Review for Doorways: Prelude
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There's an abundance of exploratory first-person horror games every Halloween season. The first half of Doorways can now be added to the ever-growing list, an episodic indie adventure from Saibot Studios that attempts to emulate the proven Amnesia-style formula. The good news is that the game manages to create a foreboding atmosphere, at least at first, but it falls short in the pacing and narrative needed to maintain tension throughout. There are some elements that come together nicely to keep this series debut from failing miserably, but not enough to make it stand out from the crowd.
A planned four-part series, only the first two chapters of Doorways have been released (together) so far, bundled together as a Prelude. Episodic gaming can sometimes create an imbalanced presentation, and that is definitely the case here. The game is incredibly short; I managed to complete these first two chapters in less than two hours total. And it's important to note that, unless you pre-ordered the game directly from the developer, purchasing these episodes will not grant you free access to the rest upon completion; those will need to be bought separately.
The Doorways story is about a private investigator tasked with seeking out a group of deranged, suspected murderers. These killers have names like “The Professor” and “The Sculptor”, whose monikers supposedly play some role in how each disposed of their victims, but the attempt to tie the world thematically to their respective case files feels dissatisfying. Without spoiling too much, there are hints that each killer’s mental state is a factor in how their victims suffered, like “The Sculptor” desiring to mold the world through his artistic vision. However, two chapters in, it's really not apparent just how each of these killers ties into the overall storyline.
Unlike most episodic games, the "chapters" here are woven together without obvious narrative breaks, and at this point it's just not clear what exactly you're supposed to achieve besides uncovering the truth about these murderers. That's a worthy enough pursuit in its own right, but the protagonist seems deeply affected by the crimes, yet you're distanced from any emotional impact due to the lack of relevant backstory. Still, the game's strong suit is its script, which has a ponderous and descriptive quality that works well in horror games. As you progress your character begins to question the motivations of those he’s seeking, as well as the damaging effect the search is having on him.
The voice acting is serviceable as well. Most of it is activated when you pick up scattered journal entries that help flesh out the story. It is possible to miss a few – evidently the game’s attempt to encourage exploration – but this won't really impact your experience at all. It's worth keeping an eye open for them, however, as these documents and corresponding voiceovers, while bombastic, helped pull me into the character I was controlling, even as I felt disconnected from the world around me and my apparent motivations.
The game is not overly impressive visually, but the realistic 3D artwork does enough to create an appropriate horror atmosphere. Tight, oppressive corridors and dim lighting serve to provide some tension. The settings aren’t as varied as I’d hoped: caves, corridors of stone or brick walls, and strange outdoor areas composed of angular formations sticking up out of the ground. Whether exploring a castle-like structure or a dank, empty basement of a strange house, the environments never seem to resemble any real world habitats, making me wonder if any of it was real or all just in the mind of the protagonist (a question that was not answered by game's end). Nightmarish or not, it’s all very confusing and lifeless.
The graphical production quality is competent technically, but there are some texture issues that really stand out. The major one occurs in a certain outdoor area, where pixelated, high contrast clouds provide a jarring split between the ground and sky. Unfortunately, the game almost seems too dark at times. The options menu lists an “Additional Light” setting but I was unable to determine what exactly this affected. I can only presume it's meant to increase the contrast, but it’s ineffective in really making a difference. There is a hand-held torch in the game, but it is tied to a particular gameplay section, therefore diminishing its overall usefulness.
There are minimal jump scares but there are some creepy moments, sometimes flashing back to a few horrific scenes involving torture. The suspense is definitely subdued: simple wooden constructions in a dank basement in chapter one feel occupied, even though the rooms are largely empty, instilling a tinge of dread when considering the implications of what happened there before I arrived. The lanky, contorted stone statues in chapter two left me feeling anything but alone – an unsettling feeling that would eventually prove justified.
The background music does a suitable job of creating an ominous mood, but sound effects are an important part of any successful horror game, and Doorways could have benefited from more attention being paid in this area. Haunting ambient noises in these large, reverb-prone environments could have been very effective at building tension, but here even my own character's footsteps sounded oddly quiet through my headphones.
The game plays like a traditional first-person, free-roaming adventure, as you move with the keyboard and use the mouse to look around. There's an early tutorial that includes stone slabs with text revealing specific control instructions when you approach them. For example, there are rare times when you need to move a stone on the ground, and you would have no idea how without the information provided. It’s a very simple but clunky mechanic that thankfully is not used often.
Doorways is billed as an exploratory survival horror game, but it's very linear in how you move about and progress. There isn’t much emphasis on survival, as you don’t really go around looking for items to help you to stay alive. There are some areas that can invoke a kill state, but after one failure you will easily know how to avoid them and press on. Puzzles are almost non-existent besides searching for the next item needed to proceed, plus one section that requires some minor memorization and jumping to avoid spiked floors. Whether limited to finding a key or to flipping a switch, the lack of any interesting puzzles was very disappointing.
The biggest, strangest revelation comes at the end of chapter two when you are tasked with defeating a "boss" of sorts – a simple task to figure out and hardly a challenge even if you fail once. Again, though, it doesn’t really make sense: is this some sort of hallucination or is this supposed to be a realistic, believable event? As an ongoing episodic story, these questions may be answered later, but for now it feels very much like an incomplete experience. This is a huge issue for any episodic game, so the key is to tease out enough story to maintain interest and continue the excitement until the next part is released. But Doorways offers little in regards to story, posing more questions than answers, and there's not nearly enough compelling gameplay to make up for the significant narrative gaps. This first two-part segment fails to provide a strong midpoint milestone, and by the end I felt I had accomplished very little in discovering the truth.
Horror games are near and dear to the adventure genre, as a fear of the unknown is inherent in all of us, yet our curiosity pushes us to continue on until we have an answer. Unfortunately, Doorways lacks any real story progression, and its gameplay is far too simple to be compelling in a game this short. There is an eeriness to the overall atmosphere, but the presentation lacks much in the way of variety. For the die-hard horror fan who wants to play every game of this type, this two-part installment may provide some brief entertainment value, but everyone else will want to leave these Doorways unopened, at least until the final chapters have been revealed.