When horror works, whether in games, books or movies, you're afraid to continue but something inside wills you to keep clicking, to keep reading, to keep watching to find out what happens until you reach the bitter end. And when you do, it leaves you shaken and stays festering in your mind for days after. When horror doesn't work, you're left bored and wondering if it's worth continuing in case there's anything interesting at the end. If it stays with you at all when you’re done, it’s for all the wrong reasons.
Unfortunately, Among the Innocent: A Stricken Tale falls into the latter category.
The debut offering from Zero Degrees Games represents the first of five games that are meant to stand alone and yet collectively form the Stricken series, a universe that connects different characters and time periods to one massive event that will be revealed in the final game. Rather than classifying it as a horror game, Among the Innocent is described by creator Geoff Burrows as a psychological thriller – but labels aside, it isn’t any more thrilling than it is frightening.
This tale centres on a young man named Peter York, who decides to go for a bike ride after arguing with his girlfriend. He eventually crashes his bike beyond repair, causes a rockslide, injures his leg, and spends the night in a seemingly abandoned cabin after stumbling onto what appears to be a large but secluded farm in the South African countryside.
After this introduction, complete with a narrator that sounds a bit like Tom Hiddleston attempting a Daniel Craig impersonation, we are thrown into the game proper. Playing from a first-person perspective in a fully animated 3D world, you set out to wander the sprawling property and attempt to find a way back home. Progressing further, however, you will come across some dead bodies and a bunch of notes which may or may not tell you what exactly went on in this otherwise cozy little farmstead.
Although the initial premise had me intrigued, as I continued to explore the cabin and surrounding land, my mind began to wander. Sure, the graphics are pretty: gnarled trees twist up to a cloudy sky, crows flutter in the distance, and the eerie emptiness mixed with the sound of Peter's heavy footsteps crunching on gravel paint an isolated and melancholy picture at first. Having the game set in the Eastern Free State of South Africa is a really nice touch too; it is an unusual backdrop for a game and achieves that feeling of being in a familiar yet foreign place for the player. Unfortunately, the mystery and foreboding feeling that something nasty could be just around the corner ultimately never really presents itself. There's no sense of urgency, no dread, no chilling revelations, nothing.
The backstory of the previous inhabitants can be gleaned by discovering notes and newspaper clippings scattered around the farmland, but they're vague and offer little insight into what has transpired. It feels as if just enough information was included so you could connect the dots yourself, but there wasn't really a moment when I felt totally invested in the plight of the people who had lived here before, or uneasy about following in their footsteps myself.
Peter being a bland, one-dimensional character doesn't help things either. After the introduction, I gleaned zero details about his personality. He might as well have been a ghost floating through the farm, as there's no response from him to his experiences throughout the game. Even when he encounters skeletons, he offers no inner thoughts, no commentary, no reaction at all, though he’s supposed to be a writer. The lone exception is one conversation he has with a radio operator late in the game, during which he claims to be scared out of his mind, which caused more confusion for me than anything as he seemed to be leisurely taking in everything he'd discovered thus far as if he had been shopping in a supermarket. Having a first-person protagonist be a cypher is not new for adventure games, but then why bother to establish his background at the beginning, only to abandon it when it really matters?
The story takes more of a nosedive when it hastily introduces a very clunky supernatural element that leads to a nonsensical, strange and utterly awful ending. It really seems as if the ending was scribbled in at the last minute in an attempt to deliver a final dramatic scare, but it falls completely flat and undermines the narrative even more.
Another sore point is the use of music, which feels out of place and doesn't suit the atmosphere the game is trying to convey. Pleasant acoustic guitars and weird funk interludes mixed with poorly produced rock music does not elicit a sense of mystery or suspense.
The controls are standard for a free-roaming adventure, using keyboard and mouse but strangely offering no controller support. Interaction involves a simple click of the mouse, left for actions, right to examine objects. The inventory can be brought up by tapping I on the keyboard. You can also hold shift to run and C to crouch, but I found no use for them throughout the game. A map found early on serves as a fast travel option to various places you have discovered while exploring, such as a large barn, the site of the crash, a tiny boathouse on a large lake and an underground mine. The map makes backtracking painless, and is a great feature that helps keep you focused on the task at hand, though of course you’ll need to put in the necessary legwork to find the important locations in the first place.
In an attempt to curb the trial-and-error process of figuring out what inventory items to use on certain objects in the world, the game automatically handles the choice for you. For example, if there's a locked door and you have picked up multiple keys, all you need to do is hover the cursor over the hotspot and click – the correct key will be chosen and the door will open.
As simple as the mechanics are, however, the puzzles are surprisingly obtuse due to their unintuitive implementation. Ranging from lever pulling and a couple of slider puzzles to repairing broken-down elevators, the conundrums serve to detract from the experience rather than enhance, leading to tedium and a disconnect from the narrative. I kept wondering why I was being forced to figure out how to operate a windmill or fiddle around with padlocks instead of focusing on escaping. Taken separately, the puzzles are functional, sound and follow a realistic logic for the most part. It's just that they aren't a good fit for what this game is attempting to present. They would be much better suited to a Myst type of game rather than a psychological thriller.
Another important note: While I'm the first to argue for quality over quantity, Among the Innocent is really pushing the limits in that regard as I managed to make my way through the game without a walkthrough in just under an hour. I also encountered a few crashes to the desktop early on, and I had a lot of framerate problems while walking around. With a computer that can run The Witcher 3 on the highest settings at a rock solid 144fps, I can safely say it's not my rig that is the problem. Strangely, as I made my way nearer to the end of the game, all of these performance issues ceased, the framerate steadying and no more glitches to be found.
Ultimately, Among the Innocent: A Stricken Tale is a game that fails to deliver on its intriguing premise. The South African farm looks nice and is a welcome change of scenery from the usual settings, and there was plenty of potential in investigating what caused it to be deserted. But the puzzles are at odds with the story, and the experience is hampered by a poor musical score and a terrible ending that arrives all too soon. While I am admittedly still interested in checking out the next game in the series to see if things improve, as there remains some intrigue about how new characters and time periods will be introduced and tied into the story as a whole, I am very hesitant to recommend this debut episode on its own merits.