a conflict called World War II… it took place all over the world. It’s refreshing when a developer takes advantage of that fact. Part of what makes 2015’s Sniper Elite III stand out is that it swapped out the samey European setting in favor of North Africa, which, despite being one of the most pivotal theaters of World War II, is rarely portrayed in games. If all it takes for a World War II game to stand out is showing something other than western Europe, that underscores the repetition problem the genre faced.


Scanning for pasta…

If DoD: Source has to mire itself in a samey European visage, at least it looks alright. Source engine games tend to age well, and DoD: Source‘s character and in-game models still look good even though they’re 12 years old. Character animations are a bit wonky though, and DoD: Source‘s textures, like the sun, are really best off not looked at directly. It’s easy to tell a brick wall from a French wine advertisement at a distance, but up-close the pixelated surfaces look much more conspicuous. However, the game does come roaring out of the gate with loud, crisp sound design and period-inspired music.

Because DoD: Source is a Valve game, it comes packed with one of the best options menus around. Virtually no aspect of the game’s visual design can’t be poked and prodded, so players having trouble running the game can make short work of most issues. Players can also toggle dozens of additional in-game options, like taking a victory screenshot or showing a progress bar while planting a bomb. DoD: Source isn’t the only multiplayer game to pack this kind of versatility, but having it there is a great way for players to control every aspect of the experience.


Press F to STERBEN! (die)

Even if players are willing to tolerate DoD: Source‘s relative lack of maps and each map being pretty much the same, the game may have already suffered its own day of defeat. Only a few matches are going in DoD: Source at any given time. That’s more than can be said for most 12-year-old multiplayer games on PC, but what few matches are alive and kicking are most likely on a private server and/or password protected. Shame, because that’s usually where any custom maps that break the base game’s mold are to be found.

Day of Defeat: Source‘s gameplay doesn’t reinvent the wheel and its small number of samey maps is unfortunate, but the game wasn’t bad in its heyday. These days, players yearning for a visceral World War II multiplayer experience are probably better off buying the recently released Day of Infamy. It never hurts to pay heed to a multiplayer classic though, one whose lessons in both tight, fun gameplay and repetitive maps are things that future World War II game devs would do well to heed.


You can buy Day of Defeat: Source 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 with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.



Investigate strange disappearances in the Russian wilderness.

PC Release: June 9, 2015

By Ian Coppock

In 1959, a group of Russian college students disappeared while hiking in the Ural Mountains. It took three weeks for investigators to find the hikers, and when they did, they beheld a grim scene. Something had caused the students to cut their tent open from the inside and flee barefoot into subzero temperatures, where they all succumbed to hypothermia. Some of the hikers had also sustained major injuries: one woman’s eyes, tongue, and lips were missing. The bizarre circumstances of the incident have kept theories flowing for over half a century, and Kholat, named for the mountain on which the students died, has its own idea of what happened.


Designed by the Polish indie confectioners over at IMGN.PRO, Kholat is a first-person horror game that attempts to explain what befell those students in 1959. Players assume the role of an anonymous mountaineer who arrives to the region to conduct their own investigation, though whether the game is set in the 50’s or contemporary times isn’t made clear. Why the player’s heading into the mountains to find out what happened is also left ambiguous, but they head into the mountains nonetheless.

The region that players explore in Kholat is visually stunning. The game was built in the Unreal engine and boasts a stylish, haunting winter visage. Wind ruffles tree branches realistically and sudden gusts of snow brush across the screen with impressive motion blur. Combine this with eerie fog effects, and the result is a winter nightmare-land that’s as gorgeous as it is forbidding. All told, it makes for an ideal horror setting. What better way to chill the blood and goose the bumps than setting off into an icy valley of death?


Nope, nope, screw this, nope, nope, nope…

IMGN.PRO ices Kholat‘s world with creepy sounds and scary strings. The former is a mix of noises that play out in the player’s peripheral hearing, like distant rock slides and the constant moan of the wind. Sometimes the sounds will abruptly mute, particularly when the player nears the edge of Kholat‘s map, but they come through in otherwise crystal-clear quality. If previous horror game reviews haven’t beaten this point to death already, sound design is crucial to establishing atmosphere in a horror game. Kholat‘s apt mix of foreboding wilderness noises is up for that challenge.

The game’s soundtrack uses violins as a base, layered with low strings and exotic percussion for good measure. Kholat‘s score lends the game a primeval feel, one that assails the senses with gradually building strings and what sounds like rocks clacking together. These movements sometimes accelerate when an enemy creature shows up. Other times, the music will simply die down and leave players alone with the sounds of the mountain. It makes for a cloying sense of isolation… and vulnerability.


(rubs hands together)

What was that in the last paragraph? Enemy creatures show up? It seems that Kholat‘s winter wonder(not)land is populated by unfriendly beings. Strange, shadowy wraiths stalk the trees waiting for uncaring players to slip up and trigger their thirst for blood. Sometimes players will wander the mountain paths only for one of these creepy ghouls to pop out of the trees just in time for brunch. Kholat gives players no means of self-defense; their best hope is to run and try to break the creature’s line of sight. The AI that went into these creatures is questionable though, as sometimes they stand right in front of the player and seem content to idle rather than murder.

The rest of Kholat‘s gameplay is much more in line with Gone Home than, say, Outlast. Players complete the game by wandering around the region gathering notes as to what happened. How these notes weren’t discovered by previous investigators or blown away by the winter winds is anyone’s guess, but they contain pieces of a larger story. Sometimes Sean Bean will step in to provide additional musings on the player’s quest. He serves as Kholat‘s narrator, and he and the other characters’ voice acting is superb.


What happened here?

Less admirable than Kholat‘s voice acting is its script, which is one of the most scattershot and nonsensical horror game plots in recent memory. As players make their way through Kholat‘s chilly world, the notes they find lying around raise more questions than they solve. Some notes are diary entries left behind by the missing students, while others make various hints at supernatural activity, government cover-ups, and other tired cliches. It helps even less that all of these notes (and the subtitles) are riddled with countless spelling and grammar errors.

Kholat‘s narrative had an easy job: take one of the 20th century’s most mysterious stories and expand upon it. The result is a fragmented mess that tries to be sci-fi, fantasy and so many other things at once, only to fail. No indication is given as to who Sean Bean’s character is, and as the game goes on, it starts to become unclear who the player‘s character is, too. There’s nothing wrong with a game narrative being vague, but Kholat tries so hard to be vague and mysterious that it ends up almost completely unknowable. Indeed, the game seems disinterested in its original premise, preferring to wallow in shallow what-ifs about the 1959 incident.


What is happening?

Going the distance for a sub-par story is inadvisable, especially when given Kholat’s gameplay and level design. The game starts players out with a minimal navigation toolkit: a map, a compass, and a flashlight. The game marks the player’s camp and the locations of discovered notes on their map, but doesn’t tell players where they currently are. While this sort of minimalist navigation is refreshing from a survival gameplay standpoint, it makes it difficult for players to find specific coordinates. It’s also not always easy for players to discern their location, because while Kholat‘s scenery is beautiful, it’s also samey in places.

How samey, one might ask? Well, Kholat‘s mountain trails are often loop-shaped and can make it easy for players to get turned around. Some ledges can be safely traversed while others will cause players to fall to their deaths, in what seems to be a very arbitrary distinction on Kholat‘s part. A game that’s loaded with unfair deaths means that checkpoints are vital, but in Kholat they’re an endangered species. It’s easy to lose half an hour of progress because the player character hopped one ledge just fine only to suffer a fatal fall on the next one… somehow. Kholat‘s enemy creatures love causing unfair deaths too, as they’ll often just pop up without warning and send players back to their last checkpoint thirty minutes ago.



If Kholat is unnecessarily punishing and too vague for its own good, at least it runs well. The game’s system requirements are not baseline, but Kholat keeps a consistent framerate and suffers almost no performance issues. Some players have reported the occasional crash, but the other facets of the game run just fine. Kholat‘s options menu is pretty middle-of-the-road; players can expect detail levels and the other usual suspects. It’s not a ton of stuff, but it should be more than enough to scale down processor demand.

Kholat‘s smooth performance and jaw-dropping winter world are really all the game has to offer. The gameplay is mediocre and the narrative (if one can call it that) is a jumbled mess that grossly mismanages everything from the mystery story that spawned it to having Sean Bean as a narrator. It takes a true, terrifying story and ventures off into its own wilderness of half-baked sci-fi and aimless character development. These narrative missteps only make Kholat‘s failure to expand upon the 1959 incident in a meaningful way more glaring.


Where did we come from and where do we go?

Players who like the idea of traversing a haunted mountain will like Kholat, but the game demands a lot of suffering for fans of even that very specific niche. If Kholat has anything to teach other game developers, it’s that a horror game can’t just get away with using a popular ghost story to mask a bland experience. A well-written premise isn’t enough to disguise the taste of a poorly written narrative. Any horror game can spend its entire length flailing at theories and regurgitating jumpscares, but only a select few titles can weave exposition and narrative into a truly terrifying story.

Kholat is not one of those titles.


You can buy Kholat 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 with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.