In most horror movies in which the initial opening sections show a big cast, you just know that from there on out there is going to be one hell of a big body count. Sure enough, one by one they start to be killed in all manner of gruesome and creative ways, until you are left with the one who kills the big bad wolf or escapes with their life but with their mind shattered into a million tiny pieces. It’s initially similar with Song of Horror; a game that certainly knows its genre and like the films, you start each of its five chapters with a fairly big cast of characters. But the difference here is that if each falls prey to the darkness you will start to feel the pressure and complete fear of permadeath, before having to start all over again. The question is, is the whole horror anxiety worth the stress?
Song of Horror is a game that immediately sinks its terror claws into you and flat out refuses to ever let go. The story is an excellent one, telling the tale of a famous writer Sebastian Husher who has gone missing along with his whole family. At the start of the game, an editor’s assistant goes in search of the author at the family home. Very quickly though he is lured to a secret basement by a strange melody, before being locked down there. Others now come to find out what is going on, trying to help. Soon they are aware of a dark entity called The Presence which will kill them all if they are not careful.
The narrative is an intriguing one; so good that it kept my interest up all the way through Song of Horror. Much of that is thanks to the plentiful supply of backstory and subplots that are found in all the documentation and phone recordings that you happen across. It’s these which build an exciting universe, one with strange rules and an overwhelming sense of dread.
The game plays like an older Resident Evil or Silent Hill, particularly in terms of how things look and play. You are in the third person, there are fixed camera angles as you move around the locations and the focus is firmly placed on the survival horror elements. From there it’s all about exploration, puzzle-solving, and using the right item at the right time, in hope that it unlocks the next stage of the narrative. The puzzles are interesting and varied, with examples focusing on the need to unlock a safe, yet the combination is found by finding the address of the house, the age of the son in the family, and the date a certain painting was created. There are some real headscratchers included in Song of Horror, but they are enjoyable to solve and rewarding to work out the clues.
You have in your armory a candle or torch depending on what character you choose to light up the shadows. At the start of each chapter you have up to four characters to choose from, each with their own backstory and relationship to the narrative. They also have attributes like stealth or strength that might help as you progress through. The entity that attacks you will happen in random moments every time you play – you hear a heartbeat when you’re walking around and that’s a clue that an attack is imminent. If you run that sometimes quickens the event, yet when it does happen a few different event sequences occur.
If you’re in a room the darkness begins to creep through the door and so it is left to you to close it quickly. This is basically a QTE and requires you to bang at your controller buttons in the correct sequence. At other times though you may be looking to hide in certain areas like under tables or wardrobes, playing a minigame in which you need to match your heartbeat by pressing RT and LT at the same time. If your timing is off, the heartbeat gets faster and the darkness will devour you. There are also other moments when you see a figure crying in the corner – word to the wise, DON’T GO NEAR THEM. The random or intermediate occurrence of these events keeps the Song of Horror fresh and tense throughout, making each playthrough different and exciting.
The main problem or highlight, depending on your viewpoint, is the permadeath of the character – if they die, they are gone forever and you are left to start with another. However, when they emerge into the game there is the chance to recover items and progress by heading to the area where the previous guy fell. But if all four characters die in the chapter then you have to start from the beginning of the chapter again. I’ll admit, I’m not a fan of permadeath but there is something in this context that has strangely meant I’ve perversely enjoyed it. It ensures the stakes are as high as a skyscraper, where every noise brings on a panic attack.
In the visual department Song of Horror looks great, even though it’s not optimised for Xbox Series X|S. The lighting and level design are fantastic with the fixed camera feeling nostalgic yet fresh at the same time. The details in the documents and furniture are beautiful and I enjoyed spending some time in this gothic world. The soundtrack is immense and dark throughout, creating and supporting the world wonderfully. The voice-over work is good as well, with some excellent melodrama on show where the performers take every reading of their lines seriously. The effects like creaks, knocks, or the sound of something behind the door that you just aren’t sure about are excellent throughout.
If you’re a fan of Resident Evil or any of the other horror games that are available in the gaming space, Song of Horror is well worth a look. The permadeath of characters won’t be for everyone and the random element of when attacks occur might also frustrate. But for others the tension and thrills will be what make the journey. In all, it’s a very good gothic adventure, well-written with some excellent visuals and ingenious sound design. If you’re after some scary delights then Song of Horror could be right up your gothic street.
Song of Horror delivers frights aplenty on Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One