“Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.”
“What is thaaaat?”
“You have to be kidding me!”
According to my wife, these were the three (printable) things she heard on loop as I was playing Visage, the latest horror game/torture from SadSquare Studios. I played most of this one while crawling around our sofa, barely sitting down and ready to press the ‘Home’ button at a moment’s notice.
Visage really is that good at jangling your nerves and never letting you settle. It’s a remarkable achievement; a bar that only Resident Evil, early Silent Hills and PT have ever reached, and it should be enough for most horror fans to start up their Xbox One and navigate to the Store. Bravo SadSquare Studios – you’ve done what hundreds of horror games have failed to do.
That mention of PT is a pertinent one, as SadSquare are clearly fans. Visage is the answer to whether PT could be stretched to a full fat game; a house and its grounds rather than just a corridor. As with Guillermo Del Toro’s demo, you’ll turn your camera to find that mirrors have moved, landscape paintings have lengthened, and a slithering intestine has skirted round a corner. From the subtle to the not so subtle, this house barely stands still, and it gives you no safe haven.
You are Dwayne (hur hur), home alone in your house, having not left for the past few weeks. It’s a house of tragedy, with various deaths, suicides and madnesses having befallen its owners. We hazard to call it a moment of quiet, since it’s still tense as anything, but you’ll have a chance to explore the house before finding an artefact – a key – that triggers a chapter. These centre on one of the tragic members of the family. Then things get real.
It must have been a fascinating level design challenge, as each of the different chapters plays out in the same house, with the same layout. Visage does obvious stuff, like opening locked doors, and letting you bust through areas with a sledgehammer. But it has another brilliant tool in its toolbox: this is a psychological horror as much as it is a pure horror, and the house will flex and bend with the chapter’s themes. Mirrors will suddenly appear across the house, acting as portals to alternate, Silent Hill-like versions of the house. An imaginary sewer runs beneath the house. Reality warps and twists to become horrific Escher paintings.
This is a game that has a lot of fun messing with reality, not only when shifting things around the house to mess you up, but also in creating memorable scenarios that will stick with you. The world drops away to leave you in a dark room and a single ring of mirrors. A kitchen suddenly gains sentience. A corridor falls away into pixels. SadSquare Studios clearly didn’t leave their humour at the door, as so much of Visage can even be funny, and I laughed out loud more than once. A moment with a shotgun will stick with me.
It also has one of the most effective audio designs in recent memory. It can get a bit much – even opening a drawer can release a guttural roar – but Visage does a superb job of layering rain, creaks, moans, camera clicks and radio static to make this a constant, threatening soundscape. I mean, I hated the game for it, but the number of times that the game unsettled me, exactly when I didn’t want to be unsettled, was magnificent. I’d say that the pacing could have done with some relaxed moments, but I’m a wimp.
It should be noted that Visage isn’t actually a barrage of monsters and jumpscares – just tension. All of the indicators were that the monsters would be non-stop: the superb trailer was a creature-feature, the opening text in the game says “Visage is designed to be difficult”. This last one is odd from my perspective: this isn’t actually a hard game, not in the traditional sense. There aren’t that many enemies at all, for one, and the majority are triggered by the game’s Sanity system, which punishes you for staying in the dark for too long. Keeping to light sources (more on that later) and paying attention generally saves you. Puzzles, once you know what the game wants from you, are also reasonably simple. This is a game of smoke and mirrors, and your own fears will be the greatest obstacle to getting through the game.
Actually, that’s a lie. It’s about time to raise the two major caveats with Visage, and they both make it incredibly hard to score the game. There are two design issues that could, feasibly, dwarf everything I have already written, and it will be personal taste about whether they’re debilitating.
Visage is not one for guidance and hand-holding. It’s at pains to strip out as much UI as possible and for you to focus on the game screen, rather than a game map, for example. It’s admirable, and is one of the big reasons that it gives us the willies. But that comes at an incredibly high cost. The house is littered with items and 99% of them have no game use. Still, you can pick them up and look at them. The problem is that game progress is so often based on finding key items: a slipper, a key, a tub of pills. Without any key item highlighting, Visage can be a giant game of Finders Keepers as you desperately hunt for something, anything, that will move on the game.
The same is true of ‘spotting’ the scare that processes the chapter. We found ourselves travelling most of the house before stepping into the room where the scare is, like a game of horror Russian roulette. It was tense the first few times, and tedious beyond that.
The house, too, swings between extremes. At points, you will be screaming at the game to tell you where to go, but you’ll have little to no idea. When you’re on edge and bored at the same time, it’s an odd mix. At other points, the house will have become a reality-shattered version of itself and you’ll lose all notion of where you are. The mental map gets etch-a-sketched and you lose track. About 80% of my time in Visage was trying to comprehend what the game wanted me to do next.
Then there is the clunkiness of a lot of the interactions. This is a wonderful game to look at, but to interact with it is a constant nightmare. Opening and shutting things becomes a Herculean task, as you try to maneuver your body in such a way that you’re not in the way. The inventory and item management – I’m getting the shivers just thinking about it – is bewilderingly bad. You’ll have two hands to hold things in, a personal inventory and a storage closet, and knowing which item has gone where is just the first of your problems. Moving things to your hands, between your hands, or – heaven forbid – using one item on another becomes a Mensa test. Some puzzles require you to rotate things or manipulate them in some way, and it’s like eating M&Ms with chopsticks.
A small note on the Sanity system, which too has problems. What is light and dark is more arbitrary than it needs to be, so you’re never quite certain if you’re losing sanity, staying in a status quo or regaining it. There are multiple dead ends, so sudden darkness can lead to certain death, which brings the slightly sparse autosave system into focus.
How much all of this impacts you will change on a case by case basis. We played it as a two-some, and it helped to overcome some of the handholding issues. We suspect that it’ll be a killer for less patient players.
Let’s not forget just what has been achieved here, though. Visage looks and sounds fantastic, with only substandard human faces breaking the immersion, which is presumably why SadSquare shows them as little as they can. The chapters are varied and memorable, and the scares are only occasionally cheap, poking and prodding you until you’re a nervous wreck.
You could have put ‘Silent Hill’ at the front of the title and we would have called Visage a return to form. Ultimately, this is an exercise in stretching PT to a full house, which is almost entirely successful, with masterful scares and near constant tension. Play it with friends and see them all sublimate to jelly. You’ll have to wrestle with a lack of handholding, an abysmal inventory system and your own sanity, but it’s ultimately a haunted house that’s worth spending a few nights in.