WORLD OF HORROR (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: PWYW (Developer Patreon also an option)
Where To Get It: Itch.IO

When the first thing a friend asks me on showing them a shot of the game is “Was this programmed in HyperCard?” , I know that, on an aesthetic level, WORLD OF HORROR, a short investigative adventure game inspired by early Mac games and the horrific art of Junji Ito, is definitely working as intended. And, considering the game’s short and sweet as well at the present stage of its development? The stars are seemingly aligned.

…Alas, not, generally speaking, in my favour. Oh well, nobody said stopping reality from breaking was easy!

Backing up a bit, WORLD OF HORROR (caps intended) is currently in a demo stage, showing off the three main methods of play (Single area, timed investigation; home/progressive investigation; location/day based investigation.) It’s a game in which high school students of Horror Japan (The city of OOO, In the year 19XX) are the only hope of even delaying eldritch horror based apocalypse, often based on urban myths, such as Red Coat or Bloody Mary, or on J-Horror themes, like a festival of sacrifice and the like.

While each playstyle is different, some things remain the same throughout. Combat is brutal, as, y’know, students versus ancient evils, ghosts, witches and killers rarely ends well. Items and spells, while useful, are always double edged swords. And each case can be completed (for good or for ill) in around ten to twenty minutes. As such, while the game is difficult, it’s short enough that I genuinely don’t mind that I’ve either died horribly or ushered in the apocalypse in all but one of my runs so far. Not everything is clear in the game (the DOOM meter, for example, doesn’t seem to do much right now), but again, short runs let me get used to things like quickly checking my inventory, and experimenting with buttons to see what they do (The 1 and 2 are important with the first case, as is checking your storage!)

See, on the one hand, exploring school in a Kendo Helmet looks silly. On the *other* , it’s protection. More important than my fashion sense.

So, while there’s not currently a lot of game in WORLD OF HORROR, what there is is quick, relatively easy to get into despite some minor unfriendlinesses in the UI, and it plays to its retro-aesthetic strengths well, with eerie chiptunes, clever 1-bit art (Not necessarily black and white, as the title card allows you to change between a variety of dark/colour palettes… I went with a nice, soothing cyan), and, overall? I found myself wanting to see more of this strange, bloody world.

More. So much more…

Hopefully a portent of things to come, but the main UI changes according to need.

The Mad Welshman is IN.

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Anchorhead (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £7.19
Where To Get It: Steam

It is only now, in writing the events of this narrative, that I consider how I am to be viewed. Reader, do not consider me possessed, or speaking nonsense, for the events I write of actually happened, although I sometimes wish it was not to be.

Content warnings… And yet… I pressed on…

In my youth, I was fresh faced, always willing to explore the realms of the digital from its earliest incarnations. Sights I had witnessed, from the terminal to the advent of Gouraud and beyond. Oh, that I could tear such knowledge from my head, for time is an illusion!

Consider… Twenty years it had been, since last I visited Anchorhead, Massacheusets, and, stumblingly, witnessed the tragedy of Michael Verlac and his wife, and the terrifying, awesome words that comprised that tale. Indeed, words were my only means of witnessing, through some digital alchemy, interactivity that had its roots in the bubbling, chaotic cauldron of the birth of the games industry twenty years before. Twenty years, and twenty years, and maybe longer still, for it was itself related to the horrific prose of Lovecraft, whose prose was only rivalled by his now reviled beliefs.

Knowing that eldritch monuments were often worshipped by fey cults of ill aspect, I made sure to check the exits to this ill omened square…

And yet… Before me, it stood. Anchorhead, once more. The same tragedy, replaying, calling me to save, and save often, warning me of its CONTENTS beforehand. And yet, G-d help me, I played the tragedy through once more. Through its haunted, prose filled streets. Listening, and urging the wife of Michael Verlac on through this tragedy, a multiplicity of horror, death, and, rarely, hope, stretching in front of me as I played the part of both demon and angel upon her shoulders. Only now, windows into the world, this other, shady world of gray and black and white horrors, added to my despair, for I knew that Anchorhead… Lived.

The window! It resizes! The font grows bigger, drawing me in! I must –


The Mad Welshman found this review on his doorstep one morning, for the recently re-released Anchorhead, a critically acclaimed interactive fiction game. The author has yet to be found, although it is wished they are in good health…

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DUSK: Episodes 1 and 2 (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £15 (For all three episodes. The third isn’t out yet, and will be covered separately)
Where To Get It: Steam

Ah, the early 90s. A time of ‘tude. A time of textured, low-polygon worlds, often heavily interlaced. A time where plots were paper thin, gibs flew freely, and nobody asked “What’s my motivation?”

Okay, so this isn’t entirely true, but a lot of people remember it that way, and DUSK? Tickles that nostalgia gland. Looking for a nuanced protagonist? Nope, you are a shootman. You shoot, and you shoot, and you shoot some more, because folks and creatures who are most likely evil want to shoot you. Puzzles? Sort of, if by puzzles, you mean finding walls that look suspicious, blowing them up, or finding switches to open them, and, of course, the hunt for up to three colour coded keys you need, Red generally being last.

The satisfaction of both a job well done, and the possibility of the last key nearby.

Honestly, even if Dusk wasn’t quite my cup of blood (and it is), I would appreciate the sheer commitment to aesthetic. The world is low poly and grungy, everything is chunky, and while there’s no need to reload, hitting the time honoured R key will spin your weapons in a cool way that vaguely looks like somebody reloading stylishly. Similarly, the music is hard, dark, and fitting with the grimdark sort-of-plot that Dusk has. Namely, evil experiments, a cult of worshippers who need stopping, and teleportation experiments. If that seems familiar, yes, it’s hammering together elements of Quake, Blood, and Doom in ways that, honestly? Don’t have to make sense. There is no fall damage, so feel free to look awesome as you drop from the sky raining explosive death.

So far, I’ve been quite complimentary, but it mustn’t be said that Dusk takes only fun lessons from 90s shooters. Bosses aren’t too challenging, beyond the fact that they have boodles of life and do a lot of damage if they hit. Some of the levels (Looking at you in particular, The Steamworks!) are dark and mazelike for the sake of being dark and mazelike, and are a sod to navigate, even for a 90s style shooter. Homing attacks from some enemies are annoying, even as they add a dimension to the combat style the game wants you to be playing with: Always moving.

The weaker weapons are all dual wield capable. The shotguns, in particular, are a joy to use.

Still, so far, I like Dusk Episodes 1 and 2. Since the game is episodic, I can quite happily cover these two episodes separately as actual reviews, and the third when it comes out as its own thing. The gunplay is a surprisingly clever game of resource management, as, while using a hunting rifle on mooks is entertaining, you’re probably going to need that ammo for more dangerous enemies, and the pistols see use pretty much throughout.

In the end, Dusk is an entertaining throwback to the days of swearing at your CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT , without all that swearing and asking why the hell you have to reboot your computer because a game doesn’t like what you put as your HIMEM, and with a few design lessons of the modern day thrown in. If you like love letters to Ye Olde Days of Gibbing, that Tarnished Golden Age, then yes, Dusk is worth a go.

It even preconfigures the Soundboomer card correctly. Bloody magic, that is.

Commitment to aesthetic, thy name is [Clicking and whirring as of a struggling 486DX hard drive]. As you might guess, that’s somewhat hard to pronounce for anyone who isn’t a 90s kid.

The Mad Welshman is pleased. The portals work.

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Sunless Skies (Early Access Review)

Source: Supporter Gift
Price: £18.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Forever Live The Queen! The Empire, In Its Infinite Wisdom, Has Replaced The Traitor Sun With A Clockwork Marvel. More Inside, Along With The Scandalous Dealings (And Deals) At Magdalene’s!

Although this screenshot is from an earlier version, how could I not include the talented melding of Terry Thomas and David Suchet as a dastardly bureaucrat? So good!

So… Here we are again. Failbetter, from browser game Fallen London, to Sunless Sea, to today, have created an interesting world, a dark, funhouse mirror world of the Victorian, Lovecraftian Empire. Cosmic Horror, Dunsanian Phantasy and Afternoon Tea, if you will. And now? We’re in the railways of space. Yes, you heard me right. Flying trains. Through space. But, as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

For example, resource management remains important, as you have limited cargo space (Even with improvements), and the very fact that running a space train is kind of expensive immediately throws you into the politics and mysteries of the area. The Company will keep you in fuel and money, so long as you regularly supply them with Port Reports, and don’t deal overmuch with those violent blackleggers and revolutionaries, the Tacketies. Which is amusing, when you consider that in the Station of New Winchester (The capital of the first area of the game, and currently the only available one), Victory Hall (One of the homes of the Tackety Movement) is quite near, in fact, to Company House. But such is life here.

Each area, each floating township and station has their own feel. Their own mysteries…

Right now, while there may not seem like a whole lot (And the developers, ever cognisant that you might have trouble paying the bills, give a generous starting payment to get you going), the stars of Sunless Skies are still intriguing. It’s a living, breathing Space, with the fungal remains of vast creatures, singing bees, and, of course, various Fallen Londoners in space. The most recent update, accessible by beta branch, is something well known to Sunless Sea players: The world having segments that are, themselves, static, but placed procedurally. So, sometimes, Port Prosper is, as the main branch would tell you, far to the Northeast. Sometimes, it’s to the Southwest. Sometimes, it’s to the NNW. But it will always be a tough prospect to reach without having some supply stops in that middle ring to help ensure you don’t die in what is, despite the Queen’s meddling, the cold of space. You’re rewarded with experience for finding places, filling out that map, doing tasks, but, in the end, the Sunless Skies will swallow your character whole.

Of course, if you die, at least some of your knowledge gets passed on to the next Captain, some of your goods, some of your wealth. Perhaps all of it, if you reach what’s currently the first goal of the game’s lineage based RPG fun: Having a home that isn’t the Cab of your (admittedly glorious) space train. The controls are simple, explained well by the game, and from there? Well, the choices are out there, ripe for exploration. I quite enjoyed Sunless Sea, Sunless Skies is looking to be an improvement on that formula, and I look forward to seeing where this looking glass leads.

Those who are impressionable may feel that this is an eldritch sigil, rather than a path of exploration along common trade routes. Please ignore the howling winds from the ground itself and tentacled beastie behind me, thanks in advance.

The Mad Welshman would, for obvious reasons, prefer to be referred to by his proper title: Captain D’Urbin of Her Majesty’s Windward Company, 4th Merchant Fleet. Thankew.

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Let’s Talk Horror

I always feel nervous talking about game design, because, even as a critic who has examined, not just consumed, a lot of games, there’s always this voice saying “Nah, mate, you know noooothing.”

But y’know what? Fuck that voice, it’s time to talk horror. Specifically, how horror games are hard to do well, and some of the most common pitfalls.

No Individual Element Will Make A Game Horror

This is one of the most common ones, and, honestly, a flaw which many game designers can fall into even at the best of times… Your ingredients won’t work well if they don’t mix well. In fact, when adding a tool into the toybox, it can be very important to consider what it does. Let’s take, for example, the staple of many first person horror games: The Shit Light. The Shit Light (be it matches, oddly ineffective flashlights, or the phone-as-flashlight), just by the virtue of its addition, constrains you. And it constrains you, in many cases, more often than it frees you. You do, in fact, still have to pay attention to not just being empty rooms, or rooms that make no sense, or rooms that are fucking hard to navigate even without this inconvenience. You do, in fact, have to still pay attention to your gribbley, beastie, ghost or ghoulie, because they’re going to be lit up at some point. But now, everything you want the player to look at has to be easily covered by… Your shit light.

Conarium has, to be sure, its creepy moments. Unfortunately, only one of them really *relies* on your flashlight dying as an effect.

Now, here’s a question: Do you, in fact, need that shit light? Why is it there? I ask, because, funnily enough, this shit light ends up conflicting with another facet that often goes together with Shit Lights… The Highly Scripted Scare. A scare is, sadly, no good if you can’t experience it. Oh no, the… Er… What was that again? I couldn’t really tell, my light was too shit, and so it wasn’t scary. Was it sudden? Was it a jumpscare? Oh, er… Couldn’t really tell you.

Am I saying the Shit Light has no place anywhere? Well… No. In some games, it serves as a risk reward mechanic (The monsters can see you more easily, but you can interact with things.) In others, it’s a warning sign (The monster makes the light not work right.) In others still, it’s a light, but it’s not shit.

Sadly, just as there are ways to make a Shit Light useful, you equally have to take care not to turn it into arbitrary difficulty… Tattletail being a good example, as well as one that conflicts narratively. Not only is it a pretty shit light, not only does it have a nasty habit of winking off whenever Mama Tattletail is nearby… Turning it back on is noisy as hell. So, when are you most likely to recharge it? Er… When it winks out. When Mama Tattletail is going to speed her Furby ass toward you from nowhere. Because yes, occasionally it will just wink out on its own too.

Here’s the thing: It’s being wielded by a child. How many kids have you heard of who wouldn’t look for a different light, any other kind of light, that maybe doesn’t make noise which every kid knows is fucking asking for boogeyman induced death?

This, funnily enough, is a good segue into the next portion.

Because Reasons Doesn’t Cut It

A lot of both STASIS and its sequel CAYNE have major story elements that, sadly, fit very much under this category. This, for example, happened because a serial killer was knowingly employed by the captain of the ship, and his mulching the corpses somehow led to a sentient fungus that taints everything it touches. Because reasons.

One thing I see a lot of is a terminal lack of critical thinking on the part of the protagonist (Both by the writer/designer, and, as a consequence, the protagonist.) Tattletail is, as we’ve noted, an example, but it’s not the only one by a long shot. Part of this is, again, the use of an element of games design without thinking about the consequence (No, I do not, in fact, have to give a flying fuck about your amnesiac blank slate. Especially if they talk, cementing that they are not me.) But, unfortunately, horror is less horrific when you either don’t care about the protagonist, or think they’re… Well, candidates for a Darwin Award. Oh, hey, I’m in this haunted mansion… Why am I in this haunted mansion?

No, really… Why? This isn’t a question you can answer with “Just Because.” You don’t even have to work terribly hard at it. Let’s take SIREN, for the PS2, as an example of this. A lot of the characters are there because… Well, they live there, and shit’s gone to hell. They’re one of the “lucky” few, so the game quickly defines them, moves on. They’re defined by survival and escape. Kyoya Suda, one of the main characters, is a teenage mystery buff who decided to check out Hanuda because of the urban legends. He can’t leave, because he is, technically, dead. Tamon Takeuchi, similarly, is motivated by the legendry, but what keeps him in Hanuda is a combination of arrogance and professionalism. He will discover what happened!

Not all of them get equal screentime, not all of them survive. But all of them can have their goals, and even reasons why they can’t leave, established in a single sentence each.

The Shrouded Isle works as a horror styled game because there’s *reasoning* behind the evil. And, of course, it’s not *considered* evil by the protagonist. After all, few good villains *consider* themselves wrong.

Similarly, “Because” doesn’t cut it for any element. Why is this house haunted again? Hadn’t they lived there for years with no trouble? Oh, they had? Huh. Why the doll-head jumpscare? Oh, there’s no real connection there? Ummm… Okay, beyond the momentary shock, that’s just confusing me. It’s not contributing to the mood. Now, not every question has to be answered. But at the very least, you want to ensure there is reasoning behind even your gribbley(s). Wobblyhead McSmudgyShadow does not, funnily enough, scare me, because firstly, I know nothing about him, and secondly, he looks silly. Also, why is he walking when he’s made of smokey shit? Why, when he has clearly demonstrated he can run fast enough to get into my face, then down the corridor before I can blink, is he slowly stalking me?

Oh, you didn’t think about that? No. No you didn’t. Consider this, though… The Necromorphs would just be ordinary monsters, if it weren’t for the thought put into their lifecycle. Consider: Not only are they twisted versions of us that are functionally immortal… Not only are they highly infectious and it isn’t obvious at first when someone is infected… You quickly realise that the only major reason limb trauma works so much better than just pumping them full of hot plasma death is because the thing, the thing controlling them as one, decides they’re no longer useful for their purpose… Namely, turning you into them. Conversely, part of the reason The Thing: The Videogame didn’t work is because the idea behind detecting Thingism (An established, pre-thought idea) was ruined, unfortunately without thinking too heavily about the consequences, by Thingism being a plot trigger, making your blood test items completely worthless.

See how these factors are starting to tie together. Oh… BOO!


Sound And Fury, Signifying… Nothing.

I’ve already mentioned how jumpscares, like any other element, can feel completely without context, without reason. What I haven’t mentioned is the noise element. Christ, these things are loud. And while there is a reason for this, it’s a pretty crap one: For shock value.


Shock, funnily enough, is not fear. It’s not unsettling. It’s not disturbing. It’s just “Thatwasloud oh, it’s gone, I can carry on now.”

Like the monsters, like the character, like the setting, like… Well, everything, context is important. I hear a baby giggling in a house, I am, funnily enough, not going to say “Wow, that’s creepy.” I’m going to say “Ah, yes, the giggling baby cry, stock in trade of someone who wants to put me off balance and hasn’t set this up in any way, shape or form.”

Well, no. What I’m actually going to say is “…Huh. [Moves on without further comment]”

However, if I am aware that there was indeed a dead child… Say… A particularly sadistic dead child, who is now a particularly sadistic ghost, then every time I hear them giggle, even if nothing happens, I am instantly in “Primed for bad shit” mode. A jumpscare, or even a cat-scare (so named because very often, a fake scare involved a startled cat in horror movies) works best when you’re already prepped for it by the atmosphere.

Inmates, a recent game I reviewed, decided that it was a good idea to do several things at once. None of them are awful on their own, but together, they added up to unpleasantness enough that I just got annoyed. Firstly, control was taken away so a monster could get me. Okay, this isn’t always a bad thing. Many’s the time a game has ambushed me in an end-of-level segment or cutscene, and mostly, I’m alright with this. It also decided to give the monster in question the most minimal prep-time (a droning infodump from a few minutes ago), so, when the protagonist yelled “OH NO, IT’S ROY”, my eyebrow raise knocked some plaster from the ceiling. The monster in question did that “I suddenly run really fast” thing, screamed in my face, and then… Almost a minute of a high pitched, tinnitus like sound. Also a slow cutscene of being dragged.

On their own, pretty much everything except the high pitched noise (Which just annoys and hurts the ears, rather than signalling a return to consciousness/dizziness) could have worked. If Roy had been prepped better, if I’d had a reason to care about Roy (Sir No Longer Appearing In This Production), if, for example, he was round the corner rather than doing the lightspeed jog the moment the door opened, then it probably would have worked better. As it is… Well, that was it for me, and not because it was too spooky. Mainly because I was just annoyed at how arbitrary it was.

An example of good sound usage comes from Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma, where being showered in acid is left to the imagination… And some particularly gruesome soundwork.

Done well, sound is your best friend. The character’s footsteps echoing in a haunted castle, for example, really drive home how alone you are. But they, like everything else, require context, even if that context isn’t yet known to the player. Why is that wall… Scratching? Why do I hear… Whispering in this library? Like… Not even normal whispering… Bass whispering. Wait, is that gribbley saying things a human would have been saying in their position? Is it… Was it human?!?

Oh nooooooooooo!

A Curated Experience

When you get right down to it, horror seems to work best when it’s a linear, curated experience. In an open world, you have to work so much harder, so much tighter, to keep scaring people. Look at a lot of zombie games like Dead Island or the like. Most of the time, apart from maaaaybe their introductions, the zombies aren’t scary. They’re obstacles.

Pictured: An entire block, in the first of its three flavours, in which you will hunt for the thing you actually need to see.

And yeah, despite what marketing may have you believe, there’s room for linear, curated experiences. They’re fine. Heck, some of the best fun I’ve had in recent years haven’t been sandboxes, or open world RPG extravaganzas. But trying to have your cake and eat it is probably going to cause pain. For example, Joana’s World, another horror game I reviewed, had an entire block of houses and a park. Wiiiith the small problem that the game’s events only involved two of those houses. It also wouldn’t allow you to do things until the plot mandated you do them, such as not being able to pick up your front door keys or flashlight until… Well, you needed them, even knowing that you needed them beforehand. The first because who doesn’t pick up their front door keys before they prepare to go out (unless they’ve forgotten), and secondly because this is a first person horror game, and it is a flashlight.

Equally, though, we tie back to Because Reasons, with the note that when you block something off, there has to be a reasonable, in context explanation for it. My personal favourite for slightly nonsensical obstacles is one that you see time and time and time again… The hospital bed/curtain. Sometimes they’re in piles (You Are Empty, some Silent Hill games), and this is pretty reasonable. But more often, they’re just… There. You can’t climb them, even though they’re short. You can’t move them, even though they’re wheeled.

“But Jamie, not everything can be moved in a videogame, or chaos will ensue! Rains of frogs, cats and dogs living together!” True. But if you’re reduced to “A hospital bed” rather than… I don’t know, a barricade, a big hole in the floor, barbed wire (don’t laugh, I’m sure you could find a context for that!) … Something that isn’t easily moved, but makes sense for what’s going on or where you are, then you’re mostly going to have to rely on that other aspect of subtle game design… Making the bit blocked off with a single trolley and a hospital curtain less interesting.

Remember, you can just block players off from somewhere. It’s fine. Really it is.

Some Final Caveats

Yes, you can turn off weapons. It isn't always recommended.

Example of happily being proven wrong: If you’d told me, pre Screwfly, that this would get my nerves racing, I would have laughed and laughed.

Okay, so I’m picturing some folks getting a little purple in the face while reading this, and others may well have peaced out already, so let’s finish this up with some simple, final points. First up, if you actively enjoy any of the games I’ve mentioned as having unfun elements for me, good for you, keep on doing that! I’m a reviewer, not the fun police.

Secondly, everything I’ve described here are guidelines, not rules. You see a way you think you can make a relatively open game genuinely creepy, cool, work at that, lemme know how it goes. These are, however, guidelines based on both common sense, study, and experience. But, again, I am not the fun police, you want to make a game with a contextless spoop, walking very slowly around an entire block of flats, while hunting for the Eight Random Items We’re Not Telling You About Beyond “Find Eight Thingumajigs” and babies are giggling in a creepy fashion almost constantly, then cool. Just don’t expect me to touch the damn thing.

I hope these have helped. I hope these have illuminated, and I’ll leave you with one final piece of advice: Play horror games. Even some of the ones lambasted. Examine how they make you feel, ask why they make you feel that way, and how they’ve made you feel that way. And if you decide to make a horror game, ask whether or not you can apply something as is (You don’t, for example, need your game to be in a dark place), and see what your players feel.

Happy Halloween!

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