The whole Escape Room scene has blown up over the last few years. Every corner of every town centre will have a bunch of actors dropped into an industrial warehouse, helping a small group of people solve tricky clues and puzzles in order to get out of a room in time for drinks down the pub. It’s hard to figure out when this phenomenon started though – was it due to the power of The Crystal Maze? Or that of the more sinister Saw movies? Well, Don’t Be Afraid leans heavily into both of these, creating a huge escape room where there is fear and danger around every corner. Are you brave enough to accept the challenge?
This adventure horror game puts you in the shoes of a young boy who finds himself waking up in a strange macabre room. You are David, an 11-year old child and you have been kidnapped by a man called Mr. Franklin. The place that you wake up in is full of puzzles and strange mannequins. Cameras point at you from the corners of the room; you are being watched. When Mr. Franklin starts talking to you through the PA system, Don’t Be Afraid begins – your task is to try and get out of this place alive.
What happens next is that, narrative-wise, a cat and mouse chase plays out, taking you through different escape rooms in this house. You travel through weird industrial locations, spooky basements, and at one point, a recreation of a house. You get the idea early on that you’re not the only kid who has been playing this game. You collect tapes and documents throughout the experience giving you more insights into Mr. Franklin’s past and also messages from the other kids who were held captive here. This way of drip-feeding the story keeps the interest up and makes the whole journey very intriguing throughout. There is also a mixture of other characters to take in, like a creepy clown and the demented brother of Franklin who stalks you in the basement.
In terms of gameplay, you are playing Don’t Be Afraid through the first person. You can run, walk and interact with items. There are candles you need to pick up from around the different rooms and these are extremely important because there are areas that you can’t go in because you are scared of the darkness. There are also puzzles attached to these candles; leaking pipes or mannequins that will extinguish your candle. For examples sake, you need to find the switch to turn off the water or move around the mannequins to progress.
There are many other puzzles, including those which task you with finding clues about objects and opening different doorways. And throughout, you will find yourself walking and running through low-lit spaces which have several jumpscares in place, complemented by shocks in the dark that never allow you to relax. But strangely, it’s enjoyable. Or at least, most of it is as there are chase sections which are less so. For example, in the basement, you get chased by a monster of a brother. When you die, it’s just a case of examining his loops and keeping out of the way. And the whole thing is not helped by the fact that after the initial shock of being hunted, the fear in Don’t Be Afraid goes away quite quickly.
The creepiest and most effective horror trope is however the golden oldie – the use of the mannequins. Dotted throughout each level, they offer clues on where to go next, or help open routes through to the new levels. Some have switches on them that need to be activated to open doors. In other areas, they need certain objects to be found, placed in their hand for something to unlock. It’s a great device, if a bit Weeping Angels from Doctor Who-like; you look back and they change position, moving ever closer. It will never stop delivering nightmares.
Don’t Be Afraid looks good, even though it’s not going to win any awards for graphical excellence. But the level design and environmental design work well, with clever horror references and scary lighting effects. When you get closer to some of the monsters it loses the gloss a bit and doesn’t feel that scary, but overall a great job has been done by the development team. The sound is creepy throughout too, with the composer delivering everything you need in terms of effects that make you jump and squirm. And the voice-over is very creepy; Mr. Franklin coming across as a mixture of Vincent Price and Krusty the Clown.
Don’t Be Afraid is a shortish game that comes in around the three-hour mark, but it doesn’t feel like it should be any longer. The scares, puzzles, and environments live up to the survival horror label and I’ve loved the mannequins and enjoy the tricks that are played. The chase sections aren’t nearly as fun or atmospheric, but hopefully we’ll see more come out of this with a sequel to Don’t Be Afraid; it deserves one from this first helping.
Don’t Be Afraid is available from the Xbox Store