Boreal Tenebrae is a strange one indeed. A polished low-poly game looking like a remaster originally from the 32-bit era. These will be your first thoughts as you begin the game, before you settle into the weirdness and insanity you are about to take part in.
Set in a weird town that looks like a nightmarish version of an old LucasArts point and click. Dreamscape-like blocky environments fill the world and really feel like a game from the past you played once. It is certainly one of the most unique games on offer in today’s smorgasbord of indie titles.
Gameplay is pretty simple, you control a character starting with Bree and navigate the mysteries in each area of the world. Discs can be found as items in each part of town and using these in the old school combo TV in your house enables fast travel back and forth to the different places on the map. Exploring town names – highlighted in red – will progress the story and those in blue (or teal as the game tells us) will lead to an item.
Light collecting and basic inventory management – ala Resident Evil – is required to progress. For example early on to create a distraction you must combine two items to create something new. Hand holding is not present in the game as it is designed to feel part of an era before the age of the tutorial. This often leads to trial and error through your time with Boreal Tenebrae.
Boreal Tenebrae has taken inspiration from many games of the 32-bit era. Silent Hill, Resident Evil and even Final Fantasy can be felt in playing through the story. Camera angles are fixed like the aforementioned Resident Evil games and the menu system just screams Final Fantasy at you.
A horror story in which sound is used to create atmosphere, Boreal uses a mix of normal day to day goings on like people walking, getting in and driving off in cars or even bird noises to create quite a superb atmosphere. Other realms may have creepy ‘80s style electro horror music to give the player chills in all the right ways.
The narrative in the game is surreal and feels like a scary lucid dream. Creepy, unsettling and, well, just plain weird. You play as several characters in the game and experience haunting areas around the town. Some of these areas see you play as a ghost and things that the character Bree may see as ordinary (well as ordinary as they can be in Boreal Tenebrae), will instead by interpreted by the ghost as twisted obscured versions. There are also anthropomorphic animals inhabiting the town, such as the rich frogs who own the factory you work in. It’s all very strange stuff.
Weird blocks have appeared in the town that look like cuboids with TV static on them; looking into them takes you to the static zone, a weird landscape that looks like your town but is all obscured and twisted. To explain the entire story efficiently would be the equivalent of breaking down an old Aphex Twin music video, in that you yourself would go as insane as the plot trying to make sense of it.
The main story, if you can call it that, revolves around Bree trying to find her lost sister, Sarah. Bree’s nap-during-the-day father believes the key to finding her is in the static and has dedicated his life to tinkering with televisions to try and find her. You jump between characters at several points and get to experience various areas in the town, each appearing differently to each character. The problem is found in the lack of things to do in each area, outside of finding a new tape or brief interactions with the townsfolk.
Characters you meet sadly have no meaningful or in-depth back story. This leads to a bit of a disconnect and an almost throwaway experience in terms of relationships in-game. Also the fact that many events take place in unclear and undefined parts of the scattered timeline can lead often to confusion of what exactly is going on as you progress.
Despite all these shortcomings and confusing random events and characters, there is something ultimately compelling with Boreal Tenebrae. It is the same draw that a horror movie or ghost story may have; you may not want to know what comes next but human nature and intrigue pulls you towards finding out.
It’s certainly a beautifully made and oddly compelling experience, that whilst short, deserves your attention; particularly aimed towards nostalgic gamers who had the chance to experience 3D games first steps. They may not have aged well but they can often be beautifully made games that once you get past the entry requirements turn into something special.
Sadly the time spent with Boreal Tenebrae is very short and a complete playthrough will only clock in at around the four to five hour mark. Several bugs have resulted in the need to redo complete sessions too, something which is most irritating as some of the tasks and exploration are basic, clunky and mundane. It really presents a mixed bag of beauty and beast.
Boreal Tenebrae may not be for everyone however if you are a fan of the unknown or love to be transported to worlds completely original, this is worthy of a place in your library. It is one of the most unique and oddly compelling titles that has been released in recent times.
Uneasily welcoming and uncomfortable to play, but definitely one to give attention to despite its shortcomings.
Boreal Tenebrae is available on the Xbox Store