Song of Horror review
If you want to know what it’s like to play Song of Horror, just look at its difficulty settings. There are three available to start: “E.T.A. Hoffmann,” “M.R. James,” and “Edgar Allan Poe.” Poe, listed third, is described as “the basic difficulty level for Song of Horror,” featuring permanent character deaths, while the less-challenging James is “the simplest difficulty that keeps permadeath.” Hoffmann is “equivalent in difficulty to M.R. James” except that you can load a checkpoint if your character dies. The game warns you against choosing Hoffmann on your first playthrough, though, as “permadeath is an integral part of the Song of Horror experience.” To recap: the basic difficulty is the hardest; the one in the middle is described as “the simplest;” and then there’s a third, listed first, which is the same as the simplest mode, except simpler, but one you’re encouraged to avoid. The most difficult setting is named for the author who, of the three, is the most accessible and well-known in the English-speaking world, while the easiest is named for a now-obscure fantasist who wrote exclusively in German. All of this you will only discover if you happen to open the settings tab, as the game never gets around to specifically telling you that there’s even a difficulty setting to adjust. (Poe—the hardest—is selected for you by default. It is, after all, the basic difficulty.) And that’s not even getting into the fourth setting, “H.P. Lovecraft,” which only becomes available after you’ve beaten the game on Poe or James...
So anyway, that’s the menu. Guess what the rest of the game is like.
All five of Song of Horror’s episodes are shot through with this same mix of confusion, frustrated guessing, and the expectation that you should intuitively know things you haven’t been told. At just about every turn, the game takes straightforward concepts and unnecessarily complicates them, lays down inconsistent or ill-considered rules, and fails to provide necessary information while forcing you to proceed through guesswork. Combine all that with a permadeath mechanic that can force you to spend hours retracing steps you’ve already taken, and you get an experience that mostly inspires groans where it aims for gasps.
The game begins as Daniel Noyer, assistant to the sales manager at Wake Publishing, receives a call from his boss, Etienne: one of their star clients, the author Sebastian Husher, has failed to deliver his latest manuscript on time, and with no other way to reach the man their best hope is for Daniel to swing by his house and investigate himself. Daniel resents the inconvenience but, as a recovering alcoholic who’s just recently gotten his life on track, he owes Etienne for his second chance; thus he heads out to the Husher mansion for what he hopes will be a quick courier job. Upon arriving, however, he finds the place empty, and his search for some sign of the erstwhile author leads Daniel instead to encounter a dark and terrible “Presence” tied to an antique music box in Husher’s possession. What Daniel unleashes in Husher’s home will lead him on a desperate quest across Europe, roping in multiple disparate souls as he seeks to uncover the truth behind an old evil and, hopefully, to contain it.
Each of the five installments offers several characters for you to choose from, with a total of thirteen available from start to finish. These include both Daniel’s friends and confidantes—including Sophie van Denend, his ex-wife; and Lidia Salgari, his AA sponsor—and strangers who find themselves drawn into the story by happenstance. Chapters play the same no matter who you choose: the puzzles, obstacles and geography remain identical, with the only immediate differences coming from your avatar’s default light source and their observations when examining their surroundings. (A character who has history with a given location, for instance, will provide more information when observing their environment than one who’s seeing it for the first time.) Each one also has a “personal item” that’s meant to provide them some benefit against the Presence. A few, like Sophie’s scented candles, can be used to calm your protagonist down after a close call, but I never found a use for most of them. The game offers no guidance on the subject that I ever saw; some items are marked “passive,” which I took to mean they bestowed some kind of continuous ability or advantage, but if so I reached the end without ever noticing what they were.
The character selection screen displays four different stats for each person—their speed, stealth, strength, and serenity—but never actually explains what aspects of gameplay these affect. From context I gathered that speed refers to how fast a character moves, while strength represents how much effort it takes for them to fight off the Presence (i.e., the periodic supernatural attacks that form the game’s central threat). Serenity indicates how quickly they’ll calm down after being exposed to something stressful, and stealth...well, that was never very clear. Internet sources suggest it’s meant to impact how much noise your character makes, and thus how easily they’ll draw the Presence’s attention, but no one character ever seemed noisier or more prone to being attacked than any other. In fact, despite their stats being so prominently displayed, I hardly noticed any differences in how they played. The biggest variable I found was that some characters carry lighters or candles, limiting how far you can see, while others carry a flashlight that grants greater visibility.
Song of Horror’s promotional material describes the Presence as “an advanced AI that adapts to your actions and decisions” and which “responds to your way of playing and hunts you down in unexpected ways.” I never got a whiff of this; as far as I could tell the game would sometimes arbitrarily decide that it was time for a random encounter and then select one of several sequences to play out. These include a mass of dark creatures appearing and attempting to batter down a door, which your character must then block; a sudden spreading darkness from which you must hide while attempting to quiet your heartbeat; a blind monster that materializes and tries to hunt you via sound, so that you must stand still and keep your breathing steady; and a shooting-gallery segment in which you track vengeful wraiths in a mirror and blast them with beams of light. All but the latter unfold via Quick Time Events, in which you have to press a sequence of buttons at the right time to foil the encroaching Presence.
Unfortunately, the interface hamstrings the game’s attempts to make these into truly scary moments. As success depends on keeping your focus on the on-screen prompts, the specific nightmare creatures threatening you tend to fade into the background—the threat doesn’t feel related to the monsters but to the visual interface. This is a particular shame because the monster design is quite effective; many of the creatures are truly unsettling in appearance, and if I’d been made to look directly at them as they approached, rather than at a flashing button prompt, I’m sure the scares would have landed better. And despite the developer’s claims, I never got the sense that my actions triggered these events, nor that characters with certain stats were more or less likely to encounter them; those with low stealth and serenity seemed to get attacked about as often as those who scored highly, and as long as I pressed the buttons at the right time, strength didn’t seem to be much of a factor. On those occasions when I did lose characters during timed sequences, it was less because of anything that happened in the game and more because they went on for so long that my finger became numb.
Another major selling point in the game’s marketing is its permadeath system: if a character dies in the course of the investigation, they’re dead for good, and you’ll have to continue on with somebody else to progress. Lose every character available in a given chapter and you’ll have to start it over. Plenty of games have made permadeath work as a system; Song of Horror simply doesn’t. The most effective permadeath games tend to be based around procedural generation, in which your experience on restarting will be markedly different from the one that killed you; they aren’t centered primarily on solving very specific puzzles and advancing a strongly linear story, as happens here.
On restarting a chapter in Song of Horror, the puzzles and their solutions remain the same; the inventory items return to the exact places you found them before; the plot unfolds identically to the way it did previously, with the same revelations coming at the same pre-scripted moments. The Presence may attack you from slightly different angles—the darkness spreading in the hallway instead of the bedroom, prompting you to hide under a table instead of in a wardrobe—but when it recedes you’ll still have to repeat a laundry list of tasks that you’ve already completed once, and as each chapter takes four to five hours to finish without dying, you can find yourself with an awful lot of familiar ground to retread. If I’d been playing for pleasure and lost all my characters in chapter four—the longest one with the largest map—I doubt I’d have ever picked the game back up. (As it is, I simply poured myself a stiff drink, took a deep breath and went into the woods to scream for twenty minutes.)
In theory, a large roster of characters who might die at any moment could open up interesting possibilities for the story to develop dynamically; in practice, it means that when a person dies they’re never mentioned again, no matter how integral they were to Daniel’s life or how much their absence could be expected to affect the investigation. Because just about anyone could be taken out of the story at any moment, the characters’ motivations and relationships never feel very deep, and most come across as rather thinly-sketched. This makes it difficult to get attached to any one person, especially as their reasons for remaining involved aren’t always clear; several are uninformed bystanders, and they never give a reason why, when confronted with a clearly supernatural threat, they choose to stay and explore rather than simply running like hell. Your characters come to feel less like individuals and more like extra lives, as the only real impact their loss has on the game is bringing you one step closer to restarting the chapter.
You won’t even lose any progress if you die with characters to spare; when one is killed they’ll helpfully leave all of their accumulated inventory in a bag nearby, so that whoever you choose next can return to that spot and pick up where they left off. The only exception is Daniel, whose death means an automatic restart of the chapter; the character selection screen warns you against choosing him for this reason, which makes Song of Horror the first game I’ve come across that actively encourages you not to play as its main character.
Death comes easily and unceremoniously, with little more than a fade to black and a message that your character’s story has ended. Sometimes danger will announce itself, as with the aforementioned sudden attacks by the Presence, but other times you’ll have to figure out the risks yourself—sometimes, frustratingly, without the game telling you how. Before opening a door you’re given the option to listen for sounds on the other side, but the initial tutorial instructs you merely to “pay attention” to what you hear. Yet while the Presence produces an unmistakable rumbling slither, the game fails to make it clear that any sound on the other side could mean danger—even the seemingly-human ones. (The menu offers the option to add “visual cues” to the door-listening process for the hearing-impaired, but I never noticed any difference either way.)
There are numerous instances of potentially dangerous situations, like a sheet thrown over a strange shape or a door hanging open a crack, that you can examine to bring up a “Do you investigate?” prompt; choosing “Yes” often leads to instant death, but on several occasions doing so is required to proceed. There’s no way to tell the difference without just trying and seeing what happens, and in at least one such situation (in chapter three) a failure to investigate actually guarantees that your character will die later on because they lack a crucial object; the game doesn’t so much as hint that this is possible, though, so if you’re on your last character you can become stuck in an unwinnable state without realizing it.
There are also situations where the game silently introduces new mechanics without telling you, so that you discover them only after they’ve killed you. During chapter two, the Presence killed someone I’d chosen whose personal object was a revolver; later I turned a corner while playing a different character and found the one I’d lost earlier standing there—at which point they promptly shot me in the head and sent me back to the character select screen. The only warning was a split-second clicking sound accompanied by the subtitle “*GUN COCKING*” as I entered the hallway. Playable characters had previously experienced mild hallucinations, and there hadn’t been the slightest whiff of human, firearm-toting enemies being a threat, so the likelihood of real, imminent danger never registered. If this possibility had been established earlier, it would have been a shocking and effective way for the game to demonstrate that the player should always question their presumption of safety; introducing it later, without any warning and after most of the rules have already been established, just felt like a cheap attempt at surprising the player with a sudden death that they wouldn’t anticipate or know to avoid.
Song of Horror’s five episodes were originally released individually and are now collected together. Each sends you to a familiar horror story location: a dark mansion, a musty antique shop, a cavernous library, a crumbling abbey, and an abandoned asylum. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually feel like there’s five chapters’ worth of story here; it probably could have been told comfortably in less time and across fewer locations. Chapters two and three especially feel artificially stretched; arguably they should have been combined, as both are centered on the search for scraps of information that will lead the characters to the next location. Multiple puzzles seem to exist just to draw things out, like a sequence where you search for microscopic bloodstains to determine which specific container you need to look in for your next clue—only to discover, on finding it, that the clue was taped to the outside, visible to the naked eye.
The puzzles themselves are a mixed bag across the board. Many are inventory-based, some requiring you to combine items in your possession, and a few necessitating that you examine them in close-up to find some secret feature. Others involve manipulating the environment or analyzing notes and journals for information. Several, like a puzzle in chapter four that involves corralling a monster with sliding grates, as well as another centered on a piano in chapter five, require creative thinking and problem solving, but more frequently the goals are unclear and the solutions poorly clued. Often I’d find myself wandering around without a solid idea of where I was supposed to go or what my immediate goal was, as they’re frequently mentioned only in passing and the game features no quest log or way to track your objectives. (There is a map feature, at least, that marks the locations of unlockable doors and unsolved puzzles.)
More than once I turned to the internet for answers and found myself wondering incredulously how anyone was expected to come up with the intended solution. The most heinous of these moments came in chapter five with a puzzle featuring a disassembled photograph, on which I spent at least an hour under the assumption that the objective was entirely different from what it actually was. The developers apparently received so many complaints about this puzzle’s impenetrability that they patched it twice after its release to make it more accessible; nonetheless, the “corrected” version I played still required great flailing leaps of logic.
With all the wandering around you’re likely to do, it’s helpful, at least, that the visuals are pleasant to look at. The abandoned abbey you’ll explore in chapter four is brought to un-life especially effectively, with the entirety of its grounds—the crumbling architecture, the moldering linens, the grisly hints at its former occupants’ fate—seeming to tell a story of their own. (Its backstory, about a group of monks who unwittingly unleashed the Presence during a choral performance, is deep and engaging in a way that the other chapters’ settings aren’t; more than anywhere else, the game feels like it might be approaching the right track here.)
The numerous monsters in the Presence’s employ are effectively disturbing, especially a broken-jawed ghoul in chapter five whose initial appearance made me jump, but the rest of the game is equally well-realized from a graphical standpoint. Lighting is nicely implemented, especially for a game that depends so much on keeping you literally in the dark; your character’s light source will pick out just enough of the environment for you to navigate but not so much that the eerie atmosphere is dispersed. Cutscenes mostly take the form of hand-drawn, black-and-white slideshow presentations with voiced narration to explain what’s happening; these are functional, but they don’t live up to the rest of the game’s aesthetic.
The soundtrack stays largely in the background most of the time, as the emphasis is placed on your avatar’s echoing footsteps and the various distant creaks and groans that might or might not be innocent. The music builds during high-stress moments, featuring screeching strings and pounding bass, only to fade away again once the danger is past. The voice cast is mostly solid, but not all lines are voiced in the course of normal gameplay; most of your characters’ observations take the form of text-only captions depicting their thoughts. Special praise is due to the actor for chapter four’s Ernest Finnegan, an elderly archaeologist and friend of Sebastian Husher’s who infuses all of his scenes with wry, stoic vitality; his performance is a large part of what makes the fourth episode the most effective.
Controls are optimized for dual-stick gamepad, with one joystick controlling character movement and the other used to look around and aim your light source. When you point yourself at a hotspot, a prompt will appear informing you of how you can interact with it; sometimes all you can do is look, while other times you can use or pick up an object or use your inventory. Quick Time Events usually require pressing one or more buttons at specific moments, sometimes timing your button-presses to an onscreen rhythm representing your character’s heartbeat or respiratory rate. A keyboard/mouse option is available, but the game itself strongly encourages gamepad use; having tried both I’m inclined to agree, as the keyboard controls felt clunky and awkward in a way the gamepad never did.
The developers at Protocol Games clearly have great love for the horror genre and its history; Song of Horror’s five episodes are littered with references to past works, including film, literature and other games, and it never feels so lively as when it has a chance to present something truly frightful. But passion can only carry a project so far, and Protocol’s reach exceeded their grasp in nearly every other aspect of the game’s design. Already the game seems to be on its way to finding an audience among die-hard horror fans, but those in search of a rewarding, well-designed adventure game experience should look elsewhere.
With its five episodes now complete, Song of Horror’s obtuse puzzles, meandering story and frustratingly unintuitive gameplay result in an experience that’s rarely scary but often exasperating.