Christmas is over, the big games rush is all but done for now, and for most of the forthcoming triple-A titles, we've got at least a few months to wait. What's a gamer to do (other than play everything that we didn't buy before Christmas, obviously)?
This is where we, your Worthplaying pals, step in. Over the next few weeks, I'll be writing a pseudo-regular column on some decent little games you might've missed over the last few years, tackling a different theme each time. Being that this is the time of year when — for most of our readers, I would imagine — the nights are still both early and long, some good horror seems like an excellent starting point.
As clarification, these are in no particular order and have been chosen on various respective merits. The only caveats are that they should still be reasonably easy to find in stores or online, and that they're not hugely mainstream titles. Would there really be a point in telling you to play Resident Evil 4, for instance? (Note: If you're one of the 17 people who haven't, do so.)
Without further ado ….
Mall Monster — PC, freeware
Mall Monster is one of the tensest games you've never played. Your avatar is a young boy, trapped inside a mall after closing time, but, as in most malls, it transpires that there's a big scary monster in there with you, and it's hunting you down. Escape is your only option for survival, with each level taking place in a different shop. Your usual goal is to find carelessly discarded key cards and escape through the gates of each shop until you can find an exit from the mall.
MM is top-down, with the controllable brat having an extremely limited cone of vision. Fortunately, vision is only one of the senses you need to employ, as noise makes rather a bigger difference; you can hear the beast as it moves around the various stores, and, less fortunately, it can hear you. The former is shown in terms of arrows appearing on the screen, pointing out where the noise in question came from, and this serves to both ramp up the tension significantly and provide useful clues as to where you really don't want to go. If you're trundling along toward the west end of a shop and you suddenly get an arrow from that direction, you might want to sneak off and have a little cry in one of the aisles to the side instead.
The major problem is that the monster is bigger than you, faster than you, and smarter than me, at least. Spend your time sprinting, and it will hear you and make a beeline for you. Walk too slowly, and it might spot you (resulting, naturally, in it making a beeline for you). Carefully and cleverly does it, using a variety of items to distract and slow down the monster, but as the youngster gets more nervous, bad things start happening. Your fear increases when you can hear the monster nearby or when you catch sight of it, and if he gets too scared, then the diminutive protagonist faints. Loudly. This is not a good thing. The best option for calming down is to close your eyes for a moment, but for obvious reasons, this isn't always a good idea, either.
Mall Monster isn't the most varied game in the world, and it's not exactly terrifying, but it's certainly got more adrenaline and tension packed into it than most commercial games do, and it's a good enough place to start this round-up. Mall Monster can be acquired from Digipen's site.
Clock Tower: The First Fear — SNES
Boo! You're an orphan. But hurrah! You've been adopted, by some nice old geezer in a mansion. Things are looking up for Jennifer and her friends, right up until the mansion's maid goes looking for the parent and doesn't return for some time. Jennifer bravely ventures off to try and find her, but returns to the foyer upon hearing a scream, only to find that everyone else has also mysteriously vanished. The situation doesn't improve much when you find one of them, either, because "finding them" usually means "seeing them getting murdered by a limping midget serial killer with an oversized pair of garden shears," and it gets worse when he starts chasing you. As Jennifer, you're charged with unraveling the mystery of the mansion and surviving. Your weapons? None. Your methods, then? Run like the blazes when Scissorman chases you, hide and pray he doesn't find you.
Clock Tower: The First Fear is survival horror taken literally. You are an unarmed, very scared teenage girl in a huge mansion, being hunted by a sadistic lunatic. By and large, it plays out like a point-and-click adventure; you search locations, find items and use them to solve puzzles, but if you stick around on one screen too long or wander too close to a location where Scissorman happens to be hiding, he'll jump out. Your only real option at this point is to run and hide, but Scissorman has that movie serial killer knack of somehow appearing in front of you, and unfortunately he's not entirely stupid. If you run into a room that is bare save for a closet, then you can be damned sure he's going to jam his scissors through the closet door if he chases you into the room and doesn't see you.
Other than the creepy mansion and the killer himself, a lot of the fear comes from the audio design. There's no music at all unless you're being hunted, and the ambient sound effects, like ticking clocks, don't exactly ease the tension. It's exceptionally haunting.
Certainly, the game loses a bit of its edge once you know the best places to hide and all the telltale signs that point out where Scissorman is hiding, but until that moment, it's a superbly frightening slasher-movie simulator. Multiple endings — some more chilling than simply being cut down by the murderer — add to replayability for a game that can be a little short, and it's amazing that this was released on the SNES in an era when Nintendo was known for censoring anything that wasn't family-friendly. The fact that it was only released in Japan means that finding it may be a little tricky. While there have been sequels (Clock Tower 2 on PSX was released in the West as Clock Tower, hence the "First Fear" subtitle), only Clock Tower 2 really matched it in tone and style, and this is one game that desperately needs an update or a re-release, possibly on the Wii Virtual Console or on Xbox Live Arcade. Until then, you're stuck with an emulator. Just don't get in the car .…
Fatal Frame 2/Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly — PS2, Xbox
My, but there's a bit of a recurring theme of being a defenseless youngster in these games so far, and Fatal Frame 2 (released in Europe as Project Zero 2) is no exception. While probably being the most well-known title on this list, Fatal Frame 2 is nonetheless almost criminally unknown, or at least underknown considering how good it is. FF2 casts the player as a teenage girl who, along with her twin sister, gets lost in a spooky Japanese village that vanished off the map following a mysterious massacre long ago.
FF2 follows horror cues from Japanese films, as well as from some of the other games listed here. While the ghosts infesting the village are ghosts of humans, they take the form of what the body was like after death, frequently reflecting the manner of death in their attacks and movements. Taut and torn flesh are common, as are sunken eyes, but it's the other deformities that make things interesting. One person fell to her death, and the ghastly form the enemy takes scuttles along the floor on broken limbs, writhes constantly, and sometimes vanishes, only to reappear above you to repeat her fatal plummet with a piercing scream — in an attempt to take you with her.
This game follows the standard survival horror mechanisms far more than anything else listed here, but it has twists of its own. Your sole weapon against the dead is a camera with the supernatural ability to temporarily "kill" ghosts, meaning that to attack, you have to first drop into a first-person view. While that's all right with one enemy, when you have two or three, all of whom are capable of teleportation as well as walking through walls, things can get a little tricky. What's worse is that you do more damage the closer they are, and more damage still if they're in an attack animation, so you really have to wait until they're at their most visually gruesome and dangerous before you can attack.
Dark, spooky, and with both tone and story varying between typical Japanese horror and some deeply disturbing originality, Fatal Frame 2 is a must play for anyone with even a passing interest in the "horror" part of "survival horror." While the rest of the series remains superb, FF2 is scarier than the first and has a number of gameplay improvements, while it has superior flow to the third — although the difference in fear factor between the two is debatable. And yes, there are creepy little long-haired Japanese girls. If you want to try it out, then you should be able to locate a copy on the pre-owned games shelf in most stores.
Anchorhead — PC, freeware
Atmosphere is pretty much the watchword for any game that wants to be thought of as horror, as opposed to just plain horrible. Anchorhead, cynics might think, would lack this. It's just text, after all. They would be sorely mistaken. Well-written novels have the power to terrify, and Anchorhead follows in the best traditions of H.P. Lovecraft in creating a sleepy village with some very dark secrets. From the initial word, it draws the player into its pace and tone and rarely lets up, although the usual tropes are employed — cursed bloodlines, comets, horrific monsters, foul outer gods and the like. The game is pervaded with a constant feeling of low-level dread, and it gets increasingly disturbing as it goes on.
All in all, it's a genuinely impressive piece of work. The quality of the writing is impossible to overstate, the atmosphere is consistently unnerving and — most amazing of all — the puzzles are logical and mostly feel natural. For the first half of the game, things are rarely spelled out, as you investigate what's going on. You pay attention, follow up leads, and (if you're anything like me) make notes in a Notepad window. If you get stuck, it's because you haven't explored everywhere and investigated everything.
Despite this, one final warning: This game is not for the faint of heart (although, really, neither are any of the games listed here). It's genuinely disturbing in places, is exceptionally mature, and the descriptions and events tend to be more graphic than the visuals in most games.
Still, if it sounds like your cup of tea, then Anchorhead a superb piece of work, and it's completely free. We recommend getting your hands on it at the IF Archive, and using the Gargoyle interpreter to run it, although there are all sorts of other interpreters available online if you want to play it on other gadgets, like a PDA.
Penumbra: Overture — PC
Penumbra: Overture is an interesting piece of work. It's the most system-intensive game here by a long shot, although it's a full-length game developed after a favorable response to what was intended as a tech demo. Here, our protagonist receives a letter from his father, long presumed dead, instructing him to open a safety deposit box and destroy everything within. Having apparently never seen a horror film before, he instead reads everything inside and, while not able to understand any of it, decides to fly out to an extremely isolated location in Greenland that is clearly marked on a map. Here he comes across an underground bunker, and this is where everything goes horribly wrong. Surprising, eh?
Oh, Penumbra, I kid. The game takes place entirely from a first-person perspective and, like Clock Tower, it's a bit of a cross between survival hide-and-seek and a point-and-click adventure. While weapons can be used — mostly hitting the hideous monsters with whatever heavy metal item you've found — it's discouraged in that many seem fairly unkillable. Rather, the game's claim to fame is through its use of Physics (!), which always deserves capitalization, but particularly so here. While I'm sure we've all made a bridge out of crates in Half-Life 2, Penumbra prefers us to, say, drag a big heavy shelf in front of a door to stop a dog from getting through and eating us — the more "physical" aspect of physics, if you will.
Stacking items to create makeshift stepladders is less common, though perfectly doable. There's even a bit of Wii-style interactivity, as if you wanted to turn a wheel, you would select it with the omnipresent hand icon and then move the mouse in a circular motion. This isn't perfectly implemented, unfortunately, and the game can get a bit iffy with such things, seemingly depending on your position.
Graphically, though, the game is impressive. Light filters beautifully, and the environments are staggeringly gorgeous, crafting an extremely desolate mood and creating a degree of tension that hasn't really been seen in a first-person game since Doom 3. Less work seems to have gone into the character models, sadly, but the point of the gameplay is more about avoiding the various lurking horrors than it is walking up to them and carefully inspecting them for graphical glitches. It's a bit of a shame that most of the title is set in caves and tunnels, because the external and "normal" areas — mostly seen at the start — are breathtaking. Still, these caves can be almost as impressive as Oblivion's, and that's saying something.
While it may not be quite to everyone's taste, it's an interesting experiment, and it creates a definite horror ambience despite my whining. There are a good few hours of fun to be had with Penumbra, and at this stage, it's far from the most costly game around.
That's about it for this roundup. Check back again soon for the next, where we'll have something a bit more cheery, and hopefully something for our handheld-owning friends. Until next time, then: Shut your windows, lock your doors, and try not to have nightmares.