May 28, 2024

Crow Country is a retro-inspired survival horror developed by the two-sibling team over at SFB Games. Brothers Tom and Adam Vian have worked on an extensive list of titles; either published by their studio like the Detective Grimoire series or third-party exclusives for the Nintendo Switch with Snipperclips. Either way, I think it’s fair to say you can’t put SFB Games in a box, and their latest release is a prime example of that.

Crow Country’s conception came from Adam’s love of the classic PS1 survival horrors. A genre that the studio hasn’t quite taken on to this capacity, but that has been a pervasive trend throughout recent years in the indie scene. With the likes of The Tartarus Key, Signalis and multiple games under the Puppet Combo label all dredging up that very specific notion of analogue grime that came with games from way back when, there’s been quite the renaissance happening for retro horror and I’m all in.

Crow Country then, may just be the truest depiction of that PS1 Survival Horror with a sprinkle of modern sensibilities to not alienate players, but it may just abduct you. Let’s get into it.

I See That Place…

The year is 1990, Atlanta’s once bustling theme park, Crow Country, has been closed for 2 years, with the founder Edward Crow presumed missing. You play as Mara, as she investigates the disappearance of Edward to finally get to the bottom of the theme park’s sudden closure. Very quickly you realise that the closure is for good reason when strange coagulated beings roam the park and put your life in danger.

Crow Country doesn’t have a huge cast of characters to meet along your way, but there’s one character that persists throughout and that is the theme park itself. The sense of place as you’re traipsing through the various grounds of the park is one of the best things about the game. Like the Spencer Mansion from Resident Evil or the Finch’s home in What Remains of Edith Finch, Crow Country exudes that similar sense of existence. There are things you can’t explain happening in every corner, but you can’t help but be swept up in its dilapidated and creepy environment.

This is partly because of the brilliant amount of detail in every area across the singular unwinding map, but also the treasure trove of very ordinary notes that kind of benignly feed you information that absorbs you. You can’t help but relate these employee notes to maybe people you’ve worked with and believe that this was once an oddly functioning theme park.

There’s a lot to take in and like most survival horrors there’s a bombardment of clues, world-building and characterisations that you may not gather all the pieces coherently. However, sitting with the story for the time I have, I can’t wait for the amount of lore excursions and theories to come out of this.

Red Tinted Glasses

You play Crow Country from an isometric perspective that’s a little closer to Mara as opposed to showing the whole environment on screen. This unique angle builds a similar tension to what an over-the-shoulder/fixed camera angle does by withholding potential environmental dangers you might face. It also forces you to rotate the camera to discover some of the puzzles or ammo/health lying around; I love how this simple mechanic of just moving creates that unease we look for in survival horror.

Mara walks by default and firing your weapon means stopping in place to aim and manually fire your gun, in true old-school Resident Evil fashion. There are a handful of enemies that stalk the theme park: from the minor inconveniences of sludges on the floor, to the more burly and threatening hulks of inside-out flesh that pose a bigger threat.

You will face all of them throughout the game to a point where you physically won’t be able to kill them all. Whether it’s the sheer number of enemies or the limitation of resources, it’s smarter to try and evade the threats. These moments also get more fierce as the game goes on by showing up in bigger numbers or getting to new areas with tighter corridors, making the backtracking never feel safe.

Terrifying Conundrum

When you’re not fighting for your life, you’ll be solving the myriad of puzzles that permeate every room in Crow Country. The game gives you quite a big area to explore early on and some of the puzzles you’ll come across may not be solveable upon initial arrival. You’ll have some clues or important objects on the opposite end of the map, doors with codes you’ll have to solve and of course, colour-coordinated keys that open specific doors.

Often times you’ll find notes that are very explicit but lacking context which became an extremely satisfying gameplay loop, as I mentally pieced fragments together. The puzzles vary from simple codes to find and use to the more multifaceted use of various theme park equipment to gain an important item. As someone who isn’t great at puzzle games, the amount of puzzles and which order to tackle them in was a hurdle in of itself.

There was a lot of time in the early game that I was just pottering about looking for clues and whilst it didn’t hurt the overall pacing, I was definitely struggling to engage fully. This was partly because I was reluctant to use the hint machine (which I’ll get to) but it’s very easy to get lost before you truly find your bearings.

Something Old, Something Borrowed

SFB Games has done a tremendous job to marry old-school and modern sensibilities into the game, whilst remaining true to the ethos of retro survival horror. Firstly, if you’re unsure on the trouble enemies might give you, there’s an Exploration Mode that gets rid of all combat encounters – turning Crow Country into a delightfully off-kilter puzzle game. Tank controls run alongside modern controls for those who want a more authentic experience and there’s no inventory management, though there is a cap on how many items/ammo you can carry.

Be sure to make a save in the safe rooms, however, as dying without a save will mean starting from the beginning. I found this out the hard way, as someone who’s still not over some of my own blunders of not saving before a dangerous encounter in my younger years, it was a bittersweet reminder. It’s also a reminder that most of a survival horror’s tension comes from that very design of risk-taking, not knowing what to expect, so prepare for the worst. Crow Country isn’t necessarily a scary game, but it is one full of dread that tugs at your heart rate.

Similarly, if it’s not the horrors that are giving you hell but the puzzles, there are a few hint machines that can offer some useful knowledge. They kind of look like fortune-telling machines like Zoltar where you have 10 credits for subsequently 10 hints. It’s a great way of assisting the player but not necessarily being a complete crutch throughout your playthrough. There are strict health parameters as well as also hiding away in the inventory screen detailing Mara’s condition; though you can also gauge her state by the details of her character as she may look bloody or limping.

Price Of Admission

If you do manage to beat the game, you’ll be met with a ranking system. You’re ranked on heals used, hints used and secrets found (there are 15 to discover). From B Rank onwards you unlock a new special item for your next playthrough, which is a great incentive to go back but just knowing I didn’t find anything the first time round was enough to go through it again and sift through everything.

This is because Crow Country’s overall design is top-tier for retro-inspired survival horror. The almost pre-rendered background quality of your environments are actually just 3D modelled, mostly interactable and just strikingly detailed. As you enter the theme park, crows can be seen picking away at the remnants of flesh, eyes from various bins or animatronics bulge out staring at you whilst your boxy character sprite stands out from the grunge of the fallen park. Later in the game, you’ll be exploring away in the Fairy Land or Neptune’s Kingdom, amongst others, where they all have that uncanny atmosphere about them.

There’s also so much going on in the game’s writing that bolsters the story the theme park feeds to you simultaneously. There’s a VHS-style filter that you can’t turn off in the settings, but it’s unintrusive enough and adds so much texture to the visuals that you’re more than likely to not want to. The tone of Crow Country and overall design is incredible and the game’s soundtrack also elevates the experience.

Exit Through The Gift Shop

Animator and composer Ockeroid provides the various soundtracking elements to the game and it is an astonishing match made in heaven. There are a lot of musical themes that cue whether it’s from a character or enemy encounters, but it’s the overall ambience of the moment-to-moment gameplay where the music really shines.

There’s Silent Hill in there, Resident Evil and even Final Fantasy to deliver a truly harrowing yet whimsical score. It’s almost instantaneously recognisable but something I haven’t heard before and it just delivers on SFB Games vision so succinctly.

As you can probably tell, I’m quite head over heels for Crow Country, though I am an easy mark. The game is a near-flawless modernisation of survival horror classics that also sets itself apart by being wholly unique in its artistic execution. There’s nothing necessarily new for players who are also a fan of the genre but Crow Country does an outstanding job of reminding me what I love in horror games.

Crow Country doesn’t reinvent the genre of survival horror but it represents the best bits whilst also being excellently distinct in its presentation. The puzzles are multifaceted and engaging, the combat is tense and satisfying and the overall design is a retro horror fan’s dream.

Crow Country is available 9th May 2024 on PlayStation 5 (review platform), Xbox Series X|S and PC via Steam.

Developer: SFB Games
Publisher: SFB Games

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

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