DISTRAINT is one of the strongest examples of psychological horror done right which I have ever encountered in any medium. This modern day Faustian tale is a nightmarish ghost story without ghosts which chronicles the choices made by its protagonist, a young man named Price, and the consequences they contain for both himself and those around him. (more…)
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!
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.
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.
What video game franchise could possibly embody the spirit of Halloween better than The Legend of Zelda? Well, probably Castlevania for one, so it’s a good thing someone decided to combine the two! Yes, it’s an indie fangame which combines elements of two of my favorite franchises and it’s even made in Zelda Classic, a rather impressive game engine which deserves an article of its own one day. Sticking a character from one game into stages and general locations from another is nothing new, but Link Stuck in Castlevania is impressive both for how far it pushes the Zelda Classic engine itself and for how far it takes the experience.
Things start out a bit slow with Link going through some fairly linear and simplistic zombie and bat-filled hallways resembling the start of the original NES version of Castlevania, but this mediocre pace doesn’t last for long. Link can break bricks and shatter candles to quickly gain access to all sorts of upgrades from both worlds, including hearts, maximum health increases, potions, maps, subweapons belonging to both him and the Belmonts, and even those blocks with Roman numerals which allow more subweapons to be on the screen simultaneously. The early stages mostly stick to layouts resembling those found in their equivalent stages in Castlevania, but later levels become increasingly creative with looping hallways, puzzles, hidden rooms, and less blatantly linear layouts. Once you get the warp whistle in Stage 2 you can also freely travel back to previously completed stages to hunt for any missed items or upgrades and the stages themselves even have one-way warps serving as a sort of fast travel service. Stairs can be troublesome as it can be difficult to tell when you’re officially ‘off’ of a staircase and far more than once I ended up walking back down some stairs while trying to move left or right and most bosses are on the underwhelming side of things (the first boss can even fly out of the room and force you to reset the fight), but the later stages, and especially the large final area, easily make up for any shortcomings. Link Stuck in Castlevania is a great crossover for fans of Belmonts and Hyrulian heroes alike which goes to great lengths to combine strengths from both series and to blend the nostalgic confines of the corridors of Dracula’s castle with new and unexpected twists and surprises.