Sunday, September 15, 2013

Paranormal (Early Access)

     Paranormal is the newest in a string of indie horror games launching close to Halloween, and like most of the other games in this category, it's now on Steam thanks to the almighty Greenlight. What makes Paranormal stand out, however, is its history, being that it has been in development for a few years now, and has built up quite a reputation amongst LPer's and horror fans. It's already gotten a ton of coverage since its launch day, and the new Steam release is sure to garner even more attention than before. The question, then, is this: is it really deserving of all this praise?
     First off, remember: the game is part of Steam Early Access, so the game technically isn't finished yet, although it's clear that Matt Cohen is mostly finished with the base game, and that he's only putting the finishing touches on it at best, so take any criticism with a grain of salt, and remember: everything in the game is subject to change at a moment's notice. With that in mind, I'll dive right in.

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     Paranormal centers on a young starving artist who apparently gets a great deal on a nice, big house with plenty of space for his studio. So great was the deal, indeed, that the guy did no research into the house's previous history, and he almost doesn't even seem surprised when things start to go a bit south. The game opens with the man telling us that, in order to prove that the house is haunted, he's decided to record his next few days in their entirety, exposing to the world the horrors that exist in the house. Simple, right? The idea is a familiar one, but the way it's carried out is anything but.
     For one, the story itself goes in some distinctly unpleasant directions. Even the protagonist himself, who struck me right from the beginning as a bit strange, doesn't seem to be doing the recording for any other reason than to piss off the ghosts. Indeed, he almost seems to enjoy pushing them to do something fantastic for the camera, and boy, are they only too happy to oblige. Once you get past the initial obvious horror tropes (mannequins, loud footsteps, etc) the game's story gets very tragic and extremely terrifying very quickly. There's a central mechanic based around trying to figure out who, exactly, is the entity that is haunting the house in the first place. Journal entries, Google searches, and other environmental clues will gradually fill you in on what's going on, but never enough that you feel like you've 'cracked the case', making the ghosts feel mysterious and more creepy than ever even after you've discovered their origin.

     Overall, at the end of your 30-40 minute journey, you'll feel like you've been through hell and back, the ending fittingly caps the experience off in a cool "gainax ending" (depending on how you play, that is. There are multiple endings.), and there's little doubt that you'll breathe a little sigh of relief that the experience is over, and you, not the character necessarily, made it out alive. This is because Paranormal has that distinct creepypasta version of horror storytelling that makes the story feel uncomfortably realistic and dangerously close to home. After playing the game, I found myself averting my eyes near mirrors, windows, and anything else even remotely associated with this game. For me, this was perhaps the biggest reason this game has had such a lasting effect on my mind: ever since I've finished it, I simply can't get some of the more disturbing images out of my head. Paranormal has a terrifying way of sticking with you after you finish it. It definitely fits the 'Couldn't sleep for a week.' genre of horror, and fits it better than any other game I've ever played.
     Gameplay-wise, though, the game is quite forgettable, but that pretty much comes with the territory with games like this. It's like a mixture of Silent Hill 4's hauntings mixed with the random 'scare-system' of Anna. The main draw of the game is having things go bump, so actual gameplay consists of little other than walking around, waiting for something to happen. Yes, you do occasionally find journal pages and stuff that clues you into what's going on, but these are hardly frequent enough to actually feel like a real gameplay element. Also, there isn't a lot that actually poses a real threat to your character, so if like your horror with a larger sense of danger, like in games like Amnesia, this may not be your bag, although most players won't notice that they're in no danger when a mannequin materializes in front of them while they weren't looking.

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     Graphics aren't great, but they're not all that bad either. The game has a distinct lack of color, and the motion blur and screen static makes it feel grimy and ugly, although that was probably intentional. It does have that Unreal quality of having weird shiny textures on certain objects that look extremely gross (think the slime monsters from Condemned 2), but overall, it looks fine, and is perfectly capable of scaring the pants off of you. I only wish that I didn't have to manually set my resolution every time I hop into the game, but it's in Early Access, so I can only guess that that will be something they fix in future updates.
     And now, for the bad. Paranormal is a scary game for sure, but its pacing creates a few very serious issues. For one, the game condenses itself into a 30-40 minute experience, an experience that remains pretty much the same no matter how many times you play it. Granted, small things will change, but for the most part, the biggest moments remain faithfully chronological (or at least, they did when I played it.), so replay value is limited to trying to scare your friends and waiting for more DLC to launch, and at $10, that could potentially be a deal-breaker for some.
     But the pacing also creates a much bigger problem for the experience, at least, it did for me. I was really interested in the history of the house; I couldn't wait to start up the game and dive into the house's history, find those journal pages, and confront the ultimate evil. I thought it sounded a bit like a more dynamic Scratches. Sign me up, please.

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     But once I was in the game, I realized that this entire mechanic was hardly even there. Yeah, maybe I assumed too much from reading the Steam store page, but the pacing was so fast that 'exploration' and 'discovery' took a backseat to waiting for things to pop out and scare me. There was a central mystery, but genre-savvy players will figure out the central evil in mere seconds. I mean, as soon as you start the game, you're standing in front of a laptop. If you walk up to the laptop and interact with it (and really, who wouldn't?), it tells you exactly what's haunting the house, and although it probably thinks it's being vague, I knew immediately based on the text what I was up against, and a lot of the mystery was lost for me, although that obviously didn't stop me from being terrified when the thing started showing up to scare me within an inch of my life.
     And the scares themselves, being paced the way they are, can feel like a bit much at times. Remember in FEAR when you'd be walking down a quiet hallway, and suddenly an image of a mutilated head would just pop-up on your screen for a second, accompanied by a loud scream or something? Yeah, Paranormal loves scares like that, and encountering one or two of those in rapid succession is enough to piss me off and make me just want to rage-quit. Jump scares are fine, but sometimes, this game felt less Paranormal Activity and more like the an amusement park ride.

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     And of course, the final complaint: Paranormal is buggy. Bugs are usually so horrific that one might even confuse them for intentional scares, but I'm pretty sure teleporting through the ground and being thrown across a room were not scares programmed into the game. Also, the game kinda supports an Xbox 360 controller, so while you can pause with a gamepad, you can't un-pause with one for some reason, and the look sensitivity can't be changed anywhere in-game. All of this will probably be fixed in the future, but you still may to steer clear if you'd rather wait until the game's quirks are ironed out before you experience the game.
     Overall, though, Paranormal is a great scare-fest for the horror-fanatics out there. Even though it's a bit rough around the edges, and it wasn't exactly what I expected, I'd still heartily recommend it to anyone who wants a dynamic horror experience with a decent mystery at its core. Think Paranormal Activity with a touch of creepypasta and tons of delicious jump scares.

Verdict: C+

(I'll be reviewing each new DLC episode after they release, and if the base game changes dramatically, I will probably write another review, so don't take this as my final word on Paranormal.)