As I’ve admitted before, I have a problem when it comes to scary games. I love them – give me spooky, creepy, dark, tense atmospheres and stories, please! – but I don’t love being chased, or cheap monsters running after you down hallways. I want to be truly scared and spooked – not sent running away from zombies and ghosts. That’s why Spooktober – otherwise known as the excuse so many of us gamers take to heavily focus on horror games and media – was kind of a challenge for me. I was looking for atmospheric horror. The kinds of things that make your heart go wild with anxiety as you debate whether or not to open a door. The kinds of things that keep you on the edge of your seat. And, specifically, the kinds of things that do that without throwing a cheap, easy monster running down the hallway into the mix. (As a disclaimer, I do still enjoy survival horror with zombies and spooks and demons and such – it’s just not really my first choice).
As such, I was a little apprehensive when one of my colleagues pinged me to ask if I wanted to play Protocol Games’ Song of Horror – a fresh new game promising to be a truly terrifying experience. But it promised Lovecraftian overtones, a spooky house, and plenty of tense atmosphere and so, the night before Halloween, I found myself ready, in costume, to jump into the uncomfortable investigation of a missing writer and his family.
This is definitely a game best played blind, so I’ll keep the story as under wraps as possible. If you want to know literally nothing about the game except if it’s worth playing, here’s the tl;dr: Song of Horror is an excellent horror game, especially if you’re more about atmosphere than chase scenes. It is episodic, and it does rely on some quicktime events, so if either of those are dealbreakers for you, you’ve been warned. If they’re not, go pick it up and enjoy your blind playthrough! If you want to know more and aren’t worried about having a little of the story and atmosphere revealed, feel free to keep reading.
You’ll start the game as Daniel, returning home on a Friday night to your empty apartment (with way too many dirty dishes – Daniel, please). Unfortunately, your weekend is delayed by everyone’s true worst nightmare – a call from your boss. Sebastian P Husher – one of your famed writers – seems to have gone MIA. He hasn’t contacted his editor or anyone else. His family hasn’t been heard from. Something seems to be amiss. You’re tasked with going to his house to check for them and make sure all is well. Unfortunately… you don’t quite make it back.
From here, you’ll have a choice of characters to send out to investigate the Husher house. Each one has different strengths, weaknesses, and viewpoints, which adds a nice touch to the game. Daniel’s colleague, for example, will have completely different commentary from the Husher household’s hired help.
There are three things that I really love about Song of Horror.
The first is that permadeath works a little differently here than in other games. Your characters can die, and when they do they’re gone forever. However… that doesn’t mean your investigation is over. You’ll have the opportunity to pick your next character, who will pick up the investigation where it left off. Thankfully, all their items and hard work will still be there, but be careful… once you’re out of characters, the mystery of the Husher mansion will remain unsolved. It’s a formula that takes all the pressure of permadeath and adds an interesting twist. I didn’t ever want to die – I got attached to my characters and wanted to get them through. On the other hand, I also looked forward to having the opportunity to see what another character might say and think. It adds a depth we don’t often get to see, especially in horror.
It also forces you to stay focused and aware. Remember all those times when, during a horror movie or game, you told yourself “I’d never do that if I were in this situation!”? Congratulations! It’s your time to shine! Here’s your chance to not go through the obviously dangerous door. Video games are so often a “what’s the worst that could happen?” environment, so it’s interesting – and a little stressful – to be forced to take your whole predicament very seriously and cautiously.
The second is the incredible atmosphere that Sound of Horror sets us in. What’s actually lurking in the Husher mansion? You’ll never really see a monster, a zombie, or a demon. Sometimes you might see the hint of a ghost. But nothing is really… chasing you. Still, something is certainly hunting you. Referred to only as the Presence, Song of Horror’s antagonist is a strange, intangible being which lurks throughout the house. We never quite see it – only strange glimpses or sounds. Hands might reach through a door or you might listen at a entrance to a room and realize something is in there. Its lack of form is more terrifying than any monster – you never know how it will manifest or where. Your only hope is to carefully listen and look for cues, and use common sense as you explore.
However, the Presence will adapt to you as you explore, resulting in a rather tailored experience to each player. I haven’t played enough to see differences yet, but I’ve heard other players mention that a second playthrough was lacking something they thought was scripted, or that events went entirely differently the second time around. I never really knew what was coming, or when, or where. The end result is a tense, frightening atmosphere that never quite lets up. You’re never truly safe.
When the Presence does find you, you’ll usually get a quicktime event to help you survive the encounter. You may have to keep your character calm, shove a nearly-bursting door closed, or hide in a closet. Some encounters are fatal no matter what – which is why listening at doors is incredibly important. If you know something is strange about the room you’re about to enter, maybe you should go look elsewhere for the time being….
The game doesn’t just throw you into a scary area with a weapon and send monsters around every corner. Instead it invites you to be part of the story. You’ll have to explore deep through the house – maybe even in places you’ve already been – in order to uncover secrets and unlock areas. It’s an incredible atmosphere that truly feels like being in an oldschool horror story – the Lovecraftian vibes of madness, mystery, and cosmic horror are immersive and engrossing.
The third thing is a detail that I don’t tend to notice in games because even though it’s important, it’s sometimes taken for granted – Song of Horror has amazing sound design. The footsteps and creaking floors are constantly interrupted by discomforting noises in the far distance. The house is never really perfectly silent, but when it is it’s almost creepier. The sound design is as immersive as the story, lighting, and other details that usually draw you in first.
The gameplay is third-person, with constantly shifting camera angles. In another game I might think they’re messy, but in Song of Horror they simply serve to make the experience more disorienting – something I think really works. The fixed camera angles and third person are a lovely little callback to classics such as Silent Hill. As you explore, you’ll need to solve an occasional puzzle (such as getting an appliance running again) and search out items to help you proceed. In a game where the Presence is always randomly lurking throughout the mansion, even just searching for a screwdriver can be a daunting task. You can set the game on three different difficulties (all featuring the names of famous horror creators, which was a lovely touch), though be warned that you may not be able to undo it – I changed to easy at one point to get a feel for how it might be different and was never able to turn it back.
I played this on controller, which feels fantastic and brings the added experience of tremors and rumblings to the game. Near danger? You might feel it start to shake in your hands. It’s a small detail that made it worth skipping mouse and keyboard for – and that I think probably will be beneficial for most players.
I played a lot of really incredible games this October, but Song of Horror was definitely the highlight and one that I can’t wait to get back to playing. I’ve still got some of episode 1 to go, and have episode 2 downloaded, so I’m hoping to dive back in soon. Hopefully you’re sold as well – it’s a game worth playing if you love spooky atmosphere, Lovecraft, or just horror in general.
Ready to get spooked? Check out Song of Horror episode 1 on Steam!
Order Up! is a weekly column featuring indie-focused reviews, news, or interviews! We like old games just as much as new ones and are always looking for something to check out. Have a game recommendation, a project, or a company you want to talk about? Email me at [email protected] or find me on Twitter @ArcanaChance