Horror games, much like reviews, are subjective. What one person finds to be nail-biting terror, another might see it akin to being savaged by a toothless Chihuahua. So deeming a game scary or not shouldn’t affect the review score, in theory.
For me, I’m not a fan. Yet, as a contradiction, I’ve played Alien: Isolation through three times, including nightmare difficulty. However, I hate playing it. It takes years off my life, it scares the piss out of me.
By and large, The Blackout Club terrifies me as a solo experience. However, does the addition of up to two friends sharing the load lessen the tension? Look at the transition from Dead Space to its third iteration. So this review is definitely going to be subjective based on my experience, but that doesn’t mean it will detract from what the game intends to do.
With that in mind, let’s delve into the madness of what you’re trying to perceive in The Blackout Club.
Set in suburban America (as is usually the case), groups of teenagers are finding themselves waking up in different places with no recollection of how they got there. Parents seem dismissive, despite the mystery of often waking up bruised, covered in mud and everything in between, so our intrepid group of player-created characters take it upon themselves to get to the bottom of it.
So far, so standard, right? Sounds like an entry in the Goosebumps series, what should I be afraid of? As it turns out, quite a bloody lot in this game terrifies me!
Unlike most horror games, in which either the enemies are predetermined, the jump scares already planned at certain points and such, The Blackout Club has a trick up its sleeve: the difficulty increases as a punishment to your poor playing. It sounds like an asinine way to build a game, because who wants the current threat of failure being punctuated by more terror? Yet developer Question has managed to weave in a very sinister force that will keep you on your toes. But first, let’s set the scene…
Waking up in the house alone, our temporary protagonist Isabella is at a loss at to where he parents are. After a few vague and confusing calls from them, Belle starts experiencing weird messages when she closes her eyes. Some of these act as tutorials, like learning how to jump and crouch, before becoming an aide to help escape from an unseen force.
And unseen it is, as the mysterious guide refers to it as The Shape. It’s only visible when you close your eyes (logic, right?), seen as a humanoid figure looming throughout the house. Once you’ve escaped through your basement, you discover not everything is as it seems, as a network of underground tunnels and floorplans of your house are discovered. Whilst trying to make sense of it all, Belle has to elude the game’s most common enemy: the Sleepers. Whilst blind, they have excellent hearing, relying on a heavy stealth emphasis and lure tactics.
So far, so Outlast/Alien. Yet as you approach what appears to be a cult meeting, you’re suddenly apprehended by your parents, wearing the same attire as the mystery occupants. It appears that they worship this unseen force, as it appears there is something much more sinister at play. Belle manages to escape, but unfortunately gets caught with metres of the titular club’s hideout…
As far as introductions go, it had me in absolute chills and panic. As mentioned before: I’m not great with overwhelming odds when it comes to horror games. Once finished, the game opens up as you select your new player-created character, and the adventure to discover what’s going on begins. This is where my doubts into whether horror can withstand the multiplayer treatment came in, and as it turns out, I was wrong.
As I mentioned at the start, horror is purely subjective. What I find scary might be a walk in the park for some, so it’s always going to be hard to judge what is or isn’t terrifying. But to use Dead Space as an example, you only have to look at the inclusion of another player in the third game to see that it absolutely kills the tension and any kind of horror.
However, Question have employed a cunning mechanic that makes sure you don’t try to run and gun your way through it, as if strength in numbers is a literal expression. The old expression is “a problem halved is a problem shared”, but in this case, it’s quite the opposite. This time around, it’s more “if one person incurs the wrath of the Sleepers, the rest of you will be in the shit”, and it’s that which keeps the suspense alive in the game.
If you and up to two friends can sneak your way through a level undetected, then that is the best course of action. Yes, you can employ various means of incapacitating the Sleepers without getting caught, but more often than not it’s only a temporary measure. However, a lot of the beginning equipment and skill set only allows for a timed knockout on enemies, which will likely see them pick up where they left off, which is usually after you. Mix in some security cameras and turrets, and you might think you’re playing Metal Gear Suburban before you reach your procedurally generated objective(s) and escaping.
However, and this is the nasty caveat, being caught and evading capture too many times adds to your “sins”, and too many of those awaken the Shape. The Shape is an invincible, invisible entity that will pursue you across the map. It can only be “seen” when you close your eyes, which adds to the panic when you need to literally see where you’re going to try and outrun it. Rossko and I played some together the other day, and I lost count at the times the Shape made me jump. This is the last thing you see…
Melodrama aside, The Blackout Club does have a Goonies-esque skill system you can make use of. There are two skill types: major and minor. Major are a sort of class system, if you will you pick one deck (and they are actually stacked like a card deck) of skills that are essentially fancier versions of RPG/team-based shooter skills. Prime example being the strength-based one, that allows you to tackle people and subdue them for long, as upgrades allow for a period of focus to pounce onto another target. Others included phone-based distractions, or team-assisting buffs.
The minor skills are a slot system, that allows you to mix and match as you unlock more slots. These range from starting with slightly more health, to starting with a lockpick (surprisingly more helpful than you’d think) or a bandage for patching yourself up.
It’s not just skills, either. You’re also given a little grab bag of tools and disposable items to aide things. You can carry one of three tools: a stungun, a bowgun, and a grappling hook. The first is a slowly recharging, single shot incapacitating device. The bowgun literally has one shot that’ll take out an enemy, whereas the grappling hook is non-lethal but allows for otherwise unreachable traversal/evasion.
As you level up, you’ll find yourself able to mold your avatar into a veritable stealthy unit, a master of unlocking, or for some reason, a beefed up jock of a unit. Quite why you’d want to smack enemies about, draw attention to yourself and incur the wrath of the Shape is beyond me, but each to their own.
As far as negatives go, it’s going to be a bit of nitpicking, for as an overall concept and execution it’s an extremely solid game. It’s a shame that it massively hampered by its dull visuals. Character models and animations look uninspired, despite the purchasable clothing and emote options, which to me are a bit out of place. Why would you start doing the robot when your parents are part of some shady cult business? It seems an unnecessary inclusion, and a bit unwelcome as all it did was remind of how much I hate Fortnite and its pointless dance mechanics.
Levels, too, fall into that flat and uninteresting look. Whilst levels are procedurally generated (or at least, claimed to be. I’ve played four missions in a row that looked exactly the same), the suburban and underground settings all meld into the same generic style of blandness.
But as I said, these are nitpicks. Look at the game as an overall, and it’s all minor. The core concept is what you should be focusing on, and it is handled very well. The horror is an ever-present threat, the Sleepers don’t follow a strict movement pattern and don’t make a lot of noise, so can and will spring yo on you if you’re not careful.
Again, horror is a personal thing. You might laugh off such paltry threats as the mere buzzing of a fly. Or, you may be so nervous that your own shadow freaks you out.
Whatever your constitution, The Blackout Club gets a strong recommendation from me. It’s got a tense feel to it, some cultist shenanigans going on, and especially off the back of the latest Stranger Things series, it’s something a bit different in the horror ranks.
Just remember: don’t disturb the Shape.
The Blackout Club is available Tuesday July 30th on Steam, PS4 (reviewed on PS4 Pro) and Xbox One.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with two promotional codes from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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