Haunted Memories: Episode One Review (PC)

In games writing and in particular, games reviewing there is a certain expectation about who is the 'right' person to review a particular game or style of game. For instance, if you task someone with little experience of RTS with reviewing a new Starcraft game, you can expect them to miss some of the nuance, to struggle with army composition, build order or base construction. Someone whose experience of RPGs is largely limited to single-player, narrative driven titles will have no context when coming to an MMO and is likely to judge it on the wrong terms. But when it comes to horror games, things are a little different, how do we judge someone to be fit to review a horror game? Is it someone with a sense of timing and technique who can objectively look at the ways in which a game seeks to manipulate the player. Or is it perhaps a person with a background knowledge of the mythology of a title and can judge how well that property is used to construct the experience?

My main qualification for reviewing horror games is that I find gaming representations of horror to be utterly terrifying. If you are a stone-hearted emotionless thrill-seeker then my experience will likely not be the same as yours - every foreboding technique that developers like to pile up on the senses seems to affect me ten-fold. I once hid in a chemical storage cupboard for 8 minutes when playing System Shock 2, The little girl in the first game once made me let out a high pitched yelp as I descended a ladder, catching a glimpse of her evil visage. The haunted hotel in Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines forces me to put the game into third person mode and spam the jump button so I can focus on the slightly dodgy animations, simply to distract myself from the brooding atmosphere and feeling of overpowering helplessness. I outright refuse to play the Amnesia games.

The map and inventory offer a brief respite

Where then does Haunted Memories Episode 1 fit in my horror index? To be clear we are talking about a game, loosely based on the Slender Man meme/myth that originated on the Something Awful forums, featuring a very tall smooth faced man who likes to appear behind people and basically stalk them to death. While the idea of turning around to face a nightmare vision of some unknown horror in itself is a rather spooky premise for a game, the particular success of Haunted Memories is the evocation of a ceaselessly creepy atmosphere, building waves of tension to accompany the players actions. A well done atmosphere in a horror game is key. Effective use of audio, lighting and shadows in Haunted Memories keep the player constantly on edge and something as simple as a twig breaking underfoot, or a crack of lightning in the distance can bring a chill to the spine. Tension tends to have a cumulative effect, I found myself metaphorically painting evil faces on the rocks as my torch shone near them, not because of any particular trickery on the developers part, but simply because of the way a shadow fell and a mounting sense of dread. My imagination did the rest.

To describe Haunted Memories in clinical terms, strips it of its power almost entirely. You walk around a relatively small open woodland area, dotted with shacks and the occasional building, searching for tools, written notes and keys to open locked doors that lead to further clues. Sometimes you will find that you come face to face with a very scary tall person/thing and the screen will go a bit blurry and the soundtrack will sound like an increasing heartbeat. At this point you will probably want to run in the opposite direction. But to strip the game of its atmosphere in that description gives little real sense of how it feels to play and to bring my opening disclaimer back in to play – your mileage may vary. Those among you who are susceptible to interactive horror will likely find Haunted Memories as a very effective example of the genre – with the dreamlike/nightmareish quality of the game amplified by the hazy colouring, dynamic weather and exaggerated lens flare.

A particularly ominous rock formation

But outside of the scares, Haunted Memories may strike the more fearless among you as a pretty basic experience. Find a key at location A, to unlock a door at location B, which yields a creepy note to give you the tiniest amount of context for what it is you are experiencing. There is a sense of mystery to be uncovered, a myth explained – but you won't find all the answers in the first of six planned episodes.

I would love to tell you that my time with Haunted Memories ended with me coming to terms with the fact it was simply a game, that I found all the notes, pieced together a few clues and confronted my horror head-on. What actually happened is that I ambled up a mountain path after fleeing a strange sound (possibly imagined) in the woods. The path got continuously darker and darker, my torch battery ran out and had to be replaced before I came to a large spiral staircase that pierced the night sky. I ascended the staircase and after about a minute I began to wonder if it ever ended, as every footstep was accompanied by a dull metal echo. Was the game playing an 'endless corridor' trick on me, where I'd never reach the top? I contemplated turning back, but resolved to keep on plodding ever upwards. Eventually, after a minute or two I arrived at the summit, greeted by a completely out of place couch, a typewriter to save my game and a broken railing. I saved the game, realised my journey to the top was not something I had the stomach to reverse and I jumped over the broken railing, falling to my doom. Suicide felt like sweet release and for a horror game, I think that's pretty high praise. N.B. This review is based on the Early Access build now available on Steam and does not represent the quality of the final product.

Top Game Moment: Coming face to face with Slender as your heart-beat syncs with the soundtrack and blind panic wrests control of the game from your fingers.

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