June 17, 2024
The waters await in the backrooms. Are you prepared to face the liminal POOLS? The Finger Guns review:

Space and time are fundamental to our feeling of certainty and stability in the world. Take those away, or distort them in some fashion, and comfort in reality can break down mighty quick. The backroom’s concept of liminal space first appeared in 2019 and it’s skyrocketed into popularity ever since. Extradimensional space might sound wacky and weird, but there’s a science behind its brand of oxymoronic familiarity and discomfort.

POOLS is based on that very same liminal space concept. Endless corridors, non-sensical hallways twisting and turning in on themselves. The strange glow of the lighting, the hollowness of the walls encapsulating the rooms. It’s an experiential concept, one which resonates massively with some, and barely at all with others. Throw in dilapidated swimming areas, endless shiny tiles and an hour of walking simulator and what do you get? POOLS, lots and lots of pools.

Is there something to be found hiding amongst the watery expanses, or is POOLS drowning under the weight of expectation from greater liminal experiences?

The POOL-ing Effect

In its simplest, barest form, POOLS is a walking simulator. WASD for movement and your mouse to look around, that’s it. There’s no enemies, no vengeful demon or Nemesis-like creature stalking you through these halls. Instead, it’s you, the environment and your thoughts. What’s scarier than being alone with your thoughts? Not much, probably.

Across six chapters that take about an hour to saunter through, POOLS is focused on giving you an environmental experience. Forget the rip-roaring action, dialogue-heavy stories and memorising open-worlds we’re accustomed to, this is pure sensory exposition. If that doesn’t appeal to you, chances are POOLS was never really your kind of game in the first place.

As someone who’s not typically attuned to slowing down or taking in the sights, POOLS was an odd one for me. I felt the expected sense of unnerving tension that comes from spaces with endless corridors with no defined A or B point. At least, I would have, if the chapters didn’t have a designated starting and end. Having this pre-determined start and finish slightly undermines the never-ending feel to the environments.

It sounds like a minor thing, and in any other game, it would be. But here however, it’s significant. I’ve some brief exposure to liminal space horror, owing to owning House of Leaves, and even I picked up on how the structure of chapters undermines the unease. Even so, the space that occupies the chapters themselves is expertly crafted and well realised.

POOLS review

Dip Your Toe Into The POOLS

Each chapter is comprised of spiralling, non-sensical physical spaces that you simply traverse to the end of. There are branching doorways, seemingly leading in different directions. Only they’re not. They loop, wind, bend and distort their way back on themselves. Physical space doesn’t follow the laws of our world in POOLS. The architectural design and level layouts work superbly, however.

You’ll come across all manner of swimming areas, impossibly large open halls, horrifically cramped hallways and far too many brightly coloured water slides. Gargantuan columns litter the gleaming tiled rooms and towards the end, you’ll find yourself wandering through weird and wonderful environments. Given the name is POOLS, you can expect plenty of the shimmering H2O to be loping around.

The biggest draw of the backrooms and POOLS using old, dilapidated swimming pools is obvious. It invokes a sense of strange nostalgia – like you’ve seen at least one of these spaces before. You have memories here, experiences that are tangible. It’s uncanny how the effect works, but it really does. I was never totally convinced in POOLS, but there were definitely moments of it that stuck.

Audio design goes a long way towards aiding this discomforting experience. For the most part, it’s a silent, solitary existence. Your footsteps reverberate, the tiles echoing from the bipedal planting of your presence. Occasionally, a short string of music will kick in. There may be a whisper, a bang in the distance. It’s never really horror, but POOLS can be disquieting once you’re disarmed.

POOLS review

Storm In A POOL-cup

Really, that’s the whole experience of POOLS. You traverse uncanny location after location, soaking it in until you roll credits. For some, that’ll be no end of hideously boring. For others though, it’ll be spellbinding, intoxicating and hugely immersive. Developer Tensori are aiming for a certain niche with this and it’s likely it’ll drown the target audience in exactly the kind of disparate unease they crave.

What’s not in doubt is that POOLS looks stunning. Lighting shimmers off of the endless tunnels of sterile, old-fashioned white tiles. Water will lap around your ankles, reflecting the darkness of the doorway ahead, or floating seemingly impossible pictures back towards your perspective. If you’re prone to claustrophobia, POOLS will certainly challenge your fortitude, owing to an abundance of tight, dimly lit corridors with concealed exits.

The photorealism works wonders to sell to the aura, even if the environments have minimal to no interactivity. Getting sound and visuals to mesh this well is essential to making a liminal space feel alive, even when it’s supposedly devoid of said life. POOLS gets that spot on, and will deliver the hoped for experience for those yearning for it.

Which begs the question of whether you should buy it? While it’s a cop out, the answer to that very much depends on whether you can put your notion of what a game should be aside. This is a walking simulator in purest form, with next to no interactivity whatsoever. However, it’s a spectacularly crafted liminal space experience that’s a no brainer for those who love wandering those endlessly intimidating yet nostalgic halls.

Step into the water, feel the disconcertment as you question whether you’ve seen this pool before. You’ve walked this hall once upon a time, but can you trust the memory of it? That’s the beauty of POOLS.

A short but impressively realised walking simulator that will unnervingly delight many and disappoint some, POOLS is a purely experiential liminal piece of media. Like all of its halls and corridors, you may wonder where the end goal is, or where the purpose lies. But that’s precisely the purpose of the liminal – to focus on emotion and feeling, even if that’s slightly undermined by its structural design.

POOLS is available now via Steam (review platform).

Developer: Tensori
Publisher: Tensori

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.

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