Horror

No More Room in Hell

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Stairs

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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.

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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.

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AAAAAAAAAAAH!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Kholat

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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.

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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?

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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.

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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(yawn)

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.

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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.

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

Cry of Fear

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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.

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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 MonstersCry 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.

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Simon wakes up in a very dark corner of… Stockholm?

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.

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NOPENOPENOPENOPENOPENOPE

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.

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WTF IS THAT WTF IS THAT WTF IS THAT

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.

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Cry of Fear is… not a bright game.

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.

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Oosh. Cold.

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.

Fear7

Being chased by a chainsaw murderer IS pretty depressing…

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.

Fear8

A moment of peace is worth its weight in gold to a depressed person.

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.

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You can buy Cry of Fear 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 ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

F.E.A.R. 3

F31

Survive being hunted by a ruthless supernatural entity.

PC Release: June 21, 2011

By Ian Coppock

What’s worse than a ghost that tears people apart with her mind? Two ghosts that tear people apart with their minds. That’s the premise of F.E.A.R. 3, a game that attempts to wrap up the legendary F.E.A.R. series. The saga started off on strong footing, with the original F.E.A.R. presenting an apt blend of Half-Life 2-style gameplay and heavy influence from Japanese horror films. F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin picked up where the first game left off, but was content to be a slightly unsettling Call of Duty clone that had forgotten the definition of subtlety. Where does all of that leave F.E.A.R. 3?

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F.E.A.R. 3 (or F.3.A.R., because someone decided that F.Three.A.R. sounded cool) is the third and final installment in the F.E.A.R. series of horror-shooters. Unlike the first two F.E.A.R. games, F.E.A.R. 3 was developed by a little-known studio called Day 1 instead of Monolith. John Carpenter, director of 1982’s The Thing and a fan of the original game, directed F.E.A.R. 3‘s cinematic custcenes. Steve Niles, the writer of 30 Days of Night and Simon Dark, was also brought in to help pen the game’s narrative.

F.E.A.R. 3 takes place nine months after the events of F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin and stars the Point Man, the protagonist of F.E.A.R. Following the events of the first game, the Point Man was captured by the dastardly Armacham Technology Corporation and taken to a hideout in Brazil, where he’s been interrogated ever since. True to the demeanor he displayed in the first game, the Point Man never talks, remaining a silent protagonist even as he’s getting punched up by bros in flak jackets.

F32

The Point Man is back, baby! Or as that zombie might say, “PURNT MURN URS BURK!” (it’s the zombie of Scott Stapp)

Just as the Point Man’s interrogators give up and decide to kill him, he’s rescued by Paxton Fettel, the psychic cannibal antagonist of F.E.A.R. Fettel is still sore over how things shook out in the first game, but tells the Point Man that they need to hurry back to the city of Fairport. Alma, the enraged ghost at the heart of all of F.E.A.R.‘s supernatural phenomena, is about to give birth, and there’s no telling what kind of monster her baby will be. To make matters worse, both Fettel and the Point Man are being hunted by a mysterious monster called the Creep. The two men form a shaky alliance to stop the Creep, though the jury’s still out on what they’ll do about Alma.

Like the previous F.E.A.R. games, F.E.A.R. 3 is a first-person shooter. The Point Man is proficient with the many pistols, shotguns, assault rifles and other weapons found throughout the game, and he can also snap to cover behind various in-game objects. The Point Man retains his signature slo-mo ability, which allows players to slow time and pick off enemies with surgical precision. The Point Man can also occasionally hop into a mech suit to tear s*** up with missiles and gatling guns.

F33

That’ll teach you to take me to Brazil and keep me from the beach.

F.E.A.R. 3‘s story campaign can be played co-op, with Paxton Fettel taking on the role of deuteragonist. Unlike the gun-crazy Point Man, Fettel uses his psychic powers to take the fight to the enemy, throwing objects around and possessing enemy soldiers. Playing as Fettel makes for a clunkier experience than playing as the Point Man, but it’s still fun to throw things and pop enemies’ heads like pimples. Fettel doesn’t appear as an allied NPC if players decide to tackle F.E.A.R. 3 solo and can’t be used in solo mode until after that level’s been completed at least once as the Point Man.

Standing between the Point Man and Alma is the Armacham Corporation, whose soldiers are still trying to contain the supernatural mess that Fairport has become. These troops are none too picky about their targets and come after the Point Man with a few tricks of their own (like soldiers that can phase through walls). The city has also become infested with Left 4 Dead-style mutants that come running at the player brandishing everything from hatchets to bare fists.

F34

Chopping enemies’ heads off usually does the trick.

Unfortunately for horror fans, F.E.A.R. 3‘s visage and gameplay are much more in line with F.E.A.R. 2 than the original F.E.A.R. Like the second game, F.E.A.R. 3 draws clear and shameless inspiration from Call of Duty with conventional shoot-till-they drop gunplay that no shooter fan hasn’t already seen a million times. F.E.A.R. 3 also uses the Call of Duty-style health regeneration system. Getting rid of medkits is a great way to kill tension in a horror game, because players don’t have to worry about whether they’ll survive the next monster attack and can simply take cover while the Point Man magically heals himself.

To F.E.A.R. 3‘s credit, the game does have a few sequences that allow suspense to build, but these are the exception rather than the rule. Sometimes the Point Man will be walking around a grocery store and hear things rummaging through shelves, or see something in the shadows snatching corpses, but this happens, like… two times throughout the game. Most times it’s just mowing down hordes of screaming zombies or taking out an army of machine gun-wielding frat boys. Top this all off with being able to use mech walkers for combat, and the result is a game that is a perfectly average shooter, and a perfectly mediocre horror game.

F35

(sigh)

F.E.A.R. 3‘s level design is somehow even more linear and constricting than the design of F.E.A.R. 2, with strictly defined paths forward unto more enemies. The developers attempted to pretty up the linearity with conveniently placed car blockages and concrete barricades but that won’t help players feel like the game isn’t shunting them from firefight to firefight. Just keep moving forward. Keep shooting the bad guys and keep moving forward. Any areas that have a trace of openness to them are dinner reservations for boss fights.

At least F.E.A.R. 3 isn’t drowning in film grain like F.E.A.R. 2 was, and its volumetric lighting is exceptional for a game that came out in 2011. F.E.A.R. 3 also makes use of a strong color palette in doling out its environments, whether it’s a house covered in blood or a bridge littered with wrecked cars. The object placement and use of color is sound on a technical level but it also makes Fairport look just like the dozens of other bombed-out cities endemic to the shooter genre. F.E.A.R. 3‘s cinematic cutscenes also look absolutely atrocious, with the stiff character animations and heavily pixelated aesthetic one might expect of a 90’s-era cinematic, not a 2010’s one.

F36

You can have the on-sale items if you crawl under the shelf into that pitch-black alcove that’s emitting growling noises. Have fun!

The nail in F.E.A.R. 3‘s bargain bin of scares is the story, which feels rushed and unevenly paced. The game can’t seem to decide which plot point is most important for the Point Man and Fettel to focus on. First, it’s stopping Alma. Then, it’s rescuing someone. Then, it’s stopping the Creep. F.E.A.R. 3‘s storytelling is so disjointed that each level almost feels like its own game, a problem that’s reinforced by those levels taking place in completely separate areas. First it was a suburb. Now it’s an airport. Now the Point Man’s magically back at the Project Origin facility. The hell’s going on here?

These problems start to make sense when taking a look at F.E.A.R. 3‘s development. The game’s initial release date was October 2010, but it got pushed to March 2011. In March, it was pushed to April. In April, it was pushed to June. In June it finally hit store shelves, but games don’t get delayed that many times in such short order without something worrisome happening behind the scenes. Whatever happened with F.E.A.R. 3, the result is a conventional scares-lite shooter that manages to be even more of a disappointment than F.E.A.R. 2. The game manages to end the series on a satisfactory note, but players have to suffer through 6-8 hours of fragmented storytelling and pedestrian shooter gameplay to get there.

F37

F.E.A.R. 3 is all getting to choppers and no ghosts.

F.E.A.R. 3, like F.E.A.R 2, is patently unworthy of the original F.E.A.R. and a disappointing title in its own right. The game offers some fun gunplay here and there, but can’t hope to get players invested in its story when it itself is so disinterested in storytelling. The game strips out any sort of ancillary exposition and crams what little story it does have between strictly divided set pieces. All of this makes the game feel impatient, unfinished, and uninspired.

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You can buy F.E.A.R. 3 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 ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Outlast 2

Out1

Rescue your wife from a town full of insane cultists.

PC Release: April 25, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Grab a pitchfork and propose to a cousin, because Red Barrels’ long-awaited hillbilly horror game has arrived at last. After Outlast stormed the boards in the fall of 2013 with its eerie green-tinged environments and flat-out terrifying enemies, Outlast 2 was a foregone conclusion for many fans. Sure enough, Outlast 2 was announced a few years later, and much like a Mount Massive Insane Asylum patient barging through a door, could not be restrained by delays and obstacles. Now it’s time to delve once more into what could very well be the scariest universe in contemporary gaming.

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Like its predecessor, Outlast 2 is a first-person survival-horror game that emphasizes careful exploration and avoiding crazed monsters. The game is set some time after the events of Outlast, but features a new cast of characters and a setting far away from the original’s Colorado crazy-house. Players assume the role of Blake Langermann, a cameraman who along with his wife Lynn has been investigating the murder of a pregnant woman in Arizona. The couple’s sleuthing leads them to the state’s remotest desert region, and to what could be a big break for Lynn.

As Blake and Lynn prepare to touch down in the desert, a strange blast of light forces their helicopter to crash. Blake regains consciousness and finds his trusty video camera, but cannot locate his wife in the wreckage. He follows a spine-tingling trail of screams to what looks like a town… only, there’s not supposed to be a town so far out here. The word “town” is also quite generous. “Dilapidated village from Hell” is a more apt descriptor of this place.

Out2

Oh boy.

It doesn’t take long for Blake to discover that the town is inhabited… by a vicious cult that believes the end times are upon the world. Barely managing to stay one step ahead of the zealous cultists, Blake also realizes that the townsfolk have captured Lynn, and are preparing to cart her off to a fate worse than death. Armed only with his camera, it’s up to Blake to rescue his wife and find a way out of this hellish little corner of the desert.

That camera is players’ only hope for survival in Outlast 2, as Blake is unable to fight back against the cultists (despite the entire town being full of farming implements). Blake’s camera is far more sophisticated than the one Miles Upshur used in Outlast, with improved zoom, night vision, and even microphones that can pick up distant footsteps. Blake can run, jump, and slide his way out of trouble provided his reflexes are quick enough, but the town’s inhabitants are armed to the teeth and none too shy about attempting a murderous 50-meter dash.

Out3

I suddenly have a lot more respect for adult diapers.

Although the basic run-and-record gameplay of Outlast 2 is nothing that fans of Outlast won’t be familiar with, the sequel does make a few crucial tweaks that refine the first title’s gameplay. For instance, the player can now look behind themselves at any time instead of just when sprinting. Additionally, the retinue of hiding spots has increased dramatically, and the player now has a wide selection of barrels, troughs and ponds to hop into when Cousin Cletus comes knocking. The whole camera setup feels a bit too derivative of the first game, but it remains a fluid setup indeed.

Outlast 2 also makes some rather malicious modifications to the game’s survival systems, doing away with the health regeneration of Outlast in favor of limited health and bandages. This mechanic is a great way to up the tension. Players can still expect to find batteries lying around, but Outlast 2 demands far more usage of the night vision mode than the first game did, so players have to be resourceful when whipping the camera out. Outlast 2 also does a much better job than the first game did of hinting to players when an event is worthy of recording, and allows players to review footage they’ve taken for clues and Blake’s insights.

Out4

There’s no “Killbilly” Instagram filter.

The enemies that Outlast 2 throws at Blake are even more terrifying that the mutated inmates at the first game’s insane asylum. Something malicious has clearly driven these townsfolk over the edge, and as an outsider, Blake is the unlucky recipient of the village’s collective ire. The villagers are smarter and more thorough than the monsters in Outlast, using more intricate search patterns and working together in teams to hound the player. It’s an impressive AI upgrade over what Outlast provided, though the villagers are little less oblivious to when the player is walking right behind them.

Outlast 2 also succeeds in providing a greater variety of foes than the first game. For all their admitted scariness, the inmates in Outlast constituted a single enemy type. As Blake progresses through the village, he has to put up not only with angry villagers, but sickened outcasts that crawl around and stalk the player from a distance. The heretics, a splinter faction opposing the town, are little friendlier to Blake than the villagers but are brutal ambush predators. None of this is to say anything of the game’s unique and particularly gruesome villains, like the 8-foot-tall pickax lady.

Out5

Nothing to see here ma’am, just a metal drum minding its own business… (whistling).

Outlast 2‘s most dramatic change over the original Outlast is in the level design department. The game abandons the constricting linear environments of the insane asylum in favor of open hamlets and corn fields. This shift in level design is a refreshing change, but it certainly doesn’t stop the monsters from being thorough with their patrols. The corn fields represent the zenith of this transition, as players have to adjust from creeping down asylum corridors to blindly pushing through corn stalks while who knows what waits in the next patch over.

Unfortunately, this transformation to a starkly open environment makes it difficult for players to know where to go next. A few areas here and there are marked with telltale lights or a pushed-over cart pointing toward a door, but too often finding the path forward becomes an obnoxious spate of trial-and-error. Players have to run around an environment hoping that they blunder into the exit, but might very well blunder into Billy Jean’s ax and have to start all over again. For the visceral new sense of terror afforded by Outlast 2‘s much more open design, the game loses a lot of structure in the process.

Out6

An actual haunted corn maze is pretty terrifying.

The real heart of the problem with Outlast 2‘s format change has less to do with the change itself and more to do with how enemies act in it. This game is rife, absolutely rife, with scripted chase sequences, which the player is still expected to navigate even while in an open area. It becomes dull and frustrating to endure a chase scene over and over again because the player can’t find the direction the game wants them to run in. There’s something inherently dysfunctional about applying a linear chase sequence to an open environment. It happens a lot in Outlast 2, and it’s less scary than irritating.

Despite the drawbacks of Outlast 2‘s world, it remains one of the scariest game settings developed in years. This spooky Arizona backwater is intricately detailed with decaying buildings and ghoulish religious iconography, all of which gives it a dreadful atmosphere. The game certainly doesn’t let up on showering the town with (literal) buckets of blood, bodies, and gore, all of which is carefully arranged to show, not tell, additional little stories. These details, plus a heap of sophisticated lighting and weather effects and outstanding PC performance, make the town even scarier than the setting of the first game. Outlast 2‘s comprehensive options menu doesn’t hurt the game either.

Out7

Mount Massive’s been given a run for its money.

The other thing that makes Outlast 2‘s setting so scary? The horror. The pure, visceral, unleashed, unrestrained horror. The horror of watching the pickax lady murder someone for not muttering Biblical phrases properly. The horror of being licked by an all-too-amorous cultist who really wants to feel the spirit. The horror of watching townsfolk get stretched on the rack, flayed alive, and then burned at the stake. The horror of being vomited on by a plague-ridden cultist before watching him retreat to a cabin half-sunk in his own feces.

Yeah, Outlast 2 does not hold back in its portrayals of graphic violence. Indeed, it might be one of the most violent games ever made, and for this medium that’s saying something. Red Barrels’ decision to go full-throttle on portraying the very worst excesses of the human mind means that most players will experience the game while under the duress of a perpetual heart attack. Even iron-hearted horror aficionados may find themselves flinching at some of the torture and assault portrayed in this game. For better and for worse, Outlast 2 digs its adrenaline-tipped barbs into players’ hearts and doesn’t release itself for most of its 8-9 hour playtime.

Out8

I do not want to watch how this shakes out.

This constant cringe also creeps into the main narrative, thanks to some talented writing and horrifyingly brilliant voice acting. Unlike Miles Upshur, Blake can talk, and usually gives very realistic reactions to the awful things he witnesses. As Blake makes his way through the village, he also begins having flashbacks of unpleasant events at his Catholic elementary school. These scenes are wound together with the main game into a foreboding miasma, one with implications of unspeakable acts whose portrayal in media is usually taboo.

Forsaking nuance in favor of ramming through as much brutality as possible is not as foregone a horror game strategy as many gamers might think. It’s easy to look at games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or the Doorways saga and automatically assume that they pack all sorts of unspeakably atrocious things into its production. While it’s true that both games have plenty of content that’s terrifying more for its implication than what it is, horror games usually still have at least some restraint when it comes to portraying things like sexual assault and child abuse. Outlast 2 doesn’t. And that bestial lack of restraint is all that the game seems interested in.

Out9

This game has some truly gnarly stuff in it.

For better and for worse, Outlast 2 seems interested purely in being scary. In cramming as much gruesome stuff and shocking subject matter into its audience’s eyeballs as possible. In so doing, Outlast 2 forsakes the narrative that’s supposed to hold this all together; the reason that all of this horror is being experienced to begin with. Even more than the level design, the game’s focus on overwhelming terror in place of a terrifying story is where the whole production really starts to fall apart. Outlast 2 is uninterested in answering the questions that its own narrative raises, which is a major problem.

It’s difficult to say much more without getting into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that Outlast 2 starts the player off with a lot of questions and ends without having answered virtually any of them. Everything from why the rednecks have kidnapped Lynn to why Blake is having these flashbacks goes unanswered by Outlast 2. At one point Blake actually spots the source of a major plot point, but doesn’t investigate or otherwise comment on it, content to just leave it hanging. Outlast 2 prefers to focus on pure scares instead of why the scares are happening. This game’s plot holes outweigh its plot.

Out10

Why is any of this happening?

It may seem paradoxical to take a horror game to task for focusing exclusively on being scary, but that approach transforms Outlast 2 from a great horror game (like Outlast) into a tacky scare-house. The game’s idea of throwing constant scares at the player without rhyme or reason smacks more of desperation than competency. Outlast 2 isn’t interested in why the cultists hate Blake, or why it might suddenly start raining blood… it only expects the player to be awed by the spectacle. It’s only interested in getting a reaction from the spectacle.  Anyone can make a game full of spectacle, but few can make a game full of substance. Outlast 2‘s lack of substance makes it a bitter disappointment, and patently unworthy of the asylum adventure from whence it spawned.

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You can buy Outlast 2 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 ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Prophour23

Proph1

Grow body parts and defend them from hordes of insects.

PC Release: October 22, 2014

By Ian Coppock

Prophour23 is the discerning gamer’s go-to title for killing insects with internal organs. If that statement isn’t attention-grabbing enough, what about the notion of a horror real-time strategy game? Or a game played out in an art style inspired by the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci? If all of those things, niche as they may be, sound interesting, imagine them cobbled together with blood vessels and a bit of gristle. Imagine Prophour23, a gruesome entry in this month’s strategy game lineup and the subject of tonight’s review.

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Prophour23 is a game whose bizarre premise lends it a great deal of novelty. The game is a top-down strategy title that faces players off not against columns of enemy troops, but swarms of insects. Ants and cockroaches, to be precise. And what is the player attempting to prevent these baleful bugs from eating? An intricate and awesomely gross web of internal organs. It’s difficult to discern what inspired Prophour23 if not nightmares of being eaten alive by bugs, or the scarab scenes from The Mummy.

Unlike most strategy games, a round of Prophour23 is quite short, usually about 15-20 minutes. The goal of the match is to prevent the insects from destroying the player’s heart, which is positioned at the very center of the field. Players can grow other organs around the heart using blood, which pops up on the screen at regular intervals and must quickly be gathered before it dries up. Each body part serves a different function: eyes allow players to see at night, while rib cages, believe it or not, make for great protective walls.

NewProph2

Nukes can’t kill roaches, but maybe a mouth covered in thorns can.

Prophour23’s gameplay is a bit more complicated than building walls to keep out bugs. The game features a rapid day-night cycle that can render the player blind to the insects, so be sure to grow some eyeballs around the heart (bet no one expected to ever hear that piece of advice). Some organs can only function if they’re powered by a muscle, and the two have to be tethered together by a tendon. Though most structures are good for keeping the bugs out, the best way to truly destroy them is to grow thorns. Harden the heart, as it were.

Similarly to most real-time strategy games, players can grow more elaborate organs the longer they can last in the match. These higher-tier organs serve more sophisticated purposes than their mainline counterparts. Growing a stomach, for example, is a great way to harvest extra blood. However, even as the player’s organ network becomes more formidable, so too do the waves of insects that ooze in from the screen’s edges to eat the player’s heart. Organs can sometimes cease functioning or even become diseased, and maintaining all of them is one of the game’s biggest challenges.

Proph3

Ohhhhhhhh gross gross gross gross GROSS!

Prophour23‘s bizarre world can be a lot to take in. Players with strong stomachs probably won’t get queasy, but if the visuals and oozing animations weren’t enough, the game also comes with some super-squelchy sound effects to round out the grossness. These various elements combine to give Prophour23 a sickly, nigh-bubonic atmosphere consistent with similarly repulsive survival horror games. Fighting off rounds of cockroaches with diseased eyeballs just seems to have that effect… for some reason.

No matter the strength of the player’s stomach, though, Prophour23 seems to have a hard time stomaching its own gameplay. The game’s tutorials, while extensive, do a poor job of explaining how exactly to play the game. There’s a difference between illustrating the function of each organ and illustrating how best to use it in-game. There’s also scant inspiration for how the organs are supposed to function together, which is an obvious problem for a game that casts itself as being built up on strategy. Each tutorial is also played in a far, far shorter round than that of the main game mode.

NewProph4

Aaaand the armbone connects to the, uh… eye… bone?

It’s especially unfortunate that this game’s tutorials don’t quite do their job, because Prophour23 is a difficult game. That 15-20 minute round seems short on paper, but when constant streams of cockroaches come pouring in from around the map, it seems quite a bit longer. Much like a night at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, success in Prophour23 requires constant and meticulous micromanagement. That’s hardly something to be missed in a strategy game, but multitasking on a jacked up difficulty without an adequate tutorial? Not great.

Yes, the secret to success in Prophour23 is to “git gud” and endure the sight of countless hearts exploding before getting anywhere decent. Though the game’s high difficulty may be a turn-off to casual strategy fans, it provides an inadvertent boon to someone who’s conquered all the things in other RTS titles and is looking for something fresh. There’s an innate satisfaction in crushing a bunch of cockroaches with the force of pure screaming, and then going home and playing Prophour23.

Proph5

Medieval warfare as imagined by a Bodyworlds exhibit.

Although Prophour23 makes itself difficult to get into and is then (literally) bloody challenging, its gameplay is truly one-of-a-kind. It’s no hyperbole to say that Prophour23 is the only game out there where players grow organs to fend off bugs, and the novelty of that premise means that, for all its flaws, the game is quite creative. It envisions a gross world of homeless human organs protecting themselves from pestilence, and excels at carrying that hair-raising atmosphere endemic to other horror-themed titles.

It’s also not unfair to also say that Prophour23 is as much a tower defense game as a real-time strategy title, what with each organ serving a distinct purpose and endless foes to beat back. Prophour23‘s RTS elements come primarily in the form of gathering resources, and paying lots of attention to how structures are laid out and the battle is being fought. Organs can be moved around to defend against new streams of insects, which is handy, and players can use organs to activate additional combat abilities.

NewProph6

Ew…

Prophour23’s gameplay and atmosphere found a perfect match in the title’s art style. Inspired by the anatomy drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, each background in Prophour23 bears the appearance of a weathered page from one of his sketchbooks. The organs themselves are drawn out in a style similar to da Vinci’s, and everything from the game’s gorgeous font to illustrations of medical implements is pure Renaissance. The options menu underpinning these features isn’t great, but Prophour23 runs well and its visual simplicity precludes processing issues. The game’s performance is much more bug-free than its matches (ba dum tss).

The soundtrack is also awesomely gross, with a collection of sickly sweet violin strings and deeper, darker tones that accompany each match. If Prophour23 demonstrates difficulty with welcoming new players, it compels them to stay with its beautiful and highly original artwork. It isn’t quite pretty enough to make players forget that they’re growing body organs to fend off bugs, but it’s not supposed to; it reinforces the game’s diseased vibe and novel premise.

Proph7

“Enough blood to grow thorns” sounds like the title of a book of poetry.

Prophour23 gouges itself in the eye with its underwhelming tutorials and high difficulty, but players who can surmount these design flaws are in for a memorable strategy experience. It scratches that resource management itch as only an RTS game can, while also providing a deeply unsettling atmosphere endemic to the horror genre. All of this is played out against a smart backdrop: a living anatomy sketchbook. No other visual setting would’ve fit this game’s premise so perfectly. Prophour23 won’t suit all tastes but it’s definitely worth at least trying. See how managing columns of troops translates to growing body organs and experience a whole new kind of bug repellent.

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You can buy Prophour23 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 ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.