It will take you 8 minutes to read this review.
Classics endure the test of time, with good reason. We’ve seen successful supernatural thrillers set in abandoned hospitals and asylums, creepy warehouses and underground bunkers, dilapidated ghost towns and Japanese villages. But nothing beats the classic haunted house, when done right. Enter OSome Studio’s thriller White Night, which will ensnare players in its gothic mansion’s hallways by walking a fine line between simple survival gameplay and stylish noir presentation, and does so with only a few hiccups along the way.
The year is 1938. The Great Depression has ravaged America for the past decade. Black Lake, a suburb outside of Boston, has also had to contend with a string of disappearances; women abducted by a creature dubbed the Wolf of Black Lake. While taking a nighttime drive on an abandoned stretch of road, a car swerves to avoid a pedestrian who suddenly appears in the middle of the street, and instead crashes into a tree. The driver, a man sunk deep within the upturned collar of his trademark trench coat, fedora pulled low over his brow, manages to get out and is in need of medical attention. Across the street, the dark and silent Vesper mansion, home to a family of tycoons, appears empty and abandoned. All he needs is a phone to call for help. But what he’ll find in the shadows inside is a lot more than he bargained for.
The setup is nothing new, and is reminiscent of the Alone in the Dark series, one of the developer's cited influences. The mansion’s backstory, spanning several decades, is revealed by collecting and piecing together scattered documents: journals, letters, newspaper articles, photographs, and diaries slowly tell the disturbing history of the three members of the Vesper family, patriarch Henry, wife Margaret, and son and heir William. Frustratingly, these artifacts aren’t found in chronological order, and I was nearly halfway through the game before I started getting a clear image of how the people and events fit together. Though the developers have taken pains to weave in reminders of the Depression-era setting, with frequent references to the political and economic climate of the times, I found that it ultimately didn’t have much impact on the problem at hand – simple survival – and it felt a little forced.
White Night blends survival horror and adventure, though with an emphasis on the former. To progress through the mansion you will have to find certain items: keys to open doors, light bulbs to illuminate rooms, tools to bypass obstacles. There are only two actual puzzles that I recall, requiring figuring out how to operate mechanisms to progress. Even then, though I searched for clues and a logical way to solve them, in the end they came down to just pushing buttons and stepping on switches randomly until something went “click”. Meanwhile, the ghosts inhabiting Vesper mansion are an always-present threat, and most will give chase if approached. Getting lost in the suffocating darkness is just as deadly. Matches found scattered throughout the mansion will give you a small degree of respite from the dark, but should they extinguish or your supply run out, panic will slowly creep up on you, and you must find an oasis of light immediately or be snuffed out by the shadows hiding in the dark.
The horror elements in White Night are surprisingly effective, and tap into man’s primal fear of the dark. Should your light go out, your breathing will grow labored and the screen will begin to shake. Meanwhile, you’ll hear a menacing drumbeat approaching from the distance and progressively growing louder, increasing terror until it becomes too much and you die of fright. It’s the dread of what you can’t see, what you think is lurking in the dark that makes the game so frightening.
For reasons you’ll unearth as you dig through the Vesper family’s sordid history, the mansion has long been haunted by a vengeful spirit, a shrieking shade stalking the halls and rooms. (It’s not entirely clear whether she’s the only nefarious specter in the mansion, or if there are other unfortunate souls trapped there as well.) Her ghostly appearances come in one of two varieties: sometimes stationary, usually blocking access to a door, sometimes prowling unnervingly back and forth in a particular area. In either case, get too close to her, and she will rush toward you, giving you no more than a split second to turn and flee before she gets too close and it’s game over. She generally won’t go out of her way to hunt you down, as her eyesight has faded and she can’t see very well, but once she’s sensed you, you have no choice but to run for your life. When circumnavigating her isn’t an option and you need to clear a path through instead, the only means at your disposal is to shine a powerful light on her (candlelight and matches won’t do here), disintegrating her on the spot. But go easy on the celebrations – the next ghostly apparition is likely waiting just around the corner.
White Night is not a point-and-click game. In fact, there’s no use of the mouse outside of menus. Movement is handled via the arrow keys, which generally works well enough. Objects can be interacted with using the Space bar, while the Enter button ignites a new match from your stash (and snuffs it out again with a double press). My only real gripe is the button assigned for toggling between walking and running, as it’s awkwardly positioned on the same side of the keyboard as the other commands; I would have preferred an option to remap controls, or at least spreading commands across the keyboard instead of crowding everything together. The game does support gamepad connectivity, which seems like a more natural fit for the real-time movement and chase sequences.
Players will navigate through the mansion via preset camera angles, which increase the cinematic flair of each shot, but also make things a tad difficult by forcing you to reorient yourself every time the camera view changes. You might have been moving to the right in the previous scene, but due to an opposing angle in the new shot, you’ll need to switch to left to keep moving in the same direction. Most of the time these slight readjustments aren’t too much of a bother. But when running for your life from a ghostly pursuer, these sudden changes in direction and perspective can be fatally disorienting and lead to some cheap deaths – falter one instant too long while regaining your bearings, and it’s game over.
There are occasional autosaves during the course of the game, but it is generally smarter to keep your own save file. Saving can only be done by resting in special armchairs, however, and then only while it’s bathed in candlelight or some other light source, meaning that you may have to solve a puzzle or at least locate a suitable source of light before even having the option to save. Saving frequently, unfortunately, means using up resources faster; it will cost you a precious match each time you want to save (as you automatically put out the one you have lit before sitting down, and have to light a whole new one upon getting back up). Given that you can only carry 12 matches at a time, and resupplies are finite, this can be a problem. Even striking a match is a gamble, as you may be running crucially low and then find one or two in a row that are duds and fail to light. On the other hand, frequent saves are critical, as you may run afoul of Margaret’s ghost at any time, resulting in a cheap death You never know what the next room will bring, and you will likely lose a good bit of progress multiple times during the course of the game if you pass up too many opportunities to save.
But it’s hard to complain about repeating a section when the graphics are this delightful, as simple as they are gorgeous and effective. White Night, in keeping with the era in which it’s set, is presented entirely in black and white. But this isn’t the black and white of classic TV shows and cinema, with myriad shades of gray across the whole spectrum. Instead, everything in the game, from characters to furniture to environmental effects, is depicted in bright white against a pitch-black background, or vice versa when a light source is present or lightning flashes. Think Frank Miller’s Sin City, but without any color at all. Except for a very few instances where a lamp will cast a sickly green-yellow glow, or a match produces a reddish flare in the camera lens as you move past it, color is entirely absent from the game. It perfectly fits the oppressive mood, and really adds atmosphere.
The designers have used this creative lighting scheme to call attention to important areas and guide players to the next objective. You may find yourself facing an entirely black screen, with only a small section illuminated by some light source. Paying attention to the lighting in these cases is important, as there isn’t any other hint system to speak of. Conversely, there’s nothing more unnerving than standing in a well-lit hallway and opening a door, only to be faced by an ebony abyss on its other side, knowing you have to step across the threshold anyway.
As impressive as the visual style is, the mansion’s ambient sounds are just as important in maintaining the terror level. In what might be its biggest accomplishment, White Night brilliantly emphasizes each and every rustle of cloth, creaky step, rain pattering on the windows and wind seeping through the cracks. In fact, the music acts as a sort of foundation for this soundscape of scrapes and whispers, instead of overriding it. Playing at night, I found myself checking over my shoulder and scanning my own living room’s darkness more than once. I imagine this is precisely the reaction the game is designed to elicit, and it is certainly one of its greatest strengths.
This is not to say that the music takes a back seat; slow, moody piano notes made me reconsider more than once before proceeding down a suspicious hallway, and my heart skipped beats at the sudden, unexpected screeching of strings. The music consistently underscores the sense of danger and peril throughout the game’s 7-8 hour tenure (though this was a slow, deliberate playthrough, and would be considerably shorter by ignoring caution and backstory).
But there is a warmer side to the soundtrack as well. As you progress through the game, the music kind of breaks the fourth wall, becoming an integral part of the narrative itself. The designers place a special emphasis on the soothing power of jazz, embodied by the character of Selena. Herself a ghost, the former jazz singer is the only friendly presence you’ll find in the Vesper mansion, and our protagonist’s infatuation with her shines like a solitary ray of light within this world of perpetual night. The smoky, dolorous performance of her song ultimately guides the game to a heartfelt, fittingly noir-ish conclusion.
You certainly can’t accuse White Night of reinventing the wheel or revolutionizing the genre in any way. But the game nevertheless offers a sophisticated, stylish, and supremely creepy take on the classic haunted house motif, with a story that must be puzzled together to get the most out of it, for those who care to do so. What you’ll find is a genuinely frightening thriller first and foremost, with light adventure elements second. While fairly low on the difficulty scale, you’ll still need to steel your nerves for the unrelenting dark atmosphere. Vesper mansion is calling, but be wary, and enter at your own risk!