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Song Of Horror - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Nice change of pace from psychological horror clichés
  • Risk of perm-death for a character raises the stakes
  • Each character has unique insights
  • Use of light, dark, and sound
  • Danger is always signposted, but not always obvious
  • Some good jump scares
  • Option for visual indicators of sound

WHAT I DISLIKE

  • Story is more loosely plotted to accommodate multiple characters
  • Character deaths have little impact on story
  • Puzzles are difficult to read
  • Some insta-deaths don't feel completely fair
  • Doesn't stick the landing

Overall Impression : B+
Tense, high-stakes cosmic horror

Song Of Horror - cover

Developer:
Protocol Games

Publisher:
Raiser Games

Platforms:
PC (via Steam),
PlayStation 4 < (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
XBox One (via retail disc or XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $30 USD

Original release date:
16 May 2020

Genre:
gothic horror

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
20 hours

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Blood and Gore, Language, Violence

Official site:
www.raisergames.com/games/song-of-horror

Not only is it really great to play an indie horror game that captures the slow and thoughtful nature of old-school survival horror, but it's also refreshing to play a good old fashioned gothic horror game. So many indie horror games come off as feeling a bit pretentious with their reliance on suppressed guilt twists for their psychological horror plots. Song Of Horror bucks that trend by being a straight-forward horror story about haunted houses, possessed artifacts, and otherworldly mysteries.

Song Of Horror also ups the stakes by featuring a cast of multiple playable characters, each of whom can be killed off (and removed from the rest of the story) if the player screws up. So not only do we literally not know what eldritch abomination may lie around any given dimly-lit corner, or behind any creaky old door, but if you're not careful, whatever is around that corner or behind that door might put a premature end to a given character's life and story.

Strut and fret your hour upon the stage, and then ...

Song Of Horror was originally sold as an episodic indie horror game on Steam, but the collection of all episodes was released for console as a single game in 2021. It somehow slipped under my radar until last month, when YouTube recommended a video about it by Mert Kay Kay. Each episode includes 3 or 4 playable characters to choose from, each of whom can be permanently killed off if you fail to avoid or escape from the phantasms that haunt each episode. If a character dies, all the items and notes that they've collected will be dropped on the floor at the spot of their death, and that location will be marked on the next character's map. So you don't really lose any progress if a single character dies. If you lose all the characters in a given episode, however, then it's "Game Over"!

Each episode will introduce one or more new characters, but old characters can also re-appear as playable characters if they survived the previous episode(s). Thus, losing a character in an early episode may have the longer-term consequence of reducing the player's available lives (to borrow a term from old arcade parlance) for future episodes, and reducing your margin of error.

Each episode has 3 or 4 playable characters, each of whom can permanently die.

But even if you do manage to screw up and get all 4 characters killed in any given chapter, you only have to restart that chapter. Song Of Horror won't delete your save file and force you to redo the entire game. Each chapter takes 2 -- maybe 3 -- hours to complete on a first-playthrough, and can be done in well under an hour if you know what you're doing. It's actually a loss of progress that is somewhat on par with dying in an old Resident Evil game after doing a fair chunk of exploration without backtracking to a save point.

The legitimate threat of permanently losing a character will naturally raise the stakes of the game and of the horror. It will force the player to play cautiously, to be observant of your surrounding and of context clues in the environment, to pay close attention to sounds and shadows, and to not barge through every door in a rush. In fact, it may do this more effectively than even a game like Resident Evil. Dying doesn't mean simply restarting with the same character and retrying the set piece that got you killed. Dying means permanently losing that character, and having to try again with a new character. Restarting at a checkpoint doesn't simply reset the stakes, it doubles-down on them!

Furthermore, the actual jump scares and dangers are semi-randomized. You won't necessarily encounter the same jump scare or the same monster at the same place and time in any 2 playthroughs. This also keeps things tense, because even on a replay (whether it be a whole new playthrough, or just a respawn with a different character), you can't just memorize all the places to avoid.

The monster behind the door

But Song Of Horror isn't so hard or punishing as to feel un-playable. There aren't any Souls-like bosses that you'll have to fight with perfectly-timed dodges. In fact, there aren't really any enemies or combat at all. Instead, encounters with the various apparitions of the game are usually handled with several variations of the same button-mashing Quick-Time Event, usually themed around controlling the character's heartrate or breath, or requiring the character to overpower a monster. Only one of those variations felt particularly difficult to execute for me.

Holding the character's breath is the only QTE that consistently proved challenging.

The greater danger is actually the occasional "Gotcha!" insta-deaths -- some of which can feel genuinely unfair. But the nature of the multi-character perma-death mechanic means that Song of Horror can get away with insta-kill death traps that would feel obscenely unfair in almost any other game. Song of Horror will also almost always signpost any potential danger, even though it won't always be obvious that an instant death lies in wait. The loading screens are, in fact, loaded with warnings like "better safe than sorry" and "curiosity killed the cat". So it isn't like the developers aren't trying to warn me.

There are some places in which the game will prompt the user if you want to do something, like climb down into a dark well, or stick your hand in a tub full of opaque black water, or to reach for an item. Sometimes these optional events will instantly kill you; other times they will reveal hidden items or unlockables. In at least 1 occasion, one of these prompts must be accepted in order to obtain an item that is necessary to prevent an instant death later in the game. And you're really only going to find out if one of these prompts is a death trap by accepting the prompt and risking instant death. It's the game's primary trick for forcing at least a couple characters to die throughout a first playthrough.

These prompts may lead to an insta-death, or to an essential item.

More often though, the risk of death will come from your decision whether to open any given door. Honestly, doors are your biggest enemy in this game! Prior to opening a door, the player can press and hold a button to push the character's ear up against the door and listen for potential threats on the other side. It's a clever variation of peeking through ajar doors in many hide-and-seek horror games. If you hear creepy sounds on the other side of the door, then don't open it!

If you do open such a door, then a ghostly apparition called "The Presence" will try to grab you and pull you through. Depending on the particular door, this may be an insta-death, or it may put you in a QTE in which you must force the door closed again before the Presence can pull you through.

The Presence will try to pull the player through doors, unless you can force the door shut.

The game includes an option for visual indicators of noise for players who are hearing-impaired. I wish more games would have more accessibility options for sounds, to go along with all the color-blind modes and other visual assists that many games now have. Having an on-screen indicator to mark the direction of certain noises can be a great help -- not just for people who are hearing-impaired, but also for anybody who isn't playing with headphones or on an expensive surround-sound system. This particular indicator doesn't take the form of icons or HUD elements. Instead, the characters make disturbed grimaces and other frightened facial expressions if they hear a noise. So the effect is entirely diegetic!

But there can still be "Gotchas!" here too, and it's not immediately obvious in a first playthrough that all sounds are dangerous. In one instance early in the first episode, I heard children crying through a door. I was exploring a house belonging to a missing man who has children, so it's possible that the cries I heard were from those children trapped behind the door. My own empathy kicked in, and I was playing as a particularly empathetic character, so I opened the door to make sure there wasn't a child in need of help on the other side. I feel like that's a reasonable thing that almost anybody would also do in real life. I hoped and expected that if there was a monster on the other side, I would at least have an opportunity to try one of the QTEs to avoid dying. Nope. I was punished for my empathy with an insta-death.

The level design also forces a lot of backtracking. Occasionally, there is a handy shortcut that can be unlocked, but running back the way you came is often the only way to go back and pick up a necessary item or solve a puzzle. But there is a method to this madness -- at least on the normal difficulty and higher. The frequent backtracking exposes the player to more potential danger. It means having to stop and listen at doors that you've already passed through to make sure there isn't something on the other side that wasn't there before. And it also means that the comfort and security of running back to a familiar place can be shattered by a curve-ball jump scare, encounter, or set piece that didn't happen on your first time through.

Eldritch horrors may lie around any corner or behind any door. Don't barge in!

Some of the puzzles are also kind of unfair. They aren't really that difficult in terms of the logic necessary to solve them; they're just hard to see. The screens showing the puzzles are often dimly lit, the camera is angled in such a way as to make it hard to see what you're supposed to be looking at, or it's zoomed out to far, and the details of what is being shown on screen are just hard to make out. In multiple occasions, I had to turn up the brightness on my TV (or the in-game gamma) in order to get a better look at the puzzle, and even then, I still couldn't necessarily tell what I was looking at!

There is one puzzle late in the game that I never would have figured out without a guide. This is due in part to the fact that this particular puzzle's logic actually is very esoteric, but it's mostly just due to the fact that it required making out certain details that I simply could not make out! The image of the clue just has too much interference to see the details that the puzzle expects the player to see, and the game won't let me zoom in to get a better look. I honestly can't believe this particular puzzle hasn't been patched and redesigned. It's that bad!

Cast of the damned

Unfortunately, Song of Horror doesn't have a huge budget behind it, so it's not quite as ambitious as its core conceits would seem to make it. Even though characters can die, the death of most characters has little-to-no effect on the story. Maybe the dead characters don't show up in the cutscenes bookending each episode. Or maybe some dialogue slightly changes. But that's about it.

Daniel is the only plot-essential character, and his death means a Game Over.

The characters themselves also don't feel particularly unique or distinct from one another. Each character has a short biography, a light source, a unique keepsake item, and stats for speed, strength, serenity, and stealth. So, in principle, each character should play differently, and allow the player to do things that might not be viable with other characters. But honestly, these things hardly made a difference, and I got through the entire game without really knowing what all these items and stats actually do. I could guess for most of them, but I had to look it all up after beating the game to be sure.

Each character's personal item also has certain in-game effects, but they are also subtle and barely-noticeable. Many of them are passive, so you might not even know that they are doing anything at all. Etienne has a notebook that marks the location of interactable items on the map as soon as you enter a room. Ernest has a hearing aid that makes the sounds behind doors more pronounced. Yet another character actually has an item that can become a liability, as it could put the other characters in danger if that character is killed.

Other than that, each character uses one of several different types of light sources. A few characters have flashlights, which are probably the best light sources in the game, since they illuminate areas further from the player. It can also turn off and on with the flick of a switch. And don't worry, it doesn't run out of batteries! The rest of the characters either use lighters or candles. These provide dimmer light in a smaller radius, and might require multiple presses of a button in order to re-ignite if it is extinguished.

Each character might have unique insights into the environments or events of the game.

The more interesting element of character design is that each character can actually have unique insights into the things you find in the game. Characters who live and work in the setting of a specific episode might have anecdotes about certain objects, or might even have clues as to how to use certain items or solve certain puzzles. Characters who know other characters (whether it be a playable character or an NPC) might have anecdotes that inform the other character's personality. A character who is more culturally-literate might actually recognize paintings hanging on the walls or books on shelves, and may have something to say about the artist or the work itself. A more practical or technically-minded character might have more to say about certain apparatuses that you come across, and how they can be used. And so forth.

Plot punctures

Sadly, I feel like there's a lot of missed potential in the depictions of the characters. As far as I could tell, none of them lets the player flat-out skip certain puzzles, the way that playing as Jill in the original Resident Evil lets you play the piano to access a certain puzzle early, while Chris has to find another character to play the piano for him. On the other end of the spectrum, none of the characters feels handicapped to the point that they make the game more difficult. One character complains repeatedly about having bad, achy knees, but that doesn't stop him from getting on all fours and crawling around when he has to. I could imagine designing the game such that this character maybe can't crawl like that, and so has to solve an additional puzzle to advance without needing to crawl through an obstacle.

The characters' personalities also don't force the player to play in certain ways either. They won't make certain decisions on their own, and potentially lead themselves into danger or safety independent of the player's inputs. In the example earlier about the children behind the door, the fact that I was playing as an empathetic character did play into my decision to role play and open the door, but it was ultimately my decision!

Ernest's bad, arthritic knees don't stop him from getting on all fours and crawling around.

Well, that isn't entirely true. I did encounter one instance in which a character refused to pick up and read a particular note because the subject of that note happened to resemble to a trauma she had experienced. So there is at least one instance in which a character overrode my decision due to characterization. It's possible I missed other similar instances. But I feel that this is an exception that proves the rule, that characters' stats, personalities, and histories have little-to-no impact on the broader game.

I'm also unclear as to exactly how much newly-introduced characters are told about what is going on. Do the other characters warn new characters about the eldritch dangers ahead? Should these new characters know that they should be listening at doors before opening them? Clearly this isn't the case for some characters who enter the game without having any contact with the characters from the previous chapters, but does Daniel warn Grace and Omar about the potential dangers before he lets them go exploring on their own? Should I be playing these characters cautiously, with the knowledge of the threats and how they work? Or should they be played more recklessly because they don't know better?

More importantly, the loss of any given character, or the choice of which character(s) to use in any given episode, doesn't affect the story much at all. It doesn't cause the player to go down different branching story paths. The plot remains exactly the same, with only superficial variations. Generally speaking, the whole game is very loosely-plotted in order to accommodate multiple playable characters. Regardless of which character you pick, you go through all the same levels, hit all the same story beats, solve all the same puzzles, find all the same notes, and encounter all the same QTEs (plus or minus the randomized ones).

So all the different characters, with their distinct stats and personal items, end up feeling more like fluff than meaningful gameplay or story-telling mechanisms. And the plot itself can get kind of sketchy. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that these things hurt the game in any way. I would rather that they be in the game, than not be in the game. They just don't feel nearly as impactful as they probably could have been in the hands of a larger development studio with a larger budget. Maybe if Protocol Games ever makes a follow-up, they'll be a bit more ambitious?

The loss of a character doesn't impact the game or story as much as I'd hoped.

Though, to Song of Horror's credit, the specific order in which characters play an episode can create some degree of emergent stories, with a little bit of imagination. For example, in my first playthrough of the first episode, I lost 3 characters: Etienne, Sophia, and Alina. Etienne went first because he volunteered to check the Husher mansion in the prologue cutscenes, while Sophia offered to check Daniel's apartment.

With Etienne, I managed to restore electricity before dying, which re-activated the house's alarm system. In my head cannon, Sophia went looking for Etienne after he failed to contact her, but she tripped the house's now-active alarm system when she came in. She promptly died after letting curiosity get the best of her. But (again in my head cannon) the tripped alarm caused Alina to be dispatched to check on the house. Being unprepared for what she would find, she also died shortly after arriving. This left Alexander, the property's live-in housekeeper arriving late to look for his missing wife. But what he found was the Song of Horror.

But these characters could play this episode in any order. If Alina is the first character you chose to play, then you can imagine that she was dispatched to check on the alarm losing power before Etienne or Sophia arrived to look for Daniel.

Investigating eldritch mysteries seems like
it would be well above Alina's pay grade.

And you really do have to use your imagination or inference to make sense of why some of these characters are even here. The game sure as heck doesn't bother to justify it. Sure, Alina might be here to fix a broken alarm system, but I would think that investigating eldritch mysteries is well above her pay grade, and she has absolutely no reason to not just book it out the front door as soon as the first creepy thing goes down. It's not like the door locks behind her and traps her in the mansion.

The game also doesn't bother to enforce any particular order for playing the characters, even when the story and cutscenes do suggest a "canon" order. For example, in the opening chapter, Etienne is the one who volunteers to look for Daniel at the Husher mansion, while Sophia offers to check Daniel's apartment. But the game will still let the player play either character at the Husher mansion first, without bothering to explain the incongruence between the cutscene you just watched, and the decision that the player makes.

A small step towards horror innovation?

Even though Song of Horror has some disappointing limitations, I actually like it quite a lot. The developers are clearly big Silent Hill fans, since they threw several easily-recognizable references to Silent Hill in the game. There's an NPC named Walter Sullivan, a postcard depicting Toluca Lake, and one of the characters has a walkie-talkie that emits static when The Presence is near. But yet this developer showed restraint. They could have followed the path of so many other indie horror developers and aimed for Silent Hill 2's brand of "psychological horror" involving repressed guilt, but they instead chose to keep things more straightforward by leaning into the cosmic and gothic horror of their other principle inspirations, including (obviously) Lovecraft, as well as Edgar Allen Poe and others.

Despite the easter eggs, Song of Horror isn't derivative of Silent Hill 2

I would like to see more of this brand of horror from the video game medium. As interactive media, games ask for more participation from the player, which means they have to be based on much stricter rules than movies or books. Cosmic horror is ripe for obscuring or manipulating those rules to create mystery and a fear of the unknown. This has already been demonstrated by older, successful cosmic horror video games such as Eternal Darkness or Bloodborne. Song of Horror doesn't live up to either of those 2 titles, but it could potentially find a noteworthy place in the history of the horror gaming genre. Song of Horror doesn't quite tap all of that potential, but it could very well serve as a stepping stone for future games that will.

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Without Gravity

And check out my colleague, David Pax's novel Without Gravity on his website!

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The Humanity of NCAA Football's In-Season RecruitingThe Humanity of NCAA Football's In-Season Recruiting08/01/2022 If you're a fan of college football video games, then I'm sure you're excited by the news from early 2021 that EA will be reviving its college football series. They will be doing so without the NCAA license, and under the new title, EA Sports College Football. I guess Bill Walsh wasn't available for licensing either? Expectations...

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I saw the plot twist coming from the first trailer, but enjoyed Spider-Man: Far From Home nonethelessI saw the plot twist coming from the first trailer, but enjoyed Spider-Man: Far From Home nonetheless07/18/2019 Where can the Marvel Cinematic Universe go after Thanos? My vote is for Doctor Doom to be the next overarching big baddie now that Disney owns Fox (and the Fantastic Four license). Thanos already successfully wiped out half of all life in the universe, and despite the Avengers gaining access to a time machine, they did not undo...

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