The Creepy Syndrome is an anthology of horror stories, each latching onto a different game genre. By the time we reached its conclusion, we had taken in a graphic adventure, a dungeon-crawler, a Legend of Zelda-a-like and a 2D side-scroller, all in the name of horror. You certainly couldn’t question The Creepy Syndrome’s ambition.
What fascinated us most was that some of the genres worked better than others. Taken purely as an exercise of ‘which genre works best?’, you might be surprised to learn which of them fares better than the rest.
The four games here are A Watchful Gaze (an Operencia-style first-person adventure), Lord of the Road (the Legend of Zelda one), The Red Button (Stories Untold, basically) and Nocturne (a side-on 2D adventure, much like Clea).
There’s a framing device that sews them all together, albeit not that neatly: you are at a table with a psychotherapist, who is encouraging you to reveal your traumas. Those traumas are the four games. The device would work better if the games didn’t take the perspective of four clearly different people. We couldn’t shake the feeling that these were four games, created separately, but hastily packaged together at the last minute with an “aha, we meant it all along!”.
Let’s go through the games in order of quality. First up, and the unexpected winner of ‘which genre best suits a horror game?’ is Lord of the Road, the Legend of Zelda one. It presents itself as a black-and-white, BBC Micro demake of the top-down adventure. In Lord of the Road, you play a cop investigating a disappearance in the desert foothills, and those foothills were once the site of a cult who committed mass suicide in the name of their antlered god. Needless to say, all of these details are intertwined.
There isn’t a great deal of depth to Lord of the Road – you walk and you pick up items, automatically using those items if the situation calls for it. But that simplicity shifts attention away from the controls and towards the experience, which is an overbearingly tense exploration through barely a dozen game screens. All you can do is explore the fringes of the game map, see what’s there, and hope it doesn’t make a Maypole out of your entrails.
Lord of the Road is a winner because it has a fantastic trick: backtracking is when you’re least safe. It’s in the moments when you have to cover old ground, travelling back to a mansion that you now have a key for, for example, that BOOMFIRE Games waits to ambush with their jump-scares and dread. This was the game that had our feet curled up underneath us on the sofa, as we cursed the masterful pacing, knowing full well that now would be the worst time for them to threaten us, and threaten us they did. All because we were determined to find the best ending. 4/5.
Nocturne is next up. A 2D adventure that reminds of Clea and Re:Turn, it’s possibly the most visually polished of all the games in the compendium. It slots you into the role of a young lady who wishes to complete a basic ritual so that she can heal her mother. The rituals means waking up in the middle of the night, turning all of the lights on in the house, saying a wish into a bathroom mirror, and then turning all the lights out again. Like that was ever going to end well.
Nocturne’s basic premise is loaded with tension (turning off all the lights in your home, one by one, is something we can all empathise with and get the willies from). It also does a decent job of slathering on the psychological horror, as things increasingly go bump in the night. But once the beastie appeared, the tension ebbed away for us. The creature itself wasn’t altogether scary, and a quick game of hide-and-seek was all that was needed to get rid of it. Nocturne was also one of the shortest games in The Creepy Syndrome, so the tension didn’t have time to ramp back up after things got meh. 3/5.
Around the same quality bar was The Red Button, which felt immediately like Stories Untold, but ‘demade’ for the NES. Like that game, it’s a first-person point-and-click adventure, but with you alone – or theoretically alone – with a computer terminal and a task that is unclear. A call comes through on a phone, but you need a pen and paper to jot the message down, which has you ransacking the bunker where you work.
The Red Button is at its best when it’s a simple graphic adventure. It never rises to become anything like a challenge, but there’s an easy joy in scanning the various rooms in the bunker for items or clues. Crowbars and screwdrivers are used in unmistakably crowbarry and screwdrivery ways, so there’s no real confusion in what you have to do. It’s straight as an arrow.
It’s less good as a horror game, as it seems to forget the genre it’s aiming to be in, and half-heartedly tosses in some jump-scares and hallucinations. You could strip out some bloody handprints and Giger-like visions and have a perfectly fine puzzle game. As such, it never feels threatening. 3/5.
Last and definitely least is the first game in the anthology, A Watchful Gaze. This short story is unusual because you’d expect BOOMFIRE Games to lead with its strongest game, yet it hits with the worst. This is the most dream-like of all the offerings, with a Dungeon Master-style 3D dungeon-crawler used as an allegory for an amnesiac woman remembering past trauma.
But rather than play to Dungeon Master’s strengths, it just keeps the weaknesses. You don’t explore, you just press ever-onwards in an eternal corridor. Items appear, but you are forced to pick them up and interactions are, for the most part, automatic. And you don’t come to realisations yourself: your character does, delivering exposition dumps via photos and messages she finds on the way.
A Watchful Gaze is a ghost train, where you have a foot on the accelerator pedal and little other control. It would be fine if the pay-off were worth it, but it’s mostly flubbed. The delivery is confused, with the story only really coming together partially. There was a home-run opportunity available if A Watchful Gaze wanted it: if the dungeon crawling was relevant to the trauma, if they reflected on each other in some way, then the emotional impact might have been greater. But mostly the dungeon stuff is there because, and the result is dislocated and boring. 2/5.
Totting up the averages for the four games, we come to a 3 out of 5, which feels right. Because no matter how much the psychotherapy tries to tie the four stories together in a thematic bow, they end up feeling disparate and loose.
Without an overarching theme or framework, these tales of horror need to stand on their own. But mostly they wobble. Lord of the Road is the exception: a confident 2D adventure that feels like the unhinged cousin of the original Legend of Zelda. The rest struggle to bring more than jump-scares and some incoherent storytelling to their short runtimes.
The best approach with The Creepy Syndrome might be to wait for a sale and beeline directly to its Lord of the Road inclusion. Whether you play the rest afterwards is up for debate.