A Boreal Tenebrae: Act I – I Stand Before You Form Undone review
The past hundred years have witnessed technological acceleration unlike anything in recorded human history. In centuries past, the technology someone was born with likely resembled the same technology they died with. Now, some of our oldest living grandparents come from an era of horse and buggies in their childhood, only to behold electric self-driving cars in their twilight years. The question of technology’s spiritual and cultural influence is at the heart of Boreal Tenebrae. A mix of cartoonish innocence and Videodrome-esque horror, this retro-console-styled adventure explores a small town’s struggle with economic depression and identity. Though the characters and lore have been meticulously crafted, unfortunately the game itself stops just as it gets started, leaving the climax in limbo.
Boreal Tenebrae takes place in Dusky Rivers, a model of heartland beauty, with gentle streams and alpine forests surrounding the quaint homesteads of its blue-collar populous. The game wastes little time establishing this idyllic setting, however, instead abruptly dropping players into the scene of an accident at the local gas station. Bree, a teenaged girl born and raised in town, joins a small crowd of both human and anthropomorphic animal characters staring curiously, and resentfully, into a tall rectangular cube, its core composed of an array of warped colors and TV static.
It’s soon revealed that Bree’s younger sister, Sarah, is blamed by many of the townspeople for this strange phenomenon, having seemingly summoned the distortions via witchcraft of some sort. Several citizens have already been absorbed by the static, never to be seen again. Among the victims is Sarah herself.
Back at her house, we meet Bree’s father. Pamphlets and protest signs are strewn about the kitchen, suggesting that the static anomalies aren’t the only problem Dusky Rivers is facing. A crackdown on union activity has led the mill’s toad owners (that’s not a veiled slur; they’re actually toads) to reduce the workforce and consider moving production out of town.
Through sequences told via audio diary and flashback scenes, we learn that Sarah became obsessed with TV static prior to her disappearance, and consequently the town’s infestation. Labelled a freak, not even her sister wanted anything to do with Sarah, out of fear of weirdness by association. Eventually Sarah’s obsession swallowed her completely, transporting her to a strange alternate version of the town, torn apart by static and littered with horrific mutants and oblique constructions. Sarah lives in this limbo, able to see echoes of events in her old town, though she is unable to directly communicate with anyone back home through the noise.
The vantage frequently shifts between characters (and planes of existence), putting players in the shoes of several townsfolk, including Bree; her schoolmate Jessie; an employee of the town’s paper mill, Nicole; Chad (Nicole’s boyfriend); a mysterious ghost; and Sarah, just to name a few. Though players will spend the majority of their time playing as Bree, the insights gained by playing as other characters effectively showcase the different opinions and feelings about the town’s paranormal issues, as well as Dusky Rivers' deteriorating economic condition.
Chad and Nicole’s family, for example, rely on Nicole’s paycheck from the mill to survive and care for their relatives. Living in abject poverty, Chad’s mood is considerably grim, and he ends up taking his frustrations out on those closest to him. Similarly, Jessie struggles with the stress of knowing his family may have to pack up and move, leaving behind the only home he has ever known. Seeing how characters act, both through the vantage of other characters or under my direct control, made me genuinely care about their predicaments. While some of their actions are hard to stomach, it’s never hard to understand why they’ve acted the way they have; you can empathize with their decisions, even when born of nothing but outright fear and paranoia.
The game offers a brief explanation of the controls when you first start playing, though in my initial playthrough the screen faded before I had the chance to read the tutorial, forcing me to work things out by trial and error. If you’re a seasoned adventure gamer the controls won’t be too hard to figure out, but this unfortunate oversight made the first few minutes of play more confusing than they needed to be as I tried (and failed) to open my inventory and combine items.
Boreal Tenebrae features a fixed camera system, paying homage to survival horror games of the 32-bit era, though in terms of gameplay it ultimately hews closer to Syberia than Silent Hill, being rooted almost entirely in item collection and combination rather than combat, stealth or resource management. Instead of using tank controls – as per 32-bit survival horror norm – the WASD keys (or gamepad) dictate movement in direct relation to the camera angle.
While these controls are simpler (or at least more modern), the navigation scheme can still prove frustrating. When walking across any given scene, the camera may pan along with the character, or it may shift to a whole new perspective. When it changes, your character will continue to walk in the direction they were walking as long as you are holding down the direction key(s). If you let go or try to readjust, the controls change, reflecting the direction of the new camera angle. This often led me to stutter back and forth between scene breaks, as I would stop to adjust my direction, only to inadvertently walk back the way I came. It’s manageable with practice, though a true tank control scheme, or even a click-movement option would have made things less cumbersome.
Bree can travel between her home and the gas station in her truck. However, the bulk of the narrative unfolds as she collects disks spread about the map. At home, Bree can access collected disks via her DVD player, using them to travel to both actual locations in town and “dark” versions of them, suggesting they’ve been corrupted by a paranormal influence. You can also travel to the static directly to explore Sarah’s makeshift home.
Disks often put you in the shoes of a new character and typically play out as distinct narrative sequences. Progression is usually well-telegraphed, with players funnelled down a series of linear corridors and required to collect certain items. The game quickly falls into a simple pattern of fetch quests completed by playing disks, acquiring needed objects located in the disk’s story sequence, and then returning to Bree’s kitchen to start the process anew. Locations can be accessed in any order you like so long as you have the correct disk, but sometimes an item or trigger from one place is needed first to unlock something in another.
Repeating disks while trying to figure out what to do or where to go next can prove tedious. One incident in particular involving Jessie smashing mailboxes had me repeat the entire sequence twice before I figured out what to do. Most of these segments are relatively brief, and redoing them isn’t a huge time commitment, but some of the narrative impact is lost to this redundancy. It would have been nice to have more mid-disk checkpoints instead of having to go through the same dialogs again and again until a solution presents itself. The transdimensional journey through both real and “dark” versions of town can prove overwhelming at times, but if you need a little more help, Bree can always return home to her kitchen where her snoozing father will mumble clues in his sleep.
Inventory is shared across characters, meaning if you obtain an item while playing as Sarah, for example, Bree and everyone else will have access to it when you assume their roles. The final puzzle involves Bree collecting various artefacts needed to perform a ritual. Some of these artefacts can be discovered long before Bree is officially assigned the ritual shopping list, but you may or may not be able to use them for their intended purpose in their original form. A severed but still chatting head of a bear is found early on, and Sarah can drink the bear’s pooled blood if she wants (though at that point in the game, it’s unclear as to why that’s even an option). It’s not until much later that you can properly collect the blood, which in turn then appears in Bree’s inventory.
Also scattered throughout the environments are glyphs and cassette tapes. Glyphs are captured through the game’s first-person camera mode, which allows you to look around while stationary, taking snapshots to unlock new cinematic flashbacks. These are available to watch in a video store (accessible while playing as Sarah) run by a man named Guile, who sports a television for a head. Cassette tapes feature voiced diary entries by characters at different points of the crisis, adding additional background perspective. While disks are essential for locating characters and items needed to progress the story, tapes and glyphs are collected only for interest's sake.
In keeping with its 32-bit inspiration, Boreal Tenebrae features a low-resolution, low-poly aesthetic with heavy static and screen-tearing filters. The backgrounds and characters are all rendered in real time, and their movements are, despite their rudimentary look, all fairly intricate. The heavy use of distortion and lighting effects (most prevalent in Sarah’s journey through the static) can be a bit hard on the eyes as you try to find your footing, deciphering what you can or can’t walk on or toward, though boundaries become discernible after spending some time exploring the environments.
Though the visuals are a great selling point for fans of retro horror, the sound design is equally praiseworthy and is where most of this game’s horror undertones shine brightest. The music is a great mix of eerie synthwave peppered with bits of aged crackling, making the tracks sound as though they are being played off an old cassette. The cinematics and cassette tapes are voiced, though dialog in the gameplay segments unfold largely via textbox. Even so, bits of vocalized jibber-jabber accompanying some characters’ subtitles prove quite unnerving, eliciting a sense of discomfort as you engage in conversation with the town’s mysterious inhabitants.
Special praise needs to be given for just how well the animation and audio come together during the cinematic sequences. It reminded me of that feeling of surprise I used to get playing a Saturn or PlayStation game, suddenly having the low-poly world switch to a glorious pre-rendered cutscene. While Boreal Tenebrae’s cinematics use the same visual style as the base gameplay, the change in vantage and the addition of voice acting make them enjoyable to watch and even more impactful.
Not so enjoyable were the several glitches I encountered. Near the start of the game I seemingly fell off the edge of the world, with Bree unable to walk back to solid ground. Luckily you’re given a hand mirror early on, which will instantly transport Bree back to her kitchen when used. As I was still able to access my inventory in this out-of-bounds area, I escaped unharmed. I also had a dialog box freeze several times, prompting a force-quit. This was frustrating, but since the game is generous with autosave checkpoints, I didn’t lose much progress. Finally, I noted some graphical anomalies, like when a bird intended to come sit atop a small portable radio failed to, well, actually sit atop the radio, despite the commentary from my avatar stating otherwise. For a game about hiccups and glitches between realties, it’s a shame Boreal Tenebrae has a few such unresolved bugs of its own.
It’s also unfortunate the game ends so abruptly with so many questions left unanswered. While the developer has stated this is only the first chapter in a larger story, the lack of any indication of that in the title at the time I played threw me for a loop. (It has since been more accurately rebranded on Steam as Boreal Tenebrae: Act I – I Stand Before You, A Form Undone). While a climax of sorts seems imminent as Bree begins the ritual, it offers no actual closure and the numerous other plotlines running in parallel remain a long way from resolution. This is a disappointment mainly because what has been presented here is so engaging that I was still eager for more when the credits suddenly rolled.
Boreal Tenebrae falls halfway between David Cronenberg and Nam June Paik in creating both an eerie and endearing adventure. It smartly utilizes accents of horror, though it's by no means a game only for horror fans. Mingling with the folks – both fully human and otherwise – of Dusky Rivers is a lot of fun, and I genuinely came to care about the town’s mill and the otherworldly threat of the static in my short two-hour playtime. I wish revisiting areas didn’t involve so much repetition, forcing me to slog through bits I'd already played, and the glitches still present can bring things to a sudden halt, or at the very least break immersion. Yet even with its simplistic fetch quest gameplay pattern, the thoughtful art design and great worldbuilding make Boreal Tenebrae easy to recommend. Fans of this new wave of retro horror titles should enjoy their short stay in the town of Dusky Rivers, even if we’re left without a proper conclusion for now.
Despite some technical issues, Boreal Tenebrae constructs a thoughtful narrative via solid writing and retro horror art design that remains entertaining throughout, though its abrupt ending leaves us without any closure.
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