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  • Song of Horror: Episode 1 (PC)

    November 1st, 2019GamespotUncategorized

    Horror and mystery go hand in hand like Halloween and terrible lawn set pieces. Having some terrifying presence being unknown only makes them scarier. Or, at least, this is what Song of Horror, the new episodic title from Protocol Games, is banking on. Fuelled by mystery and a creepy old house, how terrifying is this Halloween release? By the end of this review, that question will no longer be a mystery.

    Song of Horror focuses around the disappearance of a famous writer, Sebastian Husher, and his family. After Husher seemingly goes awol, the prologue has the player controlling an editor, Daniel, sent to look for Husher at his home, which, of course, turns out to be haunted. After a brief tutorial sequence, events conspire to make Daniel go missing as well, at which point the entire town becomes devoid of common sense. Rather than contacting the police to investigate circumstances surrounding multiple missing persons, various individuals tangentially related to the editor decide to investigate the home on their own in the hopes of discovering what happened to Husher.

    From an atmospheric standpoint, it’s difficult to imagine how Song of Horror could have done much better. The game (or, at least, first chapter) takes place entirely at Husher’s house, and it really goes the extra mile to make it a genuinely frightening and uncomfortable place to be. It does an excellent job of striking that coveted balance in horror games, having its various “scary” moments consistently enough to keep players on their toes without having them become routine and predictable as a result.

    If anything lets Song of Horror down it might be the setting: the standard creepy old mansion has been done so consistently a feature of the genre that I found myself prepared ahead of time for some of the visual and audio ploys designed to startle (doors creaking, TVs randomly turning on, etc.). Nevertheless, it’s still very effective. I can confidently say that I never found myself getting accustomed to the Husher house, which is about as high a compliment as you can pay to a horror game’s location design.

    When it comes to core mechanics, Song of Horror functions very much like an old point and click adventure style game, requiring the player to find items and use or combine them in various ways to progress. Similar to older adventure titles, it's designed with a slower, more methodical pace in mind, with primarily fixed camera angles and protagonists who move at what can be called a leisurely stroll at best. For the most part, the puzzles are fairly straightforward, and unlike many other adventure games, I was never really in a position where I found myself getting hung up on what to do or where to go next. The flipside of that, however, is that there also weren’t really any moments where I found myself having to think about things or be clever. The solutions are all pretty straightforward.

    But, like Resident Evil, the puzzle design may be less the main focus and more of a means to an end - a method by which the game forces the player to explore the house and keep from ever getting comfortable. And, again, as far as instilling a sense of fear goes, Song of Horror certainly succeeds.

    One of the main selling points (at least, if the Steam page is anything to go by) is its permanent death system. You select one (or more, depending on how frequently you die) of the aforementioned individuals to investigate the Rusher home. If you die while investigating, then that character remains dead, and you have to choose another character to pick up where your previous character left off. It’s an interesting system on the surface, but despite the game’s insistence that there are stat differences between the various characters, they all seem to play functionally identically, which makes the “choice” mostly meaningless.

    There’s also a bit of a narrative disconnect to these proceedings: As it stands currently, when one character dies the new one just comes in, grabs their inventory off the spot on the floor where they died, and moves on without a second thought. It’s a little weird to have these characters, who constantly mention finding the editor, say nothing about playable characters who have died over the course of the game. I suspect this is a result of the game wanting to account for the fact that the player could beat a chapter with any number of characters dying, but I still feel like it would’ve been possible to have some acknowledgement of things. Maybe at least a passing comment about how a new character hasn’t heard from a recently deceased character in a bit would go a long way towards improving the immersion and feel of the game.

    The big gameplay catch of the perma-death system is where I start to really sour on the mechanic. The way the design works is you’re given a certain number of characters that you can use to play through a chapter with (four for episode 1), and if all of them die you have to restart the episode, which means going back through and solving all the puzzles you’ve figured out so far. This problem is also exacerbated given that it can be surprisingly easy to lose characters in instances. I happened to lose one because I failed to equate a character saying "I'm afraid of heights" with "going out onto a rooftop means instant death".

    In any other type of game this type of punishment might be fine, but with a point and click adventure game it just means having to re-solve a bunch of puzzles that you already know the answers to. There’s no challenge in this, just redoing tedious busy work and trudging with that same slow movement speed towards the same fixed camera angle rooms you’ve been to previously.

    Speaking of slow movement speeds and fixed camera angles, that may be a fine design choice for a standard adventure game where the only challenge comes from puzzle solving, but it doesn’t take a genius to tell you that you can’t make a horror game without putting the player in danger at some point, and Song of Horror struggles to do that in a way that doesn’t feel like a tacked-on gimmick.

    The aforementioned main evil, the Presence, spends most of its time “threatening” you by hiding behind various doors and killing your character if you open them. The game allows you to listen to determine whether they're safe, though, so it really just comes down to a question of whether you remember to press the listen button or not. At other points, it will show up in the form of a quick time event, requiring you to press buttons to, among other things, hold a door shut or keep your heart beat down, in order to avoid an instant death. The actual “avoid danger/death” segments of the game feel rather haphazardly thrown in, which for a title that sells the importance of death as one of its key features, is a bit of a problem. At its worst, it feels like I’m playing Tales of Monkey Island, except with a random QTE thrown in every ten minutes that provides an instant game over state upon failure. 

    Another feature that Song of Horror markets itself with is its learning AI, claiming that it reacts to your playstyle and adapts accordingly. To be honest, however, I couldn’t tell you an instance of this that I noticed, nor could I imagine what the game’s AI could possibly be learning about my playstyle. Again, the majority of the title functions similar to a point and click adventure game, and there aren’t exactly many alternative playstyles for adventure titles. This isn’t really a game that allows for multiple approaches. Items must be combined in a specific way, QTEs must be pressed in a certain way, etc. Unlike with a game such as Alien Isolation, where there are multiple approaches to getting through areas that hostile AI can adapt to, I’m not sure how or even what the AI could be learning from.

    It’s clear that Protocol Games has something promising here - they certainly know how to craft an oppressive atmosphere, and how to make players uncomfortable. I just don’t think they’ve quite figured out how to do that while making the gameplay feel natural. If they can take this style of tension building and take the core gameplay in a different direction, I think this could prove to be the groundwork for something genuinely special. As it stands now, however, the first episode of Song of Horror is a genuinely unnerving experience, but ultimately fails to really find its footing as a game.

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