I seem to have made the rod for my own back here. Mention that you love Alien: Isolation and all the horror games get thrown at you. I’ve said before that first person, defenseless spooky games put the absolute fear into me. Is Visage going to be the game that steels my resolve?
Absolutely friggin’ not. If anything, it’s just cemented that fear of FPS horror games even more so. Built off the foundation that the now-defunct P.T/Silent Hills demo laid, Visage is a claustrophobic experience indeed. Set in one house, albeit one that jumps between time zones and gravitational logistics, it isn’t necessarily original in its concept.
The “spooky house” theme has been done over the years in plenty of mediums. When it’s lazy, it can be trite and boring. Done properly, however, and it can surprise in the most unexpected of ways. To go into Visage with a narrow-minded, “here we go again” approach isn’t wise, as I did.
Is it really that terrifying as I’m making it sound, am I exaggerating, or will its technical issues sap all the immersion from it? Start channeling your inner medium, as we explore what went on in this fated house…
Residence Of Evil
Right out of the gate, Visage pulls no punches. Starting a new game puts in the perspective of a man unknown, sat at a table in a darkly lit room. Before him are three captives, including a child, bound and gagged to chairs. We’re forced to watch through this man’s eyes as he loads a revolver and executes them, before turning the gun on himself…
It had me open-eyed and my immediate thought was, “Damn, Visage, you’re flying out of the gate”. This fade to black leads to us taking control of someone staggering out of a bathroom into a darkly lit house, thus beginning the game. Are you the reincarnation of the murder-suicide man, or are you just an unlucky homeowner…?
What I can tell you is that you are Dwayne Anderson (not you personally, I meant the player character). This is your house and unfortunately, you’re stuck in it. Not through storm weather or anything normal, but because there are restless spirits and truths to uncover before you can leave. See, mortgage advisors always fail to mention the small print.
Dig Deep, For There’s A Lot To Uncover
Your mission, that you’re forced to accept, is to explore the house and uncover what has happened here. Decked out in appropriate 80’s decor, Dwayne’s house is a maze in itself to get used to. From a layout perspective, it’s quite an impressive if straightforward family home.
Yet as events start to unfold and you start to open more doors, that soon changes. One innocent door like any other can instead lead you into what appears to be a portal to the past. Another can reveal a hole that leads you down an impossibly deep hole, or to what looks like a mausoleum. Some doors are bolted shut in the house, others inexplicably jammed.
As you tentatively navigate your surroundings, you pick up tools along the way that all serve a purpose. Keys, mechanical cranks and even a sledgehammer, these are all needed to progress through what becomes a labyrinthine nightmare. Mirrors are not just for preening, as smashing certain ones opens new portals and pathways.
There are also logic puzzles akin to Resident Evil VII or Silent Hill 4: The Room to work out along the way. Whilst some are pretty straightforward, such as where the “garage key” will work, others are not so simple. There’s a rather fiendish one involving clock hands, coat hooks and crooked portraits that had me stumped for ages.
In itself, it sounds like a normal escape room-type situation. I could handle that. What I can’t handle, however, are the malevolent forces inside the house.
Piss Off, Ghost!
As mentioned before, bad things have happened in this house. Yet rather than follow the light and pass on to the afterlife, the spirits have remained. Rather than be helpful ghosts that want me to ease their transition, they are instead malevolent.
Though it’s not like Luigi’s Mansion, in that ghosts are freely about the place for you to tackle. Visage goes a different route, one that has a more damaging effect on the psyche. Akin to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, or Eternal Darkness on the Gamecube, this game features a sanity-based “health” system. What this means is that the more your nerves are shot, the more the restless spirits have a hold on you.
It starts innocently enough: doors closing behind you, lights turning themselves off, footsteps echoing about the house. But as your mind starts to fray, the demons really come out to play…
Stand in the dark too long and the ghosts will appear. Not in the harmless, “librarian from Ghostbusters” way, either. More Ring-like apparitions that will flicker and stutter towards you and stab you in the stomach, instantly killing you. There’s no health meter, instead using your sanity as a life gauge. If you’re caught, you’re dead.
Fans of horror games may be wise to some of the more obvious jumpscares and set-pieces, which is understandable. Whilst I’m no veteran, and can see some things coming, this game still made me uncomfortable.
Playing With Portals, Poltergeist And Punishing Puzzles
In terms of core gameplay (besides being messed up by ghosts), Visage is no different than its forebears. The P.T/Silent Hill comparisons are favourable in this instance, as Sadsquare Studios are clearly fans.
As you navigate casa de Anderson, you are free to pick up most objects in your vicinity. Candles and light bulbs are your necessities for warding off the dark, with Zippo lighters coming along later. Exploring the environment is key, and holds keys, as you will need to get acquainted with which doors lead to where and what unlocks what.
Puzzles start off fairly simple: finding a basement key will unlock, as you may have guessed, the basement. You hear noises in the attic, but the handle for the roof hatch door is too far away. Ergo, you [hopefully] deduce, you need something long and hook-like to obtain access. Rudimentary enough, right?
For the most part, it’s not too bad. Then it starts involving into more obtuse logic, involving skylights and cryptic poems. As mentioned earlier, there’s a particularly nefarious one that had me taxed for the longest time. Is it because I lack the logistical capacity to figure these out on the fly?
Well, yes, but it also highlights one of Visage’s biggest faults…
Spirits Above, Give Me A Sign!
We’re in a weird place with video games and difficulty. We lambasted the likes of Broken Sword and its damned goat puzzle, yet we don’t need it done for us. What we’d like is a happy middle ground: don’t hold our hands, but don’t make it so obtuse as to break immersion. Offer hints or some idea of where to go so that we don’t need to keep stopping to check a walkthrough.
Visage ignores that plea with nary a hint nor waypoint. For example, the whole “mirror portal” gimmick is great. It adds new rooms and dimensions to the house, as well as some trippy sequences to boot. What the game doesn’t allude to, though, is that they have to be done in order. So you might be stumped in one, looking for a solution, yet it won’t come because you haven’t solved the portal one prior.
It can be annoying, as it means adding more unnecessary backtrack through the ghost gauntlet if you aren’t prepared. It also doesn’t help that Visage also has a cack-handed inventory system. You can’t just pick something up and stuff it in your jacket(?), you have to allocate a hand to hold it first. Some items, like lighters, can be used there and then. Others, like sanity-restoring pills, have to be highlighted, put in a hand, then used, all before putting them back. Even discarding items is a faff. There’s no in-menu prompt so it’s another four stage process to chuck something.
The only other issues I had were not being able to pause, which seems daft in a single player game, and collision detection. It’s as if Dwayne is too precious about touching any of his household furnishings, for fear of breaking them. Getting near to any wall, banister, lamp or bedpost will see whatever you’re holding reel away like two magnetic polarities trying to touch.
The spooky immersion gets somewhat dented when you’re carrying a sledgehammer that starts flailing about near objects. It’s doubly awkward when you’re carrying said hammer and a lighter. Anderson looks like he’s about to start some extreme juggling, but can’t bring himself to let go of either.
Enter The Nightmare…
Yet for all of my whinging about it being terrifying and the sometimes iffy collision issues, I love Visage. Well, not love, that’s too strong a word. I hate playing it, but not because it’s a bad game.
If you want to consider it picking up the torch from P.T then it’s done a very impressive job. The look and feel of the house looks very impressive, it’s the close ups of the ghosts that look a bit uncanny valley. The tone has been captured perfectly, creating an immersive sense of unease throughout.
The ever-looming feeling of dread, coupled with an “always keep the lights on” mechanic is wonderfully implemented. It makes you in charge of your sanity, meaning ghosts will prey if you drop the ball or your composure. The noises and disturbances are there to make you lose your focus, and they will.
The merit of a game recommendation is usually strengthened by finishing it before passing it on. I would love to say, “Oh yeah, breezed through it and got all the endings”. I haven’t, but not through lack of trying.
As you can see above, that kind of thing just stops me dead in my tracks. I did my best to overcome my own cowardice and get it done, but I couldn’t. Which, if you think about it, is testament to Sadsquare doing the genre and game justice.
So this in indeed a recommendation. Go ahead and try it for yourself, then either regale me with how easy it was or that I was right. For the truly immersive experience, whack some decent headphones on whilst you play. I did… they didn’t stay on for very long.
A terrifying and unnerving experience to play, Visage pays tribute to those that came before it spectacularly. A few minor issues won’t spoil the fun, but you won’t help but notice them as you uncover the truth. You have been warned.
Visage is available now on Xbox One (reviewed on), PlayStation 4 and PC.
Developer: Sadsquare Studio
Publisher: Sadsquare Studio
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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