Silver Chains review
Apart from a few pulse-pounding moments in an otherwise generic haunted house story, the weakest link in Silver Chains is that it’s just not very scary or engaging enough to survive as an adventure game otherwise.
People are afraid of lots of things: spiders, enclosed spaces, clowns, public speaking, and of course ghosts. Silver Chains is a haunted house adventure that attempts to capitalize on the latter, but the only fear it’s likely to really induce is a terror largely reserved for adventure gamers: mazes. As a supernatural horror it’s not very frightening at all, but anyone scared off by winding, twisty passages may have nightmares from playing this game. Unfortunately, the payoff for all this zigzagging around is rarely worth the effort in what turns out to be a highly generic and sometimes frustratingly linear trail of invisible breadcrumbs.
The story is simple but interesting enough, at least until it goes completely off the rails towards the end. Players control a young man named Peter, who regains consciousness after a car crash one night within sight of an eerie mansion with a single light on and a silhouette in the upstairs window. It’s the sort of creepy old place that screams “danger!” but you’re weak and injured so you tentatively ascend the steps and knock on the door, only to pass out. You awaken again inside, thoughtfully laid to rest by someone who apparently doesn’t wish to be seen. The house is dilapidated and seems abandoned, yet lights are on, flames crackle in the fireplaces, and the dining room table is set for dinner. Were you… expected? Perhaps even drawn here?
It’s spoiling nothing to suggest such a possibility, as you’ll quickly discover that you and this house have a history, the specifics of which I’ll leave players to find out for themselves. The backstory is unveiled almost exclusively through journal pages conveniently left behind by the house matron (although very inconveniently left strewn about helter-skelter) detailing her troubled (and presumably) final days in the year 1900. At first the narrative is largely predictable, with vague allusions to curses, mental instability and suspicious hired help, but it does take a welcome turn for the unexpected to liven things up… only to follow with a – dare I say it – rather labyrinthine detour into incomprehensible nonsense for a bewildering final act. When the credits finally rolled I wasn’t sure what I’d just seen, only that by then I really didn’t care.
Virtually nothing is conveyed environmentally to flesh out the family history, as even photos and paintings are blurred. (It’s effectively creepy but it’s not meant to be; it’s simply an artistic shortcut.) Nor is there much else of interest that would shine any light on what happened in this place, or what your role in it might be. For a sprawling, massive four-floor mansion, there is disappointingly little to see or do as you roam its many dilapidated hallways and rooms. Puzzles are almost nonexistent apart from a few code-based rotation and tumbler challenges easily solved once the correct clue is discovered. Instead your tasks consist largely of finding keys or other basic items to trigger the next scripted event. Most doors are locked (many of them permanently) and hotspots are extremely few and far between. Other than a brief and pointless interlude tickling the ivories, if something is interactive then it’s essential to progress. Drawers can’t be opened, covered furniture can’t be exposed, even toilet-flushing pull strings don’t work. (That’s just cruel.) This is a game that sorely needs an injection of rummaging.
What’s worse than the lack of interactivity is that often the few things that can be used are only available when needed to push the action forward. At first this isn’t an issue as you make your way through the limited accessible areas, but it becomes a much bigger problem when different parts of the house open up. There is only ever one very specific objective at a time, which is fine when doors open (or shut) precisely when needed to guide you in the right direction, but miss a hotspot or random new item that didn’t even exist earlier and you can find yourself aimlessly wandering with little clue as to where to go next. Of the four hours it took me to complete Silver Chains, it felt like at least half of those were spent retracing my steps, uncertain what to do because I didn’t look in exactly the right place at the right time, even if I’d already looked there before.
Compounding matters further is just how difficult it can be to navigate the manor itself. Locked doors aren’t your only obstacle, as you’ll also need to contend with fallen furniture and broken staircases that prevent passage one way, forcing a completely circuitous route to find another instead of simply coming up with a workable solution – a route you’ll need to find again and repeat pretty much each and every time you backtrack (whether by design or simply out of desperation). I’m sure those with an impeccable sense of direction will get a feel for the lay of the land at some point, but even at the end I never felt completely comfortable making my way from one end of the house to another, a fact driven home by a convoluted scavenger hunt before the grand finale.
The manor’s layout isn’t the only muddled network to deal with either. On two different occasions you’ll enter actual mazes of bookshelves and other barriers. The first is rather fun, as you play cat-and-mouse with a ghost who remains always beyond your grasp, but the second occurs right at the end and involves a white-knuckle chase as you attempt to find ritual items and achieve certain environmental changes without getting lost while a rampaging demon continually closes on your tail. With enough of a head start you can afford one false move before being caught, but hit a dead-end passage and you can expect an unpleasant demise and a rather lengthy load screen wait before being restored to try again. Even if you didn’t hate mazes before that, this sequence may be enough to turn you off them forever. It’s exciting, but severely tempered by annoyance.
The endgame is not the only time you can die, and while others aren’t nearly as challenging, failure can be a lot more punishing. Of course you are not alone in this house, just the only one alive and hoping to stay that way. A number of ghosts still reside here, several of them children who have a tendency to startle the crap out of you but otherwise mean you no harm. But there’s also a hideous hag with murderous intent, eager to snap your scrawny little neck. She’s truly terrifying but is only an intermittent presence at predetermined times. A sudden spike in music will always alert you to the need to make a beeline for the nearest wardrobe to hide in. You never have long, but you can always count on there being one close by. Get caught, however, and you’ll find yourself restored to the nearest autosave checkpoint, which may well involve repeating a fair number of steps before facing her once again.
Surprisingly for a horror game, the sparse jump scares and chase scenes are really the only things you’re likely to find at all spooky. The house is big and old and falling apart, but otherwise it’s rather luxuriously appointed with wallpaper, adornments and fine furniture of the period. Some creepy doll parts and the odd blood smear too, but these are mere props with no real impact. It’s often rather dark, but the never-extinguishing lantern acquired early on always provides abundant light and even a bit of visual warmth to make an already unimposing manor feel even less so. There are no disturbing scenes to uncover, no movement out of the corner of your eye to send a chill down your spine. It’s all rather sedate in between the sudden but short-lived moments of panic.
Even the soundscape does little to add atmosphere. Music is subtle and suitably haunting but as infrequent as the fake-sounding booms of thunder that resound from the storm raging outside, and the structure itself will sometimes let out an unsettled groan if its own, but even the occasional whispering of voices is more mysterious than alarming.
It’s all rendered in crisp 3D, and if not for the highly repetitive nature of the setting I’d say it looks quite nice. The only real variety comes from a special lens obtained at one point that casts everything in a whole new light (literally), which is a nice change of pace but underwhelming in its implementation. It’s needed to find otherwise imperceptible clues, but traversing the house with obscured vision and without the benefit of your lantern is even more of a pain than usual. You get around using either traditional keyboard/mouse combination or a gamepad, with hotspots highlighting as you draw close and inventory used automatically, but the controller requires constantly pressing down on the left stick while steering it to run, which is awkward at best and fatal at worst.
Though it plays in first-person, the game can’t seem to decide whether to let YOU, the player, be the central character or if Peter should be more prominent. Early on the screen will shake and silence is filled with the protagonist’s heavy breathing and elevated heartbeat whenever he’s anxious, but these soon give way to passive observation. Once, as a voice screamed for help from a nearby hallway, Peter offered no reaction at all, but did comment blithely about a journal page I picked up, apparently oblivious to the poor soul crying out in anguish. What little voice acting there is seems solid enough, but the developers should have committed to having Peter say either more or less and stick with it instead of inconsistently wavering down the middle.
As an adventure, Silver Chains (a title that strangely seems to have no relevance whatsoever) is rather bereft of engaging gameplay, while as a horror game it is about as generic as they come, from setting to story to survival mechanics. It has its moments, but they’re all too fleeting in an experience that simply isn’t all that scary outside of cheap but effective “gotcha!” moments. Without the level of interaction needed to sustain interest or the edge-of-your-seat tension a haunted house deserves, all you’re left with is a by-the-books story that feels cobbled together from numerous other sources, gradually building suspense but then failing to stick the landing. Its slick production values are deserving of praise, but it’s a shame that they weren’t put to better use in a game that is bound to disappoint.