Since I'm in between major releases, it's time for yet another indie Steam game. This time, it'll be a game that was released this year! Only a few weeks ago, in fact! I picked up Room 404 (along with a couple handfuls of other games) in the Steam Summer Sale a couple weeks ago. It's yet another attempt to scratch that horror itch that was left behind by the cancellation of P.T.. Room 404 completely failed to scratch that itch.
Practically the whole game consists of walking around collecting keys. Not very scary...
There's really not much to this game at all. It's only a couple hours long and isn't very mechanically or intellectually substantive. It falls firmly into the category of "walking simulator", and even that might be generous. There's basically three types of puzzles that get re-used throughout the game - if you can call them "puzzles", that is. All of them are resolved by simply exploring the linear areas to find the triggers to solve the puzzle. Numeric keypad locks are opened by searching adjoining hallways and rooms for the numbers that make up the combo, which are hidden in plain sight or in obvious locations. If you're not looking for keypad numbers, then you're looking for simple keys. The second puzzle type involves simply lighting candles in the right order. The final puzzle (which only appears once) puts you in a tiny maze and shows you a map that highlights your current location and the location of the exit. You turn three corners, and you're done.
Some of these puzzles are made a little bit confusing by the game's only real feature: its changing landscape. At several points in the game, you'll come across a locked door or obstacle, which will force you to turn around to find that your environment has changed. In some cases, this will mean that another door will suddenly be open, allowing you to explore a previously-closed off room. In other cases, you simply turn back around to find the obstacles gone. These situations are always accompanied by an audio cue to notify you that something has changed, and the sound of a creaking door will often notify you to go back and check previously-closed doors. In other cases, it's not always obvious what you're supposed to do, and I swear at least a couple puzzles were solved by my simply turning around in circles a couple times wondering what the heck the game wanted me to do.
Puzzles don't get any more complicated than finding keys and numbers hidden in plain sight.
There is an enemy in the game that can kill you on contact, just like in so many other "run and hide" horror games. However, in this case, you can't actually run or hide. There's no crouch or hiding mechanics in the game at all. So I'm not sure exactly what the developer expected the player to do when the enemy shows up and starts chasing you. All you can do is turn around and walk away, but the levels are so confined and linear that there's generally nowhere for you to go. There's a run button, but it doesn't help in getting away from the enemy, since the character's run speed is only a tiny fraction faster than the normal walking speed. I was holding SHIFT almost the entire game and still felt like I was walking at a snail's pace.
The animation of opening doors even includes a brief pause, as if the character is checking for threats on the other side. But there are never threats on the other side, and even if there were, you can't cancel out of the door-opening animation. And even if you could cancel out of opening a door because you find a ghost or monster on the other side, there's nowhere else for you to go except through the door. So what's the point of this needlessly drawn-out animation? Was there supposed to be a more robust hide-and-seek mechanic? In any case, all this adds up to a very boring game that completely fails to really establish any kind of mood or tension. The puzzles aren't intellectually stimulating, there's virtually no actual horror atmosphere, and avoiding the enemy is a mechanical dead end.
The game's environments do show a decent degree of technical skill. Textures and lighting mostly look good other than a few buggy textures here and there. Areas are well-modeled and there's a lot of decorations scattered around. So at least the game isn't hard on the eyes. There are a few places where the visuals might fool you into thinking that this is a higher-production game than it actually is. But that feeling wont last long, as the dull gameplay will quickly lull you out of any illusion of quality.
Environments, lighting, and fire effects at least look decent.
Perhaps Room 404 could have been saved if it just had a decent plot or concept. I was pretty sure how the game would turn out by simply reading the Steam Store description. The moment I tried opening the first door and saw that character's bandaged hands, my expectations were reinforced. Sure enough, the game ended pretty much exactly as I expected it to. There were no surprises at all. The paltry attempts at backstory don't even make the predictable plot feel substantive or meaningful in any way. I'm not sure if maybe the developers intended to have more going on in the plot, but if not, then this seems pretty pretentious to me. The characters all seemed shallow, the environments lacked any strong symbolism (that I could detect), and the pretense of "going deeper into the character's mind" just didn't work for me at all. Even Among the Sleep (as dull as the actual gameplay was) at least managed to populate its world with some thematic subtext and even managed to deliver a successful emotional punch at the end. Room 404 starts weak, and then just fizzles from there.
Despite the game's simplicity, there are still bugs. I ran into two game-breaking bugs during my couple hours with the game. Both required me to exit back out to the main menu and restart the entire chapter over again. In the first case, I fell through the floor outside of the family tomb. Strangely, I landed in a place that had a solid floor, which implied that maybe there's supposed to be an area underneath the tomb. The second bug involved the character getting stuck in terrain when I walked off a ledge to use what appeared to be an obvious shortcut. This was a place that the player was clearly intended to go, but it was still broken. Ah well. The final "boss fight" is also buggy, as the boss likes to disappear and refuse to show up for you to confront him. It's also possible that the ending may be bugged. It offers the player a choice, but both choices seem to lead to the same outcome. It might be deliberate, but I'm not sure.
I definitely can't recommend Room 404. It's just too small, too simple, and too predictable to be worthwhile. Yeah, sure, it's an indie title made by a couple of people, so the expectations shouldn't be too high. But even in that context, the game feels like a weak freshman indie title. The art design shows some promise, but the rest of the game just falls flat. But if I learned anything from my recent playthrough of DreadOut, it's that games can get a whole lot worse than this.
A few bugs forced me to quit and restart the chapter -
including falling through the floor [LEFT] and getting stuck in the terrain of an obvious shortcut [RIGHT].