Here’s how you make a horror game — you take one part dramatic plot, two parts creature design, and three parts character development. You then let it sit in a horrifying and oppressive atmosphere for awhile, seasoning with tense moments of stress, mind-numbing fear, and the prerequisite fighting for your life to suit your taste. If you really want to be mean, sprinkle in a dash of messing with the player’s head and the very mechanics of the game, and then layer with — again, to taste! — a fine sprinkling of black comedy and/or puzzle solving.
Let simmer until the voices start convincing you every shadow is a many-tentacle hellbeast bent on your destruction, and voila!
You have everything that Afterfall: InSanity, is not.
I’d like to consider myself a connoisseur of horror games. I’ve played your Silent Hills and your Resident Evils; your Sirens, Dead Spaces, Fatal Frames, and the like. I know when to put a game down because it terrifies me, and I live for experiencing that feeling whenever I pick up a new title in the genre. When I played Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I literally threw a mouse across the room after being scared by something in the game so hard that I broke the thing. I enjoy these things — being scared, not breaking parts of my computer — and if a game can elicit such a visceral reaction from me? That’s awesome. That’s what a publisher should strive for — it’s why I dislike how most “horror” games nowadays, as they are really action games with a thin veneer of “scary” over them. And, rather than buck this trend and do something new as other indie game developers have tried, I find that Intoxicate Studios have created a game with a lot of atmosphere…that unfortunately plays like any other generic action-adventure game on the market. (Which is even worse since it’s not an AA title; re: voice acting.)
Afterfall: InSanity deals with an alternate history of Earth where WWIII and nuclear holocaust basically forced everyone who didn’t want to die in a cataclysmic firestorm into underground bunkers. These bunkers are ruled by militaristic overseers who, with the help of doctors and the military, desperately try to keep the survivors in line as they await the chance to retake the world above. Unfortunately, not all in well within the system of bunkers keeping everyone alive: a new disease, called Confinement Syndrome, is slowly infecting the populace, turning those infected into lethargic, apathetic zombies. As the disease has no cure, the hero of the story — Dr. Tokaj — spends more of his time working tirelessly around the clock to search for something — anything — that can help, his time divvied up between taking care of the sick while trying to keep his own fragile state of mind intact. Things come to a head, however, when one of the lower levels of the compound suffers a malfunction with its environmental controls, prompting investigation. Dr. Tokaj joins a team sent down to try and solve the issue, but unfortunately…here’s where it all goes wrong.
(In more ways than one.)
The game plays like your standard action-horror game, with almost no exceptions. You’ll solve puzzles. You’ll shoot things. You’ll hack enemies to pieces in gruesome ways — it’s all there, and it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. Even the inclusion of two “systems” inherent to the game — FearLock and FreeFight — do absolutely nothing to change how straightforward combat is. The first of the systems has a tangible effect on gameplay by reducing accuracy and vision every time Tokaj is frightened — with an inverse boost to physical damage — while the latter is basically a fancy way of describing how many of the objects you find in the environment are able to be used as melee weapons. The game could have used these systems to great effect a la the insanity meter in Eternal Darkness, but with how insipid the enemy AI is you’ll find yourself almost relishing Tokaj getting scared just for the boost it brings. Enemies never go for cover or skulk in the darkness like you’d expect them to, and instead run directly toward you in an effort to…I guess swarm you with numbers? Which would work, honestly, if Tokaj wasn’t the reincarnation of freaking Kratos, able to decapitate enemies with a few presses of a button and almost zero effort on the part of the player. There’s no real challenge to in any aspect of the game, and it plays much like an exercise in linearity — you’ll spend six-to-seven hours walking down corridors and beating monsters up, do some light puzzle solving, and then bam. The game’s over. (Thank God)
Its visuals do everything possible to try and save the game, but with such generic gameplay even such an expertly made atmosphere struggles. The corridors of the facility are oppressive and dark, and the lightning effects put a lot of emphasis on the draw of shadow and darkness. You’d expect the enemies to use these things to ambush you, but no: the moment you walk into any room you’ll be swarmed. It’s disheartening, but at least I got to feel like I was in an underground bunker for the stretches of gameplay where enemies are — thankfully — absent. The ambient noise of the game also serves to draw a play in to the world itself, though sound-wise the game is troubled by very poorly written dialogue and voice acting. (You can try to ignore it like I did, but if you’re not already enured to B-rated horror movie dialogue then listening to the characters might sting for awhile.) I’ll also readily admit that, though I really loved the environments of the game, level design did get repetitive after awhile — I mean, there’s only so many corridors and small rooms you can walk into before getting exceedingly bored of the monotony. (And, maybe that’s the point? But it could have been executed better, I think.)
All in all, the game deserves a better chance than what it got. I don’t like giving indie developers a lot of criticism for offering what essentially amounts to their souls in videogame format to hungry players like me, but Intoxicate Studios really needed to step it up to deliver the kind of fear this game necessitated. It’s not impossible to make a scary, low-budget Indie Game — look at games like Slender, or SCP: Containment Breach — but it does need a certain touch, and without that touch all you’ve got is an action game with a thin aura of “horror” lumped on top of it.
Better luck next time, I guess.