Daniel Noyer works for Wake Publishing, and his supervisor has been trying to contact acclaimed author Sebastian Husher, who has been preparing his latest work for them.
Playing as Daniel, your first task is to search for Husher who seems to have gone missing. You go to his home and things start to get creepy, a music box plays constantly as you search the big house for Sebastian. Eventually you find a door, a door that's in an impossible position, seemingly to a basement that shouldn't be there… Anyway, I'll just say that Daniel doesn't return from Husher's place, and three days later Etienne Bertrand (Daniel's boss) decides someone better go looking for him.
At this point things get interesting as you get to choose from four characters as to who should go and see what happened to Daniel.
In the first episode (set in Husher's Mansion) you can choose from Sophie (Daniel's ex-wife), Etienne (Daniel's boss), Alexander (a housekeeper at Husher's mansion) and Alina, a security systems technician.
Playing from the same sort of fixed cameras as the original Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil games, the characters control well and are smoothly animated but not motion-captured (they all have the same walk), so they don't really look all that realistic, and seem to clash with intricately drawn backdrops and top-quality lighting effects. Ahh yes, the lighting effects. Song of Horror is a dark game, and that's DARK with a capital 'D', so you're constantly wandering around in dark or at best gloomy locations. Fortunately for once in a horror adventure, regardless of which character you're playing as, your light source won't run out, and you use it almost constantly as you search for clues and usable items. You move your character with the left stick and aim your torch/flashlight/lighter/candle with the right, and highlighting some items can be pernickety.
You don't need to search/examine every single object, but if you don't you might miss something of importance, like a box of matches to light a fire for instance. Because of this, the initial gameplay is a bit slow and plodding, but the Hitchcock-esque camera angles help build the tension well. Before long, weird things start to happen and black smoke-mould-growth thing (we'll call it "THE DARKNESS", and it's MUCH scarier than the noughties rock band) starts to appear all over the place, and tries to drag you to your death at every opportunity…
Your inventory is accessed via LB and any useful documents or notes can be re-read via RB. Unlike every other horror game out there, you don't just blunder around until something with massive chompers, claws or tentacles kills you, when you hear a strange noise from an adjacent room you can listen at the door by holding 'Y' before deciding what to do. Other original moments come when you try to calm your racing pulse by pressing both triggers rhythmically, and try to slam the door on the Darkness by tapping - no hammering 'A' then holding the right trigger, or fending of another evil beastie by using varying pressure on the triggers to match a circle that shrinks and grows. Later on there are more survival mini-games that use similar mechanics. Fail with any of these and the Darkness gets you.
The game (on all but the easiest setting) features permadeath for the unlucky characters. This means that if you get caught by the darkness it's the end for that character, although any items in their inventory drop so the next 'lucky contestant' can pick them up and use them. As long as you have a playable character left your progress will be saved, but lose them all and it's GAME OVER. Personally I'm not a fan of games that feature permadeath (it's like the developers think their game is the only one you'll play this year, or maybe they don't actually want you to see their game in its entirety?), but it certainly adds an edge of peril to very encounter.
Husher's mansion is quite large so a map is handy (click L3). You'll sometimes need to use hiding places to escape the Darkness, and once discovered these are shown on the map, which is a good thing if you have a memory and sense of direction like mine.
Compared to a couple of recent survival horror games, Song of Horror plays quite well, and is genuinely scary at times. But puzzles can be frustrating and often lack any logic, there's a really irritating maze section in episode 2 (irritating because of the fixed cameras that completely disorientate you) and I've lost a character on at least two occasions where their death was seemingly unavoidable – regardless of my actions, so I'm not sure why they don't have an autosave feature. Even if you do save regularly, it doesn't really do you any good, as the moment your character dies the game save is updated and the only save option is 'Save and Exit' – Nice one Protocol Games, way to encourage players to keep playing!
But Song of Horror does have some addictiveness, and I genuinely wanted to see how the story turned out. Rather than doing what I'd really do (leave the mansion fast enough to leave burning footprints and a vapour trail and calling the cops, an exorcist, and Ghostbusters), I went hunting for something with which I could start a fire – despite the fact that I had firewood, a lighter and there was a stack of magazines nearby, I presumably need an accelerant as well – Song of Horror is a bit like that; 'find the thing to use with the thing and combine with the other thing – no stupid, not THAT thing, the thing that's inevitably in the scary basement, or the spooky attic, or the locked room, access to which requires that you're gonna need to find another bleedin' thing…'
We also found a few disappointing things during our adventure, like ALL characters getting stuck when running up the mansion's stairs, and descriptive text not matching the thing you're looking at – bugs that should have been picked up at the beta stage. The game is split into 5 sizeable episodes but the intro and linking cutscenes are all hand-drawn and barely animated at all – they look like placeholder graphics only being used until the FMV cutscenes are complete. These things needlessly lose the game points off its review score.
Nevertheless Protocol Games have conjured up an interesting if formulaic initial setting, a great sense of tension and impending doom, but still manage plenty of jump scares and panicky moments along the way – surely the hallmark of any good survival horror game?
Special thanks to Keith at Renaissance PR for the review code.