Friday, March 7, 2014

Doorways (Chapters 1 and 2)

     There are good games, there are great games, there are bad games, and there are terrible games. Sometimes, however, there are games like Doorways. That is, a critic's worst nightmare: games that offer a breezy experience that leaves no impression, good or bad, on the player after watching the credits roll and even worse, are difficult to form an opinion on. So, for that reason, I'm going to keep this review short and sweet: while Doorways may not be too offensive to the tastes at first glance, and has some decent moments here and there throughout its playtime, between the manipulative use of the episodic format and a lack of actual content on display, it doesn't warrant a recommendation even to the hardest of hardcore horror fans. This is one Greenlight game that fails to live up to its promises in many unfortunate ways.
     Doorways is advertised on Steam as being a horror game with a 'complex story' and a 'deep atmosphere'. Vague words, but enough to make any horror fan curious. Unfortunately, to call anything on display here 'deep' or 'complex' would be silly. Doorways can't decide what it wants to be: Amnesia or Dear Esther, with some hints of the recent Montague's Mount thrown in for good measure.

     The game starts out with a quick tutorial that sets up your character essentially being an amnesiac, audience surrogate with nothing much in the way of personality, but in a horror game this gothic, what else would you expect? However, in games like Amnesia (the clearest inspiration for the game), the protagonist starts out not knowing who he is, but slowly learns over the course of the game more about his violent past, with answers always being dangled tantalizingly close to the player throughout the journey, compelling them to press on through the horrific challenges they'll face. Not in Doorways: I guess we're supposed to just take the developers' word for it that the story will be wrapped up in the final chapters, but considering how little the protagonist is developed over the course of these two episodes, I'm assuming it'll either be half-hearted exposition or a stock plot twist that'll tie everything up at the end. To say that there is no compelling central mystery would be an understatement: there's no damn plot to be found anywhere.

     The two chapters both focus on one unique big bad each, both of whom are responsible for hideous murders and the like. The game fills you in on the details of both's crimes with expository notes that can be found throughout the game's two environments. This is where the game's Dear Esther influence shows, as the notes do something similar: they detail gruesome events that aren't really at all evidenced by anything in the rooms where you find them, giving the areas a sense of history, and in turn, leading to most of the game's 'deep atmosphere'. Unfortunately, while these notes are gruesome and generally well-written enough to make the game succeed on the strength of them alone, the notes never form any sort of narrative arch nor do the chapters themselves ever feel properly paced enough to make the game seem to have any kind of plot at all. And what of your character's involvement in all of this? The game won't tell; guess you'll have to find out in the next two chapters!

     Which brings us to the game's biggest issue: its length. Doorways is short. Like, very short. For ten bucks, the game is an utterly incomplete experience that can be finished in under two hours easily, even if you die a lot. What makes this even worse is that you won't get the next two chapters with your purchase either: you'll have to pay again to unlock them once they finally release. Ultimately, I find it hard to believe that the developers have the gall to charge so much for only half of such a lazy game, and I don't find myself particularly excited to see what happens next considering the game's plot goes absolutely nowhere. And really, besides plot, what else does this game promise that it has going for it?
     Well, there are some decently fun platforming bits (weird, huh?) and some clever puzzles, but anyone with working hands and a undamaged brain can breeze right through them all with no problem. In fact, that's the general issue with what little content Doorways does offer: the game is so breezy, you'll blow through the whole thing before it can ever even sink its fangs into you properly. There are virtually no scares that ever break up the tedium or jar you out of the daze the game's dull atmosphere puts you in, and you're hardly ever in immediate danger, as most of the game's enemies stand completely still until you run into them. The gameplay is alright, but why pay for Doorways when a game like Amnesia has even better gameplay, much more dynamic horror, and a pretty excellent plot over a much lengthier adventure for the same price?

     What's the best thing I can say about Doorways? Well, it looks nice. In fact, let's not mince words: it looks gorgeous at times. The game's grandiose architecture in the second act is so well done I could almost feel my jaw drop at times while playing it, and while the first act's environment was nothing special in and of itself, the torture dungeon you find yourself in towards the end of the act feels appropriately sinister and creepy. The game's sound: not so much. The audio is mostly droning noise and silence, so nothing to really keep you on the edge of your seat. Still, between the superbly responsive controls and the well done visuals, Doorways greatest asset is its production values, no contest. In fact, in terms of visuals, nothing in Amnesia really compares to the locales visited in Doorways' second chapter. But are those visuals worth twenty bucks? (or even ten?) Unfortunately, no.
     While I was rooting for this game to hook me, especially thanks to the second act's gleefully dark antagonist, I couldn't help but feel like the game was just sand slipping through my fingers, not ever making much of an impact on me. The puzzles were easy and rather obvious, the platforming worked perfectly well and never required much thought or skill to complete, and the game's scares never really surprised me quite enough to stick in my memory. Worst of all, the game's story barely even exists at all, and for a game that sells itself based on its complex narrative, this is a serious problem. All of this points to Doorways being a game that fails to deliver on its promises, and live up to its many, much more substantial inspirations. Doorways might indeed pull out a final act that makes the entire experience much more worthwhile, but currently, with no ending in sight and virtually zero originality, I don't reserve very much hope and I certainly can't recommend you pay its ten dollar entry fee to try it out and see for yourself. Go play Amnesia instead and hope that the developers change their mind about the game's pricing. Otherwise, mark Doorways under 'wasted potential' and move on.

Verdict: C-

(Keep in mind, games like Gone Home sometimes charge silly prices for very little content, but at least Gone Home has originality going for it, and for its target audience, it offers a great narrative-focused experience. Doorways offers neither a good story, or good scares, and for that, the price seems outrageous, especially considering the experience is incomplete.)

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