"Whoa, nice mask!" says your new neighbor. "It's a prosthetic," you reply in a dry tone. The camera cuts to a close-up of said facial covering, lingering on your frozen visage for an unsettlingly long time, your eyes lurking inside dark, unblinking sockets.
This is just one of many unsettling moments to be found in the first chapter of Sally Face, a side-scrolling episodic adventure courtesy of indie developer Portable Moose. This is a game that seeks to draw you into the mysterious, tormented psyche of a boy with a dark past as he explores his new home and meets new friends. Already, with five episodes planned in total (the second and third of which are also available at time of writing), the story does a great job of making you want to uncover its secrets. Unfortunately, the series debut is hampered by the way in which you're invited to do so, with a world that at times seems to actively resist being explored, resulting in a game that frustrates as often as it intrigues.
Sally Face begins as so many horror games do: in a creepy hospital. You’ll awaken as the eponyomus Sal, a boy in a hospital gown with his face completely covered in bloody bandages. Soon you receive a phone call from your father, telling you to meet him, which involves some simple puzzle solving to find your way out of the hospital. The tone for the game is set pretty early on, as you experience vivid, nightmarish visions of your parents and admonishments written in blood. It's effectively eerie, and does a pretty good job of drawing you in. Having done so however, it's soon revealed to be a nightmare (or perhaps a flashback), and now the actual game can start.
Sal is a 15-year-old boy with a Michael Myers-like face mask and blue hair tied up in pigtails. He and his father have just moved into a new apartment, and the goal here is to explore the building and introduce yourself to the neighbors. With this very simple objective in mind, you will set off to meet your fellow denizens of the building, making some friends, getting wrapped up in a murder mystery, and experiencing more disturbing visions.
Although in many ways the gameplay is traditional, it wouldn't be appropriate to call this a "point-and-click" adventure, as there's neither pointing nor clicking involved. Indeed, you never use your mouse at all. The game is controlled entirely with the keyboard, with Sal only ever able to move left or right. His movement speed is surprisingly fast, and holding down the directional keys makes him jog swiftly from one area to the next. It's a little bit too fast though; tapping the directional key will make Sal immediately lurch forward, and there's a slight delay when trying to stop. This means you tend to overshoot where you want to go, and I often found myself having to nudge Sal back and forth to get him where I wanted him.
Exploring and item gathering are extremely streamlined. Rather than searching the environment for clues and essentials, interactive objects are indicated simply by walking near them. There's never any choice in how to interact with hotspots, with the appropriate command simply appearing over them, ("Talk To", "Open", etc.), carried out by using the “F" key to make the action happen. There's rarely more than a few interactive items in a given room, and never more than one character, so each location only has a small handful of things to do.
Gameplay is very simple, mostly consisting of speaking with the odd tenants of the apartment building. You’ll go to one place and talk to someone, then go to a different place and talk to someone else. If you find an item you can collect, it's added to your inventory but there's no combining objects there and you can't show things to people – really you can't experiment or need to figure things out at all. If you have the right item, it just gets used automatically when necessary without any real input from the player. There was never a moment I had to stop and think about a puzzle or make a decision about where to go next.
I'd have very much liked to have more options to examine the surroundings. I appreciate making the game a bit more streamlined to focus on the story, but here the locations are so limited it harms the immersion. Once you've walked through a room and the only two highlighted options have been exhausted, there's no reason to stick around and search for clues or simply soak up the atmosphere. As a result, the game quickly runs out of unique scenes and things start to get repetitive. I eventually found myself sprinting from location to location, confident there was nothing to do and no story to trigger until I got to my next destination.Continued on the next page...