An isolated island commune. Creepy cultists. A historic trauma that haunts the lead character. On paper, the debut title from Canadian developer Brass Token ticks off many teen horror movie tropes. It’s fair to say The Chant doesn’t go about subverting the status quo. Instead, it leans into the stapes of the supernatural thriller genre. By blending them with aspects borrowed from survival horror’s best, the game turns into a fairly enjoyable romp.
A Choral Chronicle
The Chant opens in the 1970’s. A bunch of cultists are gathered around and are performing a ritual. Supernatural things start to happen. A pregnant woman who’s initially participating in the chanting gets spooked and she decides to escape. She runs, avoiding the other cultists that are attempting to grab her before throwing herself from a cliff.
Cut to current day. This is where we’re introduced to the protagonist of The Chant – Jess Briars. A mildly ham fisted hallucination tells the player that the young woman Jess is haunted by baggage from her past. A phone call later and she’s joining her friend Kim on a spiritual retreat located on the isolated Glory Island. There’s hope that they can finally put a shared hurt behind them.
As you might suspect by now, things aren’t all Kumbaya and roses on the island. Sure, the rest of the people on the island – Sonny, Hannah, Maya and the leader Tyler (who looks very much like Joseph Seed from Far Cry 4) – seem nice enough at first impressions. If you’ve watched any number of horror/thriller films though, you’ll know something is going to go wrong. It doesn’t take long. During Jess’ first night at the Prismic Science Spiritual Retreat, the s**t hits the fan.
While chanting (hence the title) over crystals, a mysterious coloured fog descends across Glory Island. That fog is filled with occult creatures, weird monsters and undead cultists. Not only that, the fog appears to torment the living, feeding on their insecurities and past traumas. Kim runs away, scared of something unseen, and this snowballs into a series of inexplicable events.
Chanting Up A Storm
So the premise to The Chant is a little typical and it sets up a predictable narrative. If, like me, you find yourself trying to predict what comes next in games, you’ve probably got a few guesses too. Some of you will have guessed right, no doubt. The opening section in the 1970’s hangs over the whole game like a giant Chekhov’s Gun and you’re simply waiting for someone to pull the trigger.
Thankfully, developers Brass Token know this and they’ve left little narrative nuggets that cast illusions on every member of the cast as you progress. While it’s not going to completely throw you off the trail, it does give the story a winding feel as you suspect each character in turn.
The Chant does a decent job of blending narrative, game play mechanics and a metroidvania styled progression system together in a satisfying way. Each of the game’s 6 chapters focus on one individual character via the story, introduces new mechanics and opens up new paths around Glory Island. Along the way, you’ll be collecting a plethora of story based pick ups, lore items and descriptions of the foes you’ll be facing. These slowly but surely unveil what happened on the island all those years ago, give depth to the characters and build up a chilling world to explore.
While the narrative is the most prominent aspect of The Chant, this wouldn’t be a survival horror/thriller without some actual survival to be done. That’s achieved by coupling exploration, combat and resource management into a reasonably complex system.
Throughout The Chant, you’ll have to manage three stats relating to Jess’ wellbeing. There’s health, mind and spirit. Health is exactly what you expect it to be – take damage and you’ll lost some, but by consuming ginger, you can restore it. If you lose all you health, it’s game over – go back to the last check point. Health is also closely tied to the Spirit gauge. This resource is spent rather than lost – you can exchange spirit for health at any time by holding X (on PS5). While that might sound ideal, spirit is also spent to use the supernatural abilities that Jess will obtain as she progresses through the game. This creates a risk system you’ll have to balance. Do you spend your spirit during combat to defeat enemies or do you hold back and use normal weapons (or as ‘normal’ as the weapons in this game are) to restore your health later?
The ‘mind’ stat is slightly different. Given her historic trauma, Jess’ mental state is fragile. Now thrust into a nightmarish environment with horrid monsters, she’ll have to try and keep her head. Some enemies in The Chant can attack this stat which requires a quick tap on the X button to counter. That aforementioned coloured fog that has divided up the island? That’s called the Gloom. This also slowly eats away at the Mind stat as Jess is travelling through it. If this Mind stat runs out, Jess can freak out. This means you’re unable to attack or defend yourself, being forced to run away instead. Some enemies can even kill Jess if they attack and she has no Mind stat left. This mechanic is an interesting twist on the genre which, while being far from revolutionary, adds another consideration you’ll have to balance to surviving the whole ordeal.
This is where The Chant rewards players who explore. Herbs and plants can be picked up around Glory Island and consumed to restore Jess’ stats. There are often little optional side areas along the paths you’ll be following that house health, mind and spirit items, along with the crafting materials that you’ll need to make weaponry.
Fighting Your Demons
I imagine the combat in The Chant is going to be the most divisive aspect of the game. Personally, I feel like the combat is the weakest aspect of the whole game. It’s not quite deep enough mechanically or interesting enough to feel engaging throughout.
Let’s start with the best aspect of the combat: the enemies. For a game that’s just shy of 8 hours long played casually, The Chant has an impressive rogue’s gallery that you’ll be facing off against. There’s multiple new enemies introduced in each chapter and each has their own attack patterns and strengths. The visual design and devilish sounds these creatures create make them feel formidable and nightmarish too.
While the cast of creepy villains you’ll be fighting all have their strengths, they also have a weakness. This is tied to the weapons you can craft and then use in the game. There are 3 types of hand held weapons and a trio of projectiles that can be thrown. The enemies will be weak against one of these types of weapon. For example, the spooky spectral enemies you’ll find in the Gloom are weakest against the Witch Stick. More physical enemies, like the cultist zombies, are weaker against the Fire Lash. This facilitates an element of strategy to the game play; to give yourself the best chance of survival in a fight, you’re best switching to whatever weapon is most effective…
…if you have that weapon available, that is. In order to wield these weapons, you’ll need to have collected the two ingredients required in order to craft them. These weapons degrade through use until they break too. Resources can be tight; while I imagine the idea was to be switching weapons on the fly for whatever is most appropriate, in practice it’s more about using what few weapons you have available, regardless of their effectiveness.
It’s the actual combat itself – the button presses of it all – that often undermine the tactility of the underlying systems. Combat involves three buttons – a melee attack, a dodge and a ranged attack (like throwing salt at an enemy). It’s disappointingly clunky, shallow and repetitive. Pressing circle to dodge an attack and then spamming R2 to swing woodenly at an enemy until your weapon breaks is my primary experience with fighting in The Chant. Get caught in a corner by a few enemies at once and you’ll have a slim chance to survive.
While the combat might be underwhelming, the tone to the rest of The Chant makes up for it. The game doesn’t rely on a load of jump scares – but there are one or two in there – to craft its atmosphere. Instead, it’s the foreboding in the environment, the lack of lightning, the soundtrack and the weirdness of the Gloom enemies that make Glory Island an unsettling place to roam around. When you’re trapped in the mines and surrounded by dark, for example, it can be quite nerve shredding.
The Chant isn’t all about the scares though. Each chapter in the game has at least one puzzle to work through. None of these head scratchers are revolutionary. In fact, long time gamers will have seen all of these puzzles before. At one point you’ll be bouncing beams of light from crystal to crystal around an area to hit a target, which is about as trite a puzzle as you can get in 2022. A lack of originality aside, they work in the context of this weird island filled with creepy creatures.
The term I’d use to describe The Chant as a whole is “Cliched”. The premise, location, puzzles, characters and narrative are all genre tropes you might have seen before in games and other media, multiple times. The thing about clichés is that the reason they become clichés in the first place is because they’re good enough to reuse, over and over. The Chant might be ‘safe’ and lacking originality but that doesn’t mean it’s unentertaining. In actual fact, trotting around dark island trails before waving a handful of burning sage at a man made of flies until it explodes is fun. Because the game runs at quite a pace too, it doesn’t over stay its welcome. If you liked Control or the Dark Pictures Anthology games, The Chant is worth giving a chance.
While elements of The Chant are clichéd or clunky, there’s a surprisingly fun survival thriller nestled between its flaws. Creative monster design and excellent use of lighting (or lack thereof) can make for some nerve shredding moments too.
The Chant is available now on PS5 (review platform), Xbox Series and PC.
Developer: Brass Token
Publisher: Prime Matter / Plaion
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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