Charon’s Staircase is the second game from Indigo Studios, who’s crafting a brand around interactive stories. Interactive stories feel like a much better descriptor than the pejorative term ‘Walking Simulator’. The genre as of late has been known for their incredible narratives and as time goes on the amount of great games within the genre is only increasing. This is not one of those games unfortunately.
Jack of All Faiths, Master of None
The Ministry are a totalitarian government that rule a country. It doesn’t specify what country, but with the original language being Spainish, it could be safe to assume as such. Anyway, The Ministry now want to be a part of the European Union but with their shady history; you’re tasked to find classified documents and destroy them – only to discover, Project Alpha. Your name is not important, but it’s Desmond. I’m paraphrasing the opening line to fit perspective but the oxymoronic sentence is just the start of what’s to be the rest of the game.
During research, most outlets describe it being set in the 1970’s. You discover newspapers from 1976. The environments you explore look like they belong in 1876, and there’s technology like ‘Contactless’ like it’s 2016. There was a throwaway line suggesting the leader of The Ministry was technologically advanced, but I’m sorry, that’s not good enough. Nothing is deep in its explanations when setting up the world in every aspect. There is a lot of reading to be dine with too many non sequiturs. “Musings” to create an atmosphere just fell flat.
There is a cult-like religion going on in The Ministry, but the leader was also creating technology ahead of its time. Whilst also being so xenophobic he assumed people from the south were the cause of Cholera outbreaks. These Cholera outbreaks spurred on the start of the Alpha project which started out to be a cure for Cholera, but evolved into trying to create superior humans. The heart of the story is about a family in mourning but madness to create ensues. I wish the story went one way and ran with it, but it tried to tick so many boxes it executes none of it well.
Take Me Away Charon
Booting up the game I was already met with frame rate drops in the menu – not a good sign. I turned up the brightness from the start as I couldn’t see anything outside the one source of light; until I approach the lamppost and it pops leaving me back into darkness. It was a poor attempt of a jump-scare and those attempts only continue throughout.
Nothing in this outside of its poor execution in lighting is scary about Charon’s Staircase. Nothing builds tension and in those quiet moments, opening a door with a jarring sound then having a rat walk out does nothing. There was even a moment where one of the creatures was in a room I needed to get a key from – the closest I’d ever get with one. I reach the key, step backwards and stop. What if I walk up to it? Will it be lights out for me? Nope. It did nothing, I was walking into an invisible wall.
So, it doesn’t execute horror well but how does it fair with the puzzles? Worse. Thankfully there’s not too many puzzles to be had as it’s a relatively short game, but the main puzzles are poor. I don’t know if it’s a case of being lost in translation throughout every puzzle as English is not the first language, but actual game design choices muddy the answers most of the time.
One clue for one digit in a four-digit code is “Red Sisters sat round at the table”. In this said room there is one portrait of a woman in a red dress. There’re also two glasses of red wine on the table, and there’s also nine red chairs around it. In puzzles, words and visual language are so important and if I can connect three things to just one aspect of the puzzle, imagine figuring out all four numbers and the varying combinations that leads to. This dissonance seeps into every puzzle where the words and visuals just don’t add up and I don’t feel smart for finishing them, just frustrated with the conclusion.
Never Been A Fan of Stairs Anyway
Screenshots and footage online of Charon’s Staircase look great and that could be due to the optimisation for more current gen hardware; or they’re not showing what I saw. I’ve mentioned the poor use of lighting and I don’t know if it’s a shoddy attempt of being spooky or to hide a lot of the rough edges. Environments on the surface are nicely detailed, even if the period of it is all over the place. Something I faced in a lot of the game though was things often being out of focus unless I was a certain distance, and short draw distances meant some hallways were pitch black at their end, despite having sources of light.
Not to mention the things you can interact with look texturally stretched out to fit the mould of the item. That can go further into character/creatures’ models. There was even an instance of one creature having a blood overlay that didn’t even map onto it. When small things like this build up over an already discerning game, it just makes you wonder if intentions in making this were right of mind.
Character animations are archaic so I can see why they’re in it sparingly. Going up and down stairs is like a POV of your luggage just banging against every step. So many choices have me left more confused than the puzzles themselves. All that said, the music at least creates a certain sense of atmosphere. They’re piano lead medleys that fit the tone of a foreboding game. In some instances, even melancholic but always mellifluous.
It’s me, I’m the Karen. I’ve complained a lot about Charon’s Staircase but they’re not unsubstantiated gripes. To give it a positive, it’s short if you know your way around. If you care about Trophies this could net you a relatively easy Platinum. But oh, wait, I collected the second and third document but somehow not the first when beating it. So yes, Charon’s stairs don’t go anywhere but down from the first step.
Confused puzzles, a convoluted story, poor use of lighting and no real scares makes Charon’s Staircase a good reason for taking the escalator instead.
Charon’s Staircase is out now on PlayStation 4 (review platform), PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, Nintendo Switch and PC (Steam)
Developer: Indigo Studios
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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