DISTRAINT is in some ways an odd choice for the final game of Haunted House Week and in other ways a perfect fit. It is not about a specific haunted place nor are there even any actual ghosts, but the story very much revolves around locations. This is also easily the most graphic game I have written about to date on Indie Overlook and there are a good number of jumpscares jammed into its two hour duration. The protagonist, Price, works for McDade, Bruton, & Moore and it is his job to seize property. What follows is a psychological and surreal horror story centered around Price’s torment as he is torn between his guilt and his greed. Price is a complex and realistic character and the question of if he ultimately sells his soul for material gain or if he will seek out and find redemption is one where either possibility seems equally likely and will keep players invested and guessing until the very end. That’s all I will say for now though because on top of being the final game of this week, DISTRAINT will be receiving a full article tomorrow!
There are dozens, possibly even hundreds, of games out there which boil down to being scary versions of other games, but Pokemon Nightmare: Invasion is a bit different. For a start, this isn’t a reimagining of an existing game, but rather an entirely original origin story where the largely black and white aesthetic recalls old horror and noir movies almost as much as it does the old Game Boy games. The other important factor here is that this is a full-fledged game. While the vast majority of these types of horror games rarely consist of little more than a few minutes of walking around and a few cheap jumpscares (ex: nearly anything based on the Sonic.exe creepypasta), this is a roughly four hour experience filled with combat, exploration, boss fights, puzzles, and a surprisingly engaging plot.
The scope of this game is a bit larger than the other games I’ve chosen for Haunted House Week, but it is still very much about a specific place – Azure City. The protagonist, Jack, is an investigator sent to Azure City to investigate the disturbing disappearance of its residents and it is within this city’s confines where the entire game takes place. Though you never get to meet most of the residents of Azure City, there is a large amount of care put into humanizing them. The use of journals and notes to fill in backstory is a common enough mechanic in games, but here such environmental objects are found exclusively in places where they make sense, such as a note from a friend being on a table or a private journal being in a bedroom. As these journals provide just as much insight into the concerns of the writers themselves as they do into the mystery surrounded Azure City, it becomes possible to determine who lived in each building and their relationships with the other residents. There is plenty of environmental storytelling to go around, such as Jack remarking on exactly which types of books are found in each bookcase and bloodstains or the lack thereof hinting at the fate of various residents, and players will need to hunt down every clue they can to fully understand both the current events and what happened in the past. Pokemon Nightmare: Invasion also allows for some unusually open exploration; there are a few roadblocks along the way and the main objective is generally clear, but large chunks of Azure City are entirely optional.
The aesthetics are also handled well as the ordinarily black and white screen becomes subtly tinted at certain points and occasional splashes of color really stand out, such as when bloodstains are present. Sound direction is also excellent with radios you can turn on to play some of the standard, upbeat songs from the franchise to contrast with the surroundings and eerie or severely distorted music plays during combat and other encounters. Speaking of combat, it isn’t awful, but it’s definitely the one notable weakness to this game. On the one hand, the fact that this is a sort of origin story for the Pokemon themselves means that Jack spends the majority of the game personally fending off these creatures with an actual gun and I like how enemy sprites are changed to become visibly injured when they get low on health rather than resorting to using health bars or no indication at all. On the other hand, it is pretty clear that this game’s action-oriented combat system is limited by the RPG Maker 2000 engine, which wasn’t designed with such systems in mind, and most fights devolve into awkwardly tricking enemies into running into furniture or other barriers while you safely shoot and strafe around from the other side. Thankfully, combat is fairly quick and doesn’t occur often enough to bog down the rest of the experience. I was completely caught off guard by how invested I ended up becoming in this game’s plot and characters; both the mystery and horror elements here are top-notch and the execution is all-around excellent.
Hinterland is a game where the setting is the star of the show. Lost in a blizzard in the middle of ‘Nowhere’, the protagonist is guided by talking scarecrows to an abandoned mansion. The exact nature of this mansion is the main mystery throughout the game and things only become more bizarre as the game goes on with impossible architecture, disappearing rooms, and hostile spirits. There isn’t anything particularly graphic in Hinterland, but there are a good number of creepy moments and a decidedly eerie atmosphere. Nearly every object in the environment can be interacted with and the game certainly encourages players to do so at every opportunity as important items are often found in surprising places alongside clever traps and flavor text which further enhances the atmosphere. The sound design is particularly notable here with abrupt sounds and disturbing noises contributing to the sense of unease as much as the writing and the visuals. Horror elements also have a chance to show up randomly, so you’re not necessarily safe from surprises even while backtracking.
The entire game takes about an hour to finish on a first playthrough, but every room has something new to offer. There is a very surreal sensation to exploring the mansion as its design makes increasingly less sense. From a convenience store in the basement to a painting which fills a room with rain, the mansion keeps players guessing at what they’ll encounter through each and every door and interactions with the most mundane of objects can have astounding consequences. The actual nature of the mystery behind the mansion is also just as surreal and clever as the journey through its corridors and, while I certainly won’t spoil it here, I can safely say that it’s far more original than an explanation of “a ghost did it”. Overall, if you want a horror game which is all about the location, you can’t can much closer than Hinterlands.
Soldexus is a rather old indie game at this point and it doesn’t do anything particularly innovative for a Metroidvania, but it also probably deserves more credit than it has gotten. The main character, Ian, must make his way through a haunted castle to defeat its owner, gaining various passive upgrades and special abilities along the way. You actually gain access to both the double jump and a wall run near the start of the game, which allows Ian to become a surprisingly mobile protagonist. The only weapon you have access to is a sword, but upgrades later in the game expand Ian’s moveset and your slash is able to be charged up to create a strong slash which gains increased range based on how many attack upgrades have been found.
As far as issues go, there are two in particular worth noting. First, the beginning is far too difficult compared to the rest of the game as Ian will die in two or three hits to virtually anything on top of not having much in terms of mobility or offense of his own. Secondly, warp rooms exist, but save points are far too spread out so it’s easy to lose a decent chunk of progress upon death. On the plus side of things, backtracking through old areas doesn’t feel tedious because enemies throughout the castle gradually upgrade to stronger versions as the game goes on. Boss fights are also quite good and most of them require players to pay close attention to brief tells they give before launching attacks in order to successfully dodge and counter. Overall, Soldexus isn’t going to blow anyone away, but it’s still a solid Metroidvania worth checking out.
Bulb Boy is a point and click adventure game which is simultaneously charming, gross, funny, and terrifying. Bulb Boy himself fits in with this description of his game as on the one hand he is an ordinary boy who lives at home with his grandfather and his pet dog while on the other hand he is an utterly alien creature capable of unscrewing his light bulb head from the rest of his body. Fans of Courage the Cowardly Dog will almost certainly fall in love with this game as Bulb Boy’s house is transformed into a surrealistic hellscape by a mysterious and hostile otherworldly force. The aesthetics are easily the main draw here; the entire game is saturated in an eerie green glow, the soundtrack has an otherworldly feel even during peaceful scenes, and the character and monster designs are brilliantly bizarre.
For his part, Bulb Boy doesn’t have any dialogue beyond an occasional word or sound, but he is extremely expressive when performing any given action, whether it is hugging his toy rabbit or chopping off a giant creepy hand. This is a fairly short game and the puzzles are generally on the easy side of things (though never trivial), but each and every moment is crafted with care. The tone also wildly and deliberately swings back and forth between lighthearted and horrifying as you solve puzzles within peacefully weird flashback scenes only to abruptly find yourself facing the disgusting and often-deadly horrors which have taken over the house. Much like Halloween itself, Bulb Boy masterfully blends together extremes, making it a perfect match for the season.