The best kind of horror is the horror you don’t see, hear, or even quite understand.
Stephen Spielberg kept the shark hidden until the end of Jaws, and when you saw what it really was, a rubber prop, the fear suddenly subsided. The most recent Alien movies have told us what the aliens are, what they like to eat, their thoughts on fashion, and no doubt their favourite music. That in turn has seen them become a lot less scary.
Decay – The Mare opens up lots of questions before you even load up the game, but does it keep the fear factor alive? Or is it as scary as Mr Bobby on a Saturday night in the 1990s?
Decay – The Mare is set over three episodes, which you can play in a chronological sequence. You play as Sam, an ex-drug addict, who is in some sort of rehab clinic in the middle of nowhere. You start the game in your room and are left to work out how to escape from the oppressive building. The game’s mechanics are very unusual, old school affairs that remind me very much of titles like Myst from the early ‘90s. It’s a first person point and click puzzler, with the big difference being that everything you are seeing, from Sam’s point of view, is completely static. There is no mobility in the gameplay at all. You can turn left or right or forwards on occasion, but then another static picture will appear in front of you. Occasionally something will happen to the image, like a painting starts looking at you or a ball drops from the ceiling, but mostly it’s a very still image.
You can interact with certain objects, pick up items and solve the various puzzles and riddles dotted around the episode, combining items with more items, to then make larger more useful items that will aid your quest.
It’s a very unusual old fashioned technique that the game employs, but for the most part it works well. It does produce some great jump scares, especially when a still piece of the background suddenly moves or a creature appears for a moment. But the scares do fade away very quickly, especially when you realise there is nothing here that can kill you.
You’re not running away from anything, nothing is pursuing you and there is no fighting for your life at any point in this experience. This makes the horror survival aspect completely absent, instead leaving Decay – The Mare to produce a complex puzzle game that really tests the brain to the highest level. You’ll end up scratching your head, going around in circles, and going through your inventory relentlessly, until the eureka moment comes and everything is okay with the world once more. I got stuck on some of the later levels for quite a while, but I still found things hugely enjoyable rather than a chore. Strangely, the whole experience reminded me of Monkey Island, what with its clever use of objects and puzzle solving. That in itself is high praise indeed for a game that brings roughly six hours of gameplay.
The story, writing and atmosphere is the bread and butter in games like this. In Decay – The Mare the world and story created is unique and well written. Newspaper articles and hidden stories arise from solving clues, providing some deep philosophy around friendship, madness and the state of rehabilitation. There are a couple of really creepy interactions with other characters, like a fellow inmate and a bag. Yes, you’ve heard me right – one of the characters is a living, breathing handbag with a hand sticking out of it. This piece of the tale is brilliant and disturbing, but at the same time slightly heartwarming.
The design of the world is unusual, but familiar at the same time. The pictures presented are interesting and come with some nice use of lighting. The areas and characters look very previous generation, but when you get used to the aesthetic, it really does begin to grow on you. The attention to detail in some of the items and articles collected is brilliant and well thought through.
Overall then and Decay – The Mare is another unusual, strange quirky game to enter the Xbox One library of misfits. It’s a brilliant puzzler and point and click game, but is not a horror game, at least not in the way others have embraced the genre. It is also pretty tough to play and you’ll need both patience and a clever mind in order to succeed.
It’s a game that I enjoyed a lot, but I can only fully recommend it if you’re willing to take a chance with a slightly offbeat world.