It doesn’t take The Song Out of Space a great deal of time to show its influences. This detective visual novel is from a long line of H. P. Lovecraft inspired games, and while it doesn’t explicitly reference any Cthulhus, Arkhams or Innsmouths, it is very much in the realm of unimaginable horrors that nudge human minds to the brink of madness.
It’s clear that The Song Out of Space is going there almost straight away. After the first meaningful choice of the game, choosing to play Agent Armstrong the rookie or Agent Ross the veteran, you are brought into the offices of the FBI to view some crime scene photos. They are from a scientific observatory in the middle of nowhere, where a dozen scientists have their skins flayed off and their ears piled up like the world’s most hideous game of Jenga. You are enrolled to find out if it’s the work of those pesky Russians (The Song Out of Space takes place shortly after the Bay of Pigs fiasco), but if you’re even vaguely aware of Lovecraft, you will know that’s a red herring.
So, you’re heading into Middle America, trying to follow the various threads and find the cause of the mutilations. If you’re paying attention reading this review, you can probably get halfway to the conclusion. This is a game called The Song Out of Space, and the massacre happened at an Observatory. You can probably surmise what happened.
Luckily, The Song Out of Space isn’t just about decoding the events, it’s about atmosphere, and it does a strong job of creating that branded Lovecraftian dread. “We recommend that you play The Song Out of Space in a dark room”, says an opening title card, and it’s a solid suggestion.
As an art style, The Song Out of Space chooses to use a collection of digitised photographs as a world to explore, and the effect works well. It jumps into a kind of uncanny valley that suits the material, as everywhere looks familiar if slightly abstracted, like you are playing the game through a series of crime scene photos. For the heightened and horrific realism of Lovecraft, that works well, and it allows the devs to paint gore onto the photos with a worrying glee.
The characters are a little less effective. They’re pixelated photographs too, but characters like the deputy sheriff are over-expressive and have been touched up to make them look like gurning muppets. A bit of subtlety would have worked wonders.
Meanwhile, the audio does a great job of setting the mood. Signals appear in radios and on tapes, and the two agents experience horrific dreams. The soundtrack uses quiet-then-loud to great effect, shocking you awake if you’ve fallen asleep.
Playing The Song Out of Space isn’t complicated, and is only marginally more interactive than your average visual novel. You are given a location as a photo, and it usually has three or four icons that are shorthand for an action. A boot shows that you can move on from the area; a hand shows you can interact; a magnifying glass is an investigation; and speech bubbles show dialogue. Move your cursor over to them with your controller and you do the thing.
There is some choice here, but most of it is cosmetic. You can exhaust some dialogue options, and you can investigate an area comprehensively or not, but ultimately you are following down the same paths with each playthrough. We counted four branching points in The Song Out of Space, with the first being your choice of agent. The other three are loaded towards the end of the game, and they determine whether you get to see a satisfying ending or not.
So, here’s the thing: The Song Out of Space is not a long game. It took us half an hour to complete our first runthrough, and ten minutes for each subsequent play. By itself, that’s not a problem: this is a budget game, and the length of a game shouldn’t be related to its quality. But The Song Out of Space deserved so much more room to breathe, and the truncated length gives everything an air of ‘was that it?.
Lovecraft horror works best when it’s slow and apocalyptic, but The Song Out of Space bludgeons you with the horror and doesn’t give time for anything to build. It’s Jaws or Alien but the shark and exomorph are visible in the opening scenes. There’s no mystery, either, which damages the investigative element: the killer is effectively in the title of the game, but the plot develops as if it’s an unexpected twist. And with two set pieces in the entirety of the game, it doesn’t feel like you have had the chance to be a detective or anything else, really.
It’s not that we didn’t enjoy our half hour with The Song Out of Space. The dialogue is well written, the photos give a fantastic sense of time and place, and the initial hints towards an unthinkable horror are appropriately unsettling. But we just wanted to do more or see more. As a detective game, it doesn’t do much more than present a series of buttons to press. There’s no deducting to be done. As a horror game, it offers a couple of jump scares, but doesn’t have confidence in itself to build slowly and incrementally to something terrible. It keeps showing its hand early, and that makes it about as scary as a Cthulhu Funko Pop.
Come prepared for a Lovecraftian short story, with the emphasis very much on the ‘short’, and there’s enjoyment to be had with The Song Out of Space. But while it touts itself as a detective mystery, that’s exactly what it is not: there’s very little deducing to be done here, and the mystery is revealed by the title. Perhaps this is best for Lovecraft fans who like thirty minutes of dread before bedtime.
You can buy The Song Out of Space from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S