Survive a nightmarish mirror world full of monsters.
PC Release: February 22, 2012
By Ian Coppock
Video games have never shied away from portraying mental illness. Their interactivity makes them an ideal platform for doing so; it’s easy to read about depression in a book or see it in a film, but interacting with it firsthand is much more visceral. While not the rosiest of topics, depression affects a lot of people, and media that portrays what it’s really like can be cathartic as much as it can be somber. Many video games have presented their take on depression and anxiety over the years, but no horror title is more famous for doing so than Cry of Fear.
Cry of Fear is a survival horror game developed by Team Psykskallar, a Swedish studio that also made 2005’s Afraid of Monsters. Like Afraid of Monsters, Cry of Fear puts players in a horrific alternate dimension and expects them to fight through a bloody blend of deformed monsters and creepy hallucinations. Cry of Fear is also a total conversion mod for Half-Life, running on the GoldSrc engine but using entirely original character models, sounds, textures and other production elements.
The unfortunate star of Cry of Fear is a depressed teenager named Simon, whose story begins as he walks around the streets of Stockholm in a depressed haze. Simon spots a wounded man begging for help on the sidewalk, and when he hurries over to see what’s wrong, a car comes speeding out of nowhere and strikes him head-on. When he wakes up, Simon finds himself in an unfamiliar part of town, with no people around and strange noises coming from around every corner.
After spending a few moments wandering empty streets and catching glimpses of strange figures, Simon realizes that the entire town is populated not by people, but horrifically deformed monsters. These creatures stalk him relentlessly through the cold Swedish night, and no one’s around to lend him a hand or even answer the phone. As Simon, it’s up to players to navigate the horrors of this strange city with only a few weapons and a flashlight app. He fights not only for his life, but to discover what is happening in this ghoulish city.
Like any decent horror game, Cry of Fear is played in first-person. Simon starts the game out with his cell phone (useful only for its light, as no one is answering 911) and a switchblade. Players can find additional weapons lying around, but the monsters won’t take kindly to having their property stolen, and some items are much more difficult to obtain than others. Players can dual-wield certain items (like the cell phone and a melee weapon) and use morphine syringes found in the game world to restore health. Using too much morphine can have some nasty side effects, but it’s nothing compared to the side effects of letting monsters get too close.
Though the ability to dual-wield multiple combinations of items is a great way to let players find their groove, Cry of Fear‘s inventory system is rather clunky. Players can carry up to six items, but the user interface for assigning those items to quickslots and setting them up for dual wielding is… unrefined. Simon can quickslot up to three items, but there are no hotkeys for using syringes or other tools. That means at least one quickslot has to be devoted to a non-combat item. Sure, being able to pull out a syringe immediately is handy, but then players can’t quickly change between the knife and cellphone and, say, a pistol, for on-the-fly transitions between melee and ranged combat.
Fighting monsters in Cry of Fear is also clunky, because they use the same attack pattern over and over again. It becomes easy for players to encounter a monster, tease an attack out of it, and counter-strike while their combat animation is finishing up. Even though Cry of Fear features nearly three dozen different enemy types, about half of them use a slow melee attack that’s easy to dodge and then cut into. It renders many of the different enemy types redundant; the hammer psycho and fire ax lunatic may look different, but they’re logistically identical. Fortunately, Cry of Fear manages to preserve some variety with monsters that use ranged or other indirect attacks.
For all the sameness afforded by some of the monsters, Cry of Fear doesn’t pull any punches in making them scary. This game has a rogue’s gallery of truly nightmarish creatures, from eyeless mutants to screeching widows that have had their forelimbs amputated and replaced with blades. Unusually for a modern horror game, Cry of Fear also features boss fights, where Simon has to discover a monster’s weakness and then exploit it without getting chainsawed in half or smashed to pieces with a hammer. Simon can choose to run away from certain boss battles, but doing so may affect the game’s ending in adverse ways.
Because Cry of Fear was built in the GoldSrc engine, it’d be a lie to say that its visuals have aged gracefully. However, the game’s old-school visuals are more beneficial to its aesthetic than the most cutting-edge game engines around today (and they spare us from any potential CryEngine puns). Cry of Fear‘s rough, blocky character models help make the monsters look distorted and scary. The stiffness of some of these animations verges on amateurish, but holy crap do the creatures look more unnerving because of them. The game world itself has some pretty muddy textures, but the object models look good, and the muted color palette strengthens Cry of Fear‘s morbid atmosphere.
One of the most important elements in horror game design is sound, and while Cry of Fear succeeds in creating a visually forbidding world, the sound design is much more hit-and-miss. To start with what the game does right, the soundtrack is one of the grimmest sets of music in horror gaming. These scores alternate between low, unnerving sounds for tense treks through the city, and sad, somber piano melodies for quieter interludes. The piano especially is apt at capturing the agony of Simon’s journey, though the larger soundtrack is a perfect musical mirror for this lonely odyssey.
Less excellent than Cry of Fear‘s soundtrack is its monster sounds, many of which crackle with static or sound just plain canned. This is particularly true of some monsters’ death screams, which sound like they’re emitting from a World War II-era radio. Other monster sound effects may not sound so full of static, but they may be strangely muted. A chainsaw-wielding maniac is far less scary if his chainsaw sounds like it’s coming through a silencer. The game’s other sound effects are largely free of technical errors and sound right at home in this nightmare-Stockholm—doors creak convincingly, walls break loudly, and weapons strike with delightful slashing and crunching sounds.
Cry of Fear‘s design elements don’t hit every note, but they do create an atmosphere that drowns in dread. An entire nightmare city crawling with monstrosities isn’t light fare to begin with, but the game’s sounds, visuals and gameplay all combine to make Cry of Fear‘s environment even scarier. As players work their way through this frigid nightmare world, the constant attacks by the monsters and long stretches of walking through alleyways create a strong sense of isolation. Players will frequently catch glimpses of the rest of the city from afar, which is a great way to reinforce the feeling of being a tiny insect in a monstrous labyrinth.
The central motif of Cry of Fear is depression. Without going into too much detail, Simon’s journey has more to do with his crippling depression than he might think. Cry of Fear is a game that’s pretty rough around the edges, but it does an uncommonly good job of capturing the sense of futility that accompanies severe depression. The character’s resolve to press on is challenged as much by his depression as the hordes of monsters that are hunting him. He tries to do the right thing, but forces far beyond his control make it difficult, which is so often how depression affects the mind in real life.
Cry of Fear‘s story delivery is hamstrung by a few inconsistencies. The developer gets a bit of a break for not speaking English as a first language, but that doesn’t stop Cry of Fear‘s voice acting from sounding uninspired or the writing from being sub-par. The audio on much of the voice acting is also imbalanced, with even Simon’s loudest talking constituting a small whisper. Some of this game’s cutscenes are painful to sit through, both for the voice acting and for how clumsily they’re written.
No, the best parts of the story are the long walks through the freezing Scandinavian night, when Simon is learning the mysteries of the world around him and trying to find a way to press on. These sequences thankfully comprise the vast majority of Cry of Fear, and they’re also where that aforementioned sense of depressed loneliness really shambles to life. Cry of Fear‘s rawest storytelling comprises Simon, alone in the dark, battling a combination of horrid monsters and his own deep-set depression. The game also features a co-op campaign for players who are too afraid to tackle this world alone, but its storytelling isn’t quite as good as that of the main game.
Cry of Fear‘s production is rough around the edges, but the game’s masterful presentation of mental-emotional hopelessness pushes through its more roughshod design facets to make it a visceral, meaningful horror game. Its solitary treks speak volumes that cutscenes cannot, and its sense of isolation is unparalleled. Not every depressed person shares the same perception of that condition, but they do know the feelings of isolation and hopelessness that come with it, and Cry of Fear captures them brilliantly. As such, it makes for a good horror game, one that fans of the genre should pick up if they already haven’t.
Here’s the first game hint: it’s free on Steam.
You can buy Cry of Fear here.
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