Corrosion: Cold Winter Waiting review
Note: Since time of writing, this game has been re-released in an Enhanced Edition with higher resolution and widescreen display, among other minor upgrades. This review is based on the original version.
I admire the resolve of anyone who takes it upon themselves to craft a game more or less by themselves—they form the ideas, work at every aspect of the design, driven by a love for the concept. Knowing that a game is a self-produced labor of love can go a long way towards helping potential players overlook some rough edges; after all, no one expects a one-man team with little budget to be able to achieve the same level of fidelity or polish as AAA blockbusters. And there’s just something appealing about playing a game that is a personal reflection of its creator. In the end, however, a game must be judged on its quality, not the earnestness of its developer. Unfortunately, by that rubric, Viperante’s Corrosion: Cold Winter Waiting just isn’t very good.
Corrosion is a first-person horror-adventure in which a lone protagonist explores a creepy, evil underground laboratory after all the cool stuff has happened, piecing together the events that led up to this point whilst unknown things occasionally make spooky noises or flicker into view during scripted sequences. The lead character is the Sherriff of the small town of Deacon Oaks, who stumbles upon this laboratory while investigating the Cold Winter farm on the outskirts of town. This information is imparted during a textual introduction that states the game is a “historical recreation” of true events, a la The Blair Witch Project. There’s nothing else to the main character other than what you learn in the intro—he is a completely blank slate, an avatar for you to inhabit, a trait which also happens to make him the least annoying character in the game.
Not that you’ll meet anyone else. Corrosion is the latest in a long line of games where your sole interaction with others is through notes and journals left scattered around the facility. This isn’t in and of itself a bad thing—plenty of classic games have done the same. But while you do begin to get a sense of the background characters in Corrosion, you never feel the essential draw to explore and find the next journal, to uncover the next scrap of plot—likely because the writing is uniformly shoddy and the characters are all unlikeable sods who stretch the player’s disbelief. Suffice it to say that the former employees of the laboratory were into some dark stuff, but you wouldn’t know it from reading their diary entries and reports. They seem to be more concerned with their junior high-esque in-fighting and flirtation than with the fact that (minor spoiler warning) they essentially work in a secret underground torture factory besieged by supernatural forces.
It’s a shame, then, that your goal through much of the game is to search for the next journal only to scour it for clues that will lead you through the next locked door to find, yes, the next journal. This structure can work brilliantly, but only if the player actually looks forward to finding the next scrap of backstory, which just isn’t the case here. In addition to reading through pages and pages of journals for clues and exposition, you’ll spend the rest of your time hunting for inventory items and keycards. Ah, the keycards. Upon completing your first circuit of the facility, you’ll realize that nearly all of the doors are locked by the least efficient keycard system in history. Every door has a unique keycard for each inhabitant of the facility. Beyond implying that every employee carried a keyring with thirty or so keycards hanging from it, this system allows the game to gate players, providing only one possible direction forward: you’ll only ever have one keycard at a time, or the tools needed to find that specific keycard. The room unlocked by that keycard will contain clues or items (or, ugh, a journal) that will aid you in finding the next keycard, and so on, for the entire length of the game.
The puzzles range from decent to infuriating and even insulting. Puzzles that require piecing together details such as dates and times to retrieve security camera footage are enjoyable and rewarding, but these are outweighed by tedious inventory puzzles and pixel hunts. Many of the inventory puzzles rely on a series of obtuse combinations of overly general inventory items in a specific order. For example, at one point you’ll have a sledgehammer and a regular hammer in your inventory, but only the right bludgeoning tool can be used for the given puzzle. At the same time you’ll have string, wires, and thin piping in your inventory that all seem to be applicable for several different puzzles, but they too all have to be used for exactly the right puzzle at exactly the right time, and if you use them in the wrong order (i.e. using item ‘x’ on item ‘y’ before attaching it to item ‘z’ instead of after, or trying to place item ‘z’ in the environment before combining it with item ‘x’) you’ll get no feedback whatsoever to point you in the right direction. In the end, most puzzles come down to the dreaded ‘try everything on everything’ approach, only here the experience is exponentially more painful because there are so many steps involved. If the puzzles were better, I would be willing to forgive many of the game’s other flaws, but here they only add to the disappointment.
The interface for all of this is clean and simple: inventory items are shown along the bottom of the screen. Right-clicking the items shows a close-up, left-clicking selects the item for use. Hotspots are indicated by a smart cursor that changes color when hovered over an interactive item—for the most part this works well, though there are some moments of inconsistency where a hotspot is highlighted but does nothing. While the highlights do help in some regard with the pixel hunts, some hotspots can be difficult to find anyway, since it’s easy to pass by a tiny item on a cluttered shelf. A “highlight all hotspots” option would have saved a lot of headache and frustration, but alas, there’s no such relief to be found here. Apart from this omission, Corrosion sticks to what works for its interface. Nothing flashy, but nothing overly broken either.
The same can be said for the game’s presentation—nothing flashy, but nothing broken, with emphasis on nothing flashy. This isn’t an ugly game, but it does feel about fifteen years out of date. Stock textures, right-angles, and flat lighting are in full force. While playing I was reminded of Dark Fall—old school graphics, horror themed, and so on—but where Dark Fall squeezed maximum atmosphere into its limited graphical capabilities, effectively leveraging dark lighting and evocative textures to create a rich and foreboding world, Corrosion only ends up looking generic. Many of the corridors appear almost identical, and nearly every room is made up of copied-and-pasted elements—the same chairs, the same file cabinets, the same door jambs. Many have the same wallpaper and flooring. It makes getting lost that much easier, and makes getting un-lost that much less desirable.
Along with the written journals, audio logs play a large role in fleshing out the storyline and characters, and feature voice acting of dubious quality—which is a shame, since that is essentially the only way you’ll get to interact with anyone else in the entire game. The actors’ performances are stilted and flat, and you can practically hear them stumbling over the arrhythmic, awkward lines of dialogue. The fact that most of the logs are overly long and play over static graphics doesn’t do them any favors. Long before you get to the expository meat of the recording, you’ll wish that you could skip through the dialogue and move on, but you can’t. And you better have a pen handy, as they’ll blurt out important access codes, dates, and times without warning, and if you miss them you’ll have to replay the entire log from the beginning. That may not sound bad, but when you have to sit through a painfully awkward four-minute conversation for the third time, you’ll know what I mean. The sound effects are respectable enough. Doors swish, metal groans, ventilation systems hum, computers bleep and bloop. The music is appropriately moody but has little variation, meaning players will probably get tired of it or ignore it altogether.
For a game that wears its horror inspirations on its figurative sleeve, Corrosion has almost no real scares or tension to speak of. A good horror game makes you look over your shoulder even as you know full well that you’re sitting in your comfy chair with headphones on. Not so here, as I never once felt the heebie-jeebies playing Corrosion. The sterile graphics and limited animation don’t hide any nasty surprises, or even evoke any anxiety about the possibility. For the first half of the game, I kept waiting for the big moment when my lack of caution would come back to bite me as something leapt out and caught me off guard, but this never happened. There are a few instances of genuinely creepy imagery—torture chairs featuring giant head-stabbing spikes, to name one—but these moments can be counted on one hand. In this case, it really does seem to be for lack of trying. A horror game without even an implied threat is a paralyzed, neutered thing.
Perhaps the most frustrating issue is the utter lack of payoff at the end of the game. After slogging through frustrating puzzles and stilted walls of text, the game throws a half-hearted, semi-scripted sequence at the player followed by a couple more underwhelming puzzles and then simply ends. No final cinematic, no epilogue, just a black screen with ‘The End.’ I kept waiting for something interesting to happen and it never did. But Corrosion does have length on its side, at least. For a game developed by a single person, there is an impressive amount of content. I can easily see it taking most players 6-10 hours, though to be fair, much of that time will be spent wandering in circles trying to figure out what the game expects you to do next. But credit where credit is due—this isn’t a dainty slice of a game.
In the end though, it’s not a very good one, either. It pains me to be so negative about a game that is clearly a labor of love, but there it is. Corrosion is sub-par in most departments, and average in the rest. There are so many similar, better-made games out there that it’s hard to recommend Corrosion at all. It commits many of the cardinal sins of adventure game design: obtuse, unforgiving puzzles, an utter lack of feedback, and an uninvolving storyline without the requisite tension. One can hope that the developer will take his obvious passion for adventure games and try again, learning from the mistakes that are so prominent in Corrosion. But this time around, players would be well served to do as the title suggests and keep they mystery of Cold Winter waiting.
As a horror adventure, Corrosion manages to disappoint on nearly every level. You don’t have to look far to see these same ideas done much better in other games.