The Corruption Within review
There’s something oddly inviting about a spooky old mansion. The menacing manservants, the cobwebbed furniture, the dusty portraits whose eyes seem to follow you around the room: the less welcoming the place is, the more it practically begs to be explored. It might conceal long-lost tomes of forbidden knowledge, prisoners bricked up in a secret dungeon, or some very literal skeletons in the closet, but from the first time a tapestry twitches in an unseen breeze or a distant scream gets dismissed as “just the wind,” one feels the paradoxical urge to take up the flickering candelabrum and brave the shadows in search of the truth. The Corruption Within understands this impulse very well, and its gothic-inspired journey through a sinister manor is brimming with macabre charm and skillfully hidden scraps that add up to a larger mystery. It could have used additional time and space to develop its ideas more fully, but it’s still a fun, quick dip into a classic mode of spooky, suspenseful adventuring.
It’s the late 1800s, and Samuel is just wrapping up a family camping trip in the English countryside when his wife and children go missing. Distraught and unable to search effectively on his own, Samuel makes his way to the only sign of civilization for miles: a towering mansion by the nearby lake, where a light burns in an upstairs window despite the lateness of the hour. Inquiring inside for help, Samuel soon finds himself a guest of the Dennison family, an eccentric old-money dynasty whose members prize their isolation and self-sufficiency above all else, and whose household has suffered an alarmingly high number of accidents in recent years. He soon comes to understand that his family’s disappearance is the latest in a long line of local tragedies all centered on the Dennisons’ home, and as he tries frantically to get someone to help, he begins to suspect that there are far worse things afoot than a simple missing persons case.
The Corruption Within is first and foremost a work of gothic fiction, and it’s keenly aware of how and when to deploy the various set pieces that give the genre its flavor. Unexpected corpses, secret passageways, mad ancestors, servants who see more than they let on—they’re all here, just as we know they must be from the moment the butler answers the bell. Predictable as they may be, though, these familiar trappings never feel perfunctory; there’s a fine line between beloved trope and hoary cliche, and for the most part developer Cosmic Void manages the delicate balancing act required to keep the setting feeling lively rather than labored.
We may anticipate, for instance, that at least one of the mansion’s walls will eventually swing wide to reveal a hidden chamber, just as we can be sure that the Dennisons are more than a mere clan of solitary eccentrics. The Corruption Within all but announces such developments by centering its story around a sinister country manor. The designers know that the player will come in prepared for such things, and the game has great fun putting its various pieces into place and setting up their eventual payoffs. One may know, broadly, what sorts of shocks and “surprises” are likely to materialize before the end, but just as with a set of dominos, the fun is in seeing how exactly they fall out after the inevitable push.
The house is inhabited by the Dennisons themselves—the aged Lord and Lady Dennison, their daughter Charlotte, their son Charles, and his wife Isabelle—as well as their five hired hands. Some family members are more receptive than others to Samuel’s plight, while the staff are generally friendly but inclined to wary silence when certain subjects are broached. Most puzzles involve determining what a character needs through dialogue and then either solving their problems, thereby freeing them up to help you, or getting them to leave so you can scour their belongings for clues. Conversations are full of teasing hints and red herrings to keep you guessing about who you can trust, though the final revelations won’t be too shocking to anyone familiar with this type of story.
The game might have been able to wring more suspense from its narrative if it had just given it more time to play out. The Corruption Within is a very short game—it took me less than two hours to complete—but it could easily have run longer had the characters been given more space to develop. The house’s inhabitants each get a few lines of dialogue to explain their history and how they came to be here, but for the most part conversations are flatly transactional: Samuel asks a question and the other character responds with blunt, factual information or clear reminders of what you need to be doing. Their personalities never develop much beyond the broadest strokes, and if it weren’t for the detailed close-ups that appear when they speak it would be difficult to distinguish between them.
A natural consequence of the hurried pacing is that the finale feels rushed and underdeveloped. There are plenty of twists and turns throughout, but they come at such a breakneck speed and their payoffs arrive so close together that the climax seems less like a satisfying denouement than a hasty, bullet-point summary in which all the loose ends are shoved messily back into the skein. It also features an abrupt heel turn by a previously friendly character, the two-line explanation for which is so bizarre and contrived that it’s more likely to provoke laughter than gasps. On top of that there’s very little animation, forcing the game to describe whole series of actions through dialogue delivered across static character portraits, or to use Samuel’s closing monologue to explain their aftermath.
Still, its narrative shortcomings don’t stop The Corruption Within from creating an effectively creepy atmosphere. It’s never outright scary, but its shadowy color palette, lo-res pixel art and somewhat uncanny character portraits all serve to put you on edge, and its visual simplicity belies an ability to produce occasional shocking images of brutality. Eric Galluzzo’s understated midi-style soundtrack casts an ominous air over everything, serving as a constant reminder that no one in the mansion is as safe as they might think. Ambient sound design is limited—a distant scream here, a bang or a creak there—but it’s used well and lends much-needed life to the mostly static screens. Apart from Samuel’s narration during the opening and closing sequences, the dialogue is unvoiced; this is a shame, as voice acting might have helped imbue the two-dimensional characters with more personality, but it’s also in keeping with the game’s retro aesthetic.
The Corruption Within unfortunately dispels some of its own creepiness in a very odd way, via the inclusion of several out-of-place portraits on the Dennisons’ walls. These are garish, brightly colored, and include jarringly modern details, drawing the eye and contrasting unpleasantly with the otherwise muted palette. Apparently they’re meant to depict backers from the game’s successful Kickstarter campaign, but the average player will likely fail to grasp the point of the portraits’ clashing styles and the impenetrably in-jokey descriptions that accompany them. Pure and simple, the backgrounds and the setting at large suffer for their inclusion as implemented.
The puzzles are a mixed bag. The best involve intuiting the correct inputs for non-traditional combination locks from seemingly unrelated clues you’ve gathered in the environment. These are mostly well designed, allowing you to ponder all the available information until the pieces fall into place. The inventory puzzles, though, are less satisfying. The game has a tendency to only let you pick up items after the second or third time you examine a hotspot, without letting you know there’s more to see unless you happen to click there again, and you can’t know if a hotspot has been exhausted until Sam starts to repeat himself. This leads to several places where you can get stuck despite having examined everything around you, with the game essentially punishing you for its own failure to tell you everything you need to know. (The opening tutorial mentions this possibility, but the reference is brief enough that many might miss it.) A few challenges involve pixel hunting, while others center on details Samuel barely mentions in passing when examining an object.
The interface, at least, is simple and accessible. You play in first-person perspective, cycling between rooms using either the WASD keys or the arrow icons at the bottom of the screen. The cursor is context sensitive, changing to indicate that you can examine something or interact with it directly. The inventory opens and closes via a dedicated button, and selecting an item you’ve collected replaces the cursor with its icon so that you can use it in the environment. Finding one of the game’s several combination locks will take you to a close-up of the mechanism, where you can manipulate the various parts as needed, while conversations present a list of dialogue options alongside the other character’s portrait. There are a few points where the game halts and presents you with a decision to make that will affect the ending you receive, but the differences are mostly cosmetic; apart from a few lines in Samuel’s closing narration, your choices change nothing.
It’s all very straightforward, made even more so by a tutorial that spells out the controls and what the game expects of you. (If you forget how anything works, there’s a button that lets you run through it again.) The menu includes a toggle for text speed and the option to identify hotspots by name when you hover over them so you know immediately what you’re dealing with. Your progress is saved automatically, though you can only have one playthrough going at a time; if you want to start over all your progress will be erased. That said, the narrative is so concise and linear that one save slot is all you’ll really need.
On the whole The Corruption Within isn’t a deep game, but depth doesn’t seem to be what it was aiming for. Rather, it feels like a throwback in the truest sense: not an exercise in empty nostalgia but an attempt to replicate a type of production that’s hardly used anymore. Technology and storage constraints no longer necessitate a spartan design, and there’s not much call these days for the type of game that might once have come on a single unadorned floppy disk, sold alongside such titles as Hugo’s House of Horrors or The Palace of Deceit. That’s a shame, because for all their simplicity those games had distinct identities and design philosophies all their own, and the gaming landscape has grown so far beyond them that it can be hard to really remember what they were like. It’s enjoyable, then, to play a game like The Corruption Within, which sets limits for itself and mostly works within them to provide a pleasantly spooky mystery to solve in an old, dark house. For better and worse, it’s a fitting tribute to an era that’s gone for good.