Having actively avoided horror games, and anything remotely scary, for many years due to a lack of enjoyment found in being scared witless, I figured it’s time to delve back into the recently flourishing genre. The 2D pixelated action-adventure horror Worse Than Death on Xbox One, developed by Benjamin Rivers Inc., caught my eye as a good place to resume; after all, a few pixels can’t be too frightening, right?
Whilst that’s partially true, there are other ways to create a chilling and tense atmosphere, which Worse Than Death does rather well. It also possesses a couple of rather decent ideas to help keep the gameplay ticking along, but not everything pays off as well as it could do.
Much like my return to horror, Holly – the protagonist of Worse Than Death – is also making a return of her own as she’s heading home for a school reunion. It’s the first time she’s been back since a devastating car crash ripped apart the lives of those around her and caused the death of a girl named Grace. Whilst that fact could ensure a cheery reunion was unlikely, no one could’ve predicted it’d lead to a night full of mysterious happenings and murders. Fortunately, the inquisitive Holly is on the case and wants to investigate this bloody mess, even if it places her in immediate danger. Who, or what, is butchering folk? Why would they do such a thing? But more importantly, WHAT THE HECK JUST KILLED ME?!
The storytelling is done through the use of text and comic book style storyboards, which do a more than acceptable job of conveying what’s going on. All of the support characters’ personalities are padded out well enough to get a connection with, ahead of their potential demise. But whilst the narrative should initially manage to draw you, the mystery unfolds fairly swiftly to those paying keen attention to the clues. This will most likely lead you to figure out the culprit before the ‘big reveal’; thus stealing the thunder of the final moments.
As for the gameplay, you’ll be wandering left and right through the likes of a school, a run-down hospital, a saw-mill and other locations, trying to find escape routes as well as your best friend. Many of the doors within are locked or otherwise blocked, needing a puzzle to be solved in order to advance. These puzzles involve simple arithmetic, recreating sequences or patterns, and even just some fiddling with equipment to hit a sweet spot for it to work. Whilst that may sound straightforward, it’s actually a clever way to get you to digest everything you interact with because some of that information could be vital to the solution.
For example, when a security code is required, you figure out it’s to do with the ages of the employee’s kids, so you end up looking for clues to this from the little bits of lore dotted about. Another relies upon you understanding that the bird-focused verses scratched into doors actually relate to a button sequence. It’s pretty tricky to work out some of the problems, but it really helps to distract from the other main gameplay trope: avoiding an evil looking thing that’s hell-bent on killing folk.
You see, in certain areas there’s a heavy reliance on stealth to ensure this ‘thing’ roaming around doesn’t catch a glimpse of Holly. If it does and gets close enough to attack, then you’re heading for an early demise and will be sent back to the nearest checkpoint. For these sections, there are warning signs that become more prominent as the evil being draws nearer. Not only does the atmosphere get chilly, but Holly’s heart rate increases rapidly – as will yours, at first. Whilst the idea is mildly scary, the fear factor of what is essentially a blurry mass diminishes in no time at all. It’s almost too easy to stay unsighted, once you know its movement patterns, through the use of the hiding spots placed in these parts.
Fortunately, there are jump scares to be had from other aspects of Worse Than Death, courtesy of some perfectly timed sound effects in collusion with spooky events happening in-game. The first one truly caught me off guard and put me on edge for the rest of the adventure; it’ll certainly have you worried every step of the way. I believe that the sound department really captures the horror feel, much better than the pixel style environments.
That’s not to say the art style does a terrible job, far from it, as each location manages to stand out and the characters are easily distinguishable, even when pixelated. The gruesome sights are left to the storyboard stills and investigative close-ups to show off; with truly grim scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in The Walking Dead universe. These aren’t in the same pixel art, but instead hand-drawn and are of a much higher quality.
Overall, Worse Than Death on Xbox One is a very decent adventure that just falls a little short on its supposed main draws, with little in terms of scares coming from the deadly thing at the heart of the tale and the story element fizzling out a bit. The horror element is really brought into proceedings by way of the sound effects, which alongside the rather clever puzzles, are the reasons it’s actually worth giving consideration to making a purchase; especially if you aren’t after an experience that’s so scary it’ll have you crying in the corner.
For under a tenner, you could do a lot worse than turn off the lights, lock the doors, grab a pair of headphones and get stuck into Worse Than Death. It’ll tide you over for a few hours, put your problem solving skills to the test, and provide a few scares here and there.