What is an uncanny feeling? Maybe it’s that feeling when the ordinary suddenly becomes the extraordinary? When you think you can see something out of the corner of your eye, but when you turn around there is nothing there. It’s when for no reason whatsoever you feel the hairs on your arms stand up, while the dog is staring at the wall, shaking uncontrollably and whimpering. Some might say an uncanny feeling is a night out in Croydon on a wet Tuesday. Well, if you get even slightly close to any of these feelings, you might get a glimpse into what it’s like to be playing Uncanny Valley.
Developers Cowardly Creations have launched their new survival horror game, Uncanny Valley, for either your pleasure or your deep utter dread. You play as Tom, a newly employed security guard working the night shift at a strange, abandoned facility in the middle of the city. Already troubled by disturbing dreams of ghostly figures chasing him, Tom’s life takes a turn for the worse when the offices, corridors, nooks and crannies of the facility reveal shocking secrets.
But what makes this different from other games in the popular but crowded survival horror market? Well, for starters this game introduces a rather fascinating tool called the consequence system. In any other game, failure – or just being utter rubbish as I like to know it – is always greeted by death. You then start again at a checkpoint or restart from the beginning, trying not to make the same mistake. In Uncanny Valley though, an action imposes lasting effects on the player. For example, a mistake may result in a broken arm, which will present problems when you have to load a gun. This changing dynamic makes you really have to think hard when making decisions and approaching certain situations, while maintaining a constant state of uneasiness. But does it work?
The tone and narrative structure of the game remind me of the TV programme Twin Peaks, or anything else by David Lynch. Things don’t really make much sense in a linear way; you have to grab at fragments of different narratives and stories that suddenly become dreams or different realities very quickly. A love relationship becomes very dark and very violent. A wrong turn can result in a disturbing area when you might question your own sanity and safety.
This game must be played multiple times to get the many different narratives and outcomes. My first attempt took around two hours to complete; I stole a car and then arrived in domestic nightmare. The second attempt saw me discover more about the facility and its secrets through emails and some brilliantly weird cassette tapes from the employees. The story works well in its strange, eerie and atmospheric way and the nightmare shadowy world it creates is intriguing and beguiling. To appreciate this you do need to finish the game multiple times to really understand the great work that has gone into the story. The question is though, will the gameplay actually make you want to come back a second time?
The big problem I had with Uncanny Valley is the control system. Instead of the thumbstick that is usually used for movement, you have to use the D-pad. Why? Now this might be a huge developer nightmare in the conversion from PC to Xbox that I might not be aware of, and that might mean loads of extra time and money. But it feels so unnatural and I lost count at how many times I was watching my character motionless before I remembered the stick doesn’t work. Other buttons also feel unnatural, like pressing RB to continue a conversation and Y to reload a gun. The controls can be problematic when responding to an item or sometimes delayed when when trying to use an item with an object. I found myself stuck so many times because of the control system and this made me unconvinced about doing that second or third playthrough.
The exploration and discovery of the narrative are the highlights of this game, but because of the gameplay dynamics and having to repeat certain sections it does become a bit of a chore. This is a huge shame because there is lots to love here; you can clearly see the time and imagination it took to make it.
Visually the game comes with beautiful, melancholic pixel art that gives the game a strange dreamy feel for the beginning. Because of this, certain details are hard to see and work out, but that all becomes part of the mood and charm of the design. There are some great locations and some generic ones, but overall it captures the feeling of the work well. The sound effects are pretty disturbing with some strange horrible noises, especially the droning white noise when the nightmare dream creatures chase you. I won’t be able to get that out of my head for a while. There is also a brilliant dystopian soundtrack that brings forth a looming feel of dread and intrigue throughout. Some might not care for the artwork and design, but others will adore it.
Overall I loved the world of Uncanny Valley and the work that the developers have put into the tone, style and feel of the game. I didn’t like playing the game so much though and at times it felt like a horrible chore, mainly because of those controls. If you do decide to give it a go, I would recommend making sure you know what’s behind the doors, under the bed and in the corner of your eye at all times.