Travel with me, if you will, back to the 1990’s when survival horror titles were all the rage. When pre-rendered backdrops presented an immense amount of world depth and tank controls were just another challenge to be overcome. To the days when Resident Evil and all its sundry impersonators were the juggernauts of our nightmares and thrilled us late into the night.
Time has moved on since then, with the likes of Resident Evil reinventing itself into a brand new Juggernaut, yet the thrill of those games remains ever vigilant in our nostalgic memories, providing moments and scenarios that we still talk about enthusiastically today. Even if replaying them in the light of modern amenities removes some of their sheen and lets us realise that some things were best left in the afterglow of our memories. Not that we would ever really admit that.
If this longing for the gloried past of survival horror games still has a hold on you, then look no further than Song of Horror for this retro-inspired title has all the goods. Developer Protocol Games brings back the heyday of 90’s survival horror games, warts and all.
Set during 1998, Song of Horror begins with the disappearance of author Sebastian Husher. Sent by his publisher to find him, Daniel Noyer soon disappears as well and it’s up to a varied group of individuals to find both him and what happened to Husher and how it all seems to tie into a missing music box. Before long our protagonists find themselves haunted by a malignant supernatural presence. Spanning five episodes, it’s up to you to find the origin of the curse and hopefully, some way to nullify it, before you’re dragged screaming into the darkness.
If you’ve played any survival horror game in the last two decades, then you’ll know exactly how Song of Horror plays. You’ll investigate each location for clues and items to use to solve the puzzles around you while reading the notes left behind to further the story and explain why each location is devoid of human life. Because Song of Horror focuses on a cursed music box, sound plays a vital role in the game. If you choose to run, the noise you make can attract the entity, known as The Presence, to your location. This adds a wrinkle to how fast you can get through each location to the game’s overall mechanics. Paying attention to the noises around you are vital to your survival. One of the mechanics of listening at a door to what’s behind it before you open a room, will save you from many instant death moments.
And these moments are frequent, depending on the difficulty you choose. Song of Horror is littered with instant death moments and trap locations. If you hear crying behind a door, then it’s not a good idea to enter the room, as is pulling the tarp off a strangely covered mirror in a storage room or sticking your hand into a bathtub full of grotty water. Song of Horror is designed with permadeath in mind, meaning you can lose the character you’re playing with permanently if you’re not careful. Lose all the characters or the main one for the game and you’ll have to restart the episode. When a new character enters the fray, you can pick up the previous characters items where they perished.
With four difficulty settings to choose from, each named after a horror writer such as M. R. James and Edgar Allen Poe, determine the games severity. Higher difficulties have more shock encounters and permadeath is a feature of all, with one caveat. The easiest difficulty lets you load up a checkpoint save when a character dies to just before that fatal moment if you’re not in the mood to lose anyone. With Trophies for completing each episode without losing a character and for completing each episode with every character available for that scenario, gives completionists a reason to replay.
The game has no combat as you can’t fight The Presence. The most you can do is hide from it or interact in mini-games that have you trying to slam a door closed in time while it’s trying to break through or to control your breathing while hiding from one of its manifestations. Knowing your surroundings is important so that you can get to a cupboard or beneath a table in time. Hiding spots do get scarcer as the game progresses.
Song of Horror places you in familiar haunted locales; an abandoned manor, a mental hospital, an empty apartment block, etc. The scares are also of the traditional haunted house variety, though there’s definitely an Asian horror vibe to many of the manifestations and blink and you miss it moments.
Though the game uses static camera angles for its environment, the environment itself is fully 3d modelled and is one of the games strongest assets. The set dressing is absolutely superb with Husher Mansion and an antique shop looking absolutely gorgeous in the amount of detail and clutter present. Character models look good, but don’t quite measure up to the environment around them.
Sadly, for a horror title, Song of Horror isn’t actually scary. Dealing with The Presences attacks becomes rote unfortunately. However, where the game does succeed wonderfully, along with its sumptuous environment details, is in atmosphere. With the use of sound as a warning trigger, the developers have managed to craft a sense of tension and expectancy that permeates each area as you’re always waiting for the shoe to drop, as it were. The palpable sense of dread and suspense is wonderfully realised, something even movies often struggle to get right.
Song of Horror does have some issues though. First is the character’s movement and speed. Close to “Tank Controls” are the order of the day, making characters a bit of a chore to get used to. Controlling them is tricky with a turn radius that can get you stuck on objects in tight locations or go the wrong way at times, especially when a camera change occurs. Then there’s the character speed which can be frustrating. When you’re being chased by a nigh unstoppable force that can disembowel you with ease, you should be taking off like the Road Runner and not like a geriatric on a Sunday walk down by the lake. This is a peeve I have even with modern horror titles that feel like a slow walk through a museum when you should hot-footing it for your life.
Finally there’s the game’s bugs. While not game breaking at all, there were plenty of instances of enemies spawning in the floor, characters walking through doors and in one instance Daniel’s torch not syncing with the character as you walk.
With an atmosphere seeped in tension and dread that can have you holding your breath, Song of Horror more than makes up for its lacklustre scares with gorgeous set dressing and an intriguing, Lovecraftian story.
A review code for Song of Horror was provided to Gameblur by the publisher
Story8/10 Very Good
Visuals8/10 Very Good
- Gorgeous set dressing and environment design
- Intriguing story
- Tank controls
- Slow movement speed