It feels like survival horror games have really rooted themselves in the modern world recently. Until Dawn, Evil Within, Dead Island and Dying Light are amongst a thousand others I wouldn’t play after dusk. All of these titles are intent on broadening the genre to take it away from dated scare tactics with new, innovative mechanics and terrors. Horror is back in town, and it’s dragging itself from the darkness like a reanimated, legless skeleton.
But it seems not everyone got that memo….
Developer: Bigzur Games
Publisher: Bigzur Games
Reviewed on: PC (Review code provided by publisher)
Enter playable ghost-train UnderDread. Available through Steam, this is pitched as an exploration horror game that represents something of a backwards-step, or at the very least a stumble, for its fearsome cousins. Apparently, this is a re-titled and resurrected mobile title called Slender Man Origins 2, which at least seems appropriate considering the ‘undead’ theme. However, this is arguably one zombie that should have stayed six feet under.
Once you’re out of the limited menu screens, things kick off with a fleeting glimpse of a backstory; the ‘action’ is established with a series of medieval-looking drawings, captioned by a tacky calligraphy font, which happily recurs throughout the game to remove any possible sense of gravitas it may have salvaged. There’s also a superbly hammy voice actor giving life to the thing, like Matt Berry narrating a Horrible Histories episode but without the charm or information.
You take the role of a nameless twerp who turns up in a nameless village with a nameless daughter. The nameless daughter gets taken, and you get chatting to a detective down the local medieval Starbucks who knows all about this sort of thing. He’s quite good at tracking down children apparently, the big weirdo, but then he too goes missing while looking for the fruit of your loins.
Rather than call the medieval Police, off you trot after him to find out how far he got and, presumably, to get a refund on whatever you paid him to do half a job. It’s a bit like the episode of The Simpsons where the town gets overrun by lizards, and then they get snakes in to kill the lizards, then gorillas to kill the snakes. It’s unclear who is poised to follow you into the breach when you inevitably disappear too, but if they could bring a decent plot with them then that’d be fantastic.
As is the way of these things, you end up in a big dark castle, and it’s your thankless task to piece together what happened to the detective and your daughter (still nameless) by solving puzzles, dodging around enemies and finding journal entries. These notes are left laying around by the feckless detective rather than, say, keeping them like a normal person. There are also diary entries to be found by a scholar and a ‘madman’, for fans of stigmatising mental health disorders. Perhaps this is what people did before Twitter; just left pages from their diaries around for random people to read. I kept expecting to find one that said “Its Friday yay, drinking all the wine LOL!”, which would at least bring some much needed levity to the game.
It’s a first person affair, as you trek around the stupid dark castle to unravel the whole boring mystery. The game very much puts its stock in jump-scares. In fact, it bloody loves jump-scares. These can be fine, in small doses. Unfortunately, UnderFed is not a game for subtlety. It throws sudden loud noises at you for absolutely no reason, without build up or tension, which have no bearing on the environment or plot. Sudden piano crashes, howls, bangs; they’re all there, yet I couldn’t tell you why half of the time. Musically, there’s quite a nice droning piano motif to begin with, but even that gets bored and fucks off after a while. The game even has the audacity to tell you to wear headphones for a better experience, when in reality the best experience would be to PLAY A DIFFERENT GAME.
While I was initially happy to be shocked for the first few minutes by these sudden intrusions, after several more stages of this I quickly became immune, rolling my eyes and shouting YES BUT WHY whenever another stock horror-movie sound effect was carelessly thrown at me, like too much bread at a full and uninterested duck.
The game is clearly dated, spooky castles not really being the cutting edge of horror creativity. The whole thing is perennially fucking dark (literally, not thematically), but what you can see are broad, undefined textures and lots of empty space, while the environments are littered with such genre-busting treats as corpses, skeletons, blood, menacing-looking statues and so forth. Graphically it’s not so bad considering it’s an indie title, it’s just that the settings and surroundings are quite predictable.
There are puzzles, usually based around finding keys and opening hidden doors, although the hardest thing about them is usually picking up whatever item it is you need, due to the clunky controls and movement. There’s also a fair amount of back-tracking involved, which you could either see as resourceful use of limited environments or just laziness, depending on your mood. There’s not enough drama or combat for it to qualify as an action game, nor do I think the engine could handle anything more than light activity; it’s not uncommon for it to crash and stall.
It’s fairly hard to invest in anything with any particular passion after a 2 minute, badly narrated introduction with nameless characters and a disengaging romp through dull scenery. Couple that with the frustration arising from the perennial jump-scares and this was not a game I was burning to return to.
A tired-looking skeleton of a game with an air of “will that do?” about it. Dated and dull, I wouldn’t recommend this unless you’ve got a real hankering for a contextless jump-scare every two minutes. UnderDread has put its entire existance into lazy shock tactics rather than, say, plot or action, and it’s a gamble that has not really paid off; essentially, if you turn the sound off the game has nothing else to instill fear with. If the spirits that claimed your daughter really wanted to put you off the trail they could have just got you to play this game instead.
Back to the crypt with you, UnderDread.