Ellen, the latest title from Red Mount Media, is a strange mix of components seemingly thrown together in some kind of twisted video game blender. It’s a 2D pixel sidescroller. It’s also a murder mystery. And it’s also a somewhat unsettling paranormal horror game. The result? Ellen works more often than it doesn’t, despite some problems.
The premise is intriguing right off the bat. You take control of James, an investigator who has taken it upon himself to investigate a supposedly haunted house. The residence in question is that of the Smiths, who were found brutally murdered a year before, while their daughter Ellen went missing. Local residents have become unnerved by several sightings of the silhouette of a young girl spotted at the house. So naturally, James decides to investigate instead of running away like a normal person. The narrative is one of the strongest aspects, and gripped me throughout. The mystery unfolds slowly, and reveals itself in a way that compels you to keep playing to the sinister end.
I’ll be very up front and honest here, Ellen unsettled me. One of its strongest aspects is the audio, which is loud when it needs to be, and quiet when it needs to as well. The quieter moments help build tension, and the feeling that something is about to pop out at you, while dramatic spikes in volume sharpen the tension, and helps make the danger James is in feel much more real. It very much feels as if Red Mount Media are experienced and seasoned in manufacturing genuine scares and creepy moments. I like to think of myself as fairly resistant to scares, but I had a shiver sent up my spine on a few occasions.
The pixelated visuals also help increase the weirdness of your surroundings. Throughout the game, you’ll discover odd symbols dotted around the house suggesting that darker forces are at play, and the simplicity of the visual look seems to increase the tension somehow. The game’s lighting is also extremely ominous, with many of the environments poorly lit, making it difficult to see in certain situations, but never in a way that’s frustrating. Sometimes a glowing red backdrop sets in when the danger kicks up a level. It’s well done, and seems to up the stakes. Ellen’s complete lack of spoken dialogue also helps the unsettling atmosphere. The only audio cues are the music, and certain interactions with the environment (such as opening a door or footsteps), but even these manage to sound creepier than usual, largely due to the eerie quietness.
The gameplay is extremely basic, as you’d probably expect from this type of game. You walk from side to side, interacting with objects in the environment that may aid you in discovering the horrible truth of what happened to the Smith family. You have a sprint button which allows you to move things up a little quicker, but you can run out of stamina, which happened to me on many a occasion. You can pick up a variety of objects within the house that you can use to solve puzzles and progress the story, but there’s nothing really here in terms of any kind of combat. The emphasis here is more on stealth, with certain passages requiring you to carefully sneak past malevolent enemies intent on your death. What works here works well. Unfortunately, I found this gets a bit dull after a while. I craved some kind of switch up in the gameplay, something to refresh the game and make it feel new again; but it never really came. There’s not a lot of variety here, which I guess could be expected given the nature of the game, but even so, it’s still somewhat disappointing. Towards the end, I started to get a bit fed up solving the similar types of the puzzles, and longed for something new.
Overall though and a playthrough of Ellen on Xbox One should take you a few hours to beat, depending on how long it takes you to crack the puzzles, which comprises the vast majority of the gameplay. However, there are worse ways you could spend a few hours. If you are a horror fan, Ellen is definitely worth checking out. It’s a genuinely unsettling and atmospheric title that does the best with the tools available to it. Yes, the lack of variety is definitely an issue, but that shouldn’t hold you back if you crave a few scares. Red Mount Media deserve a huge amount of credit for being able to squeeze out every last possible scare they could.