Horror games aren’t always for me. If I want to be existentially terrified, I can just go on Twitter. The best horror games, the ones that keep me pushing through to the end, are the ones that hook into the part of my brain that just has to know what’s on the other side of that creepy door, even if it’s something bad.
In Song of Horror, it’s always something bad.
Initially taking control of alcoholic errand boy Daniel Noyer, you’ll explore the dark, abandoned home of the Husher family. Something awful has happened. Packed suitcases litter the hallway, the mirrors are all smashed and, of course, the power is out. As you look for clues as to the family’s whereabouts, the consciously old-school fixed camera makes it feel like you’re being watched from the shadows. Things go from bad to worse to oh God, make it stop, and after a satisfyingly creepy prologue you get a new goal – save Daniel.
This is when Song of Horror’s first great idea comes into play. The game presents you with a selection of characters, each with their own reason to explore the house. If they die, they’re dead for good, and you’ll have to pick up where they left off with someone else. Maybe the housekeeper’s husband, worried that he hasn’t heard from his wife in a few days, or the alarm technician who definitely did not sign up for any of this. If they all die it’s game over, back to the beginning with you.
This permadeath adds a thick layer of tension to the game when even opening a door without checking it first can send your character to a grim, tendrily end. I found myself triple-checking every hiding spot, dreading the thought of starting over. It’s an effective threat, and one that the game had no hesitation acting upon when my final survivor, Daniel’s ex-wife Sophie, decided to risk sticking her hand in an inky basin. The basin won.
Much of the game involves picking through the aftermath of whatever went down in the house, with the characters providing commentary on the items you find. An impressive level of care has clearly gone into making sure each character has a different response to, say, finding a samurai sword on the wall, and this should go some way to making repeat playthroughs more engaging.
The other thing that alleviates the pain of starting over – Song of Horror’s second great idea – is an AI that responds to your actions and sends up scares when it thinks they’ll be most effective, with the intention being that no two playthroughs will be alike. Stand indecisively for too long and the game will subtly nudge you along, perhaps by shaking the walls or throwing a bird through a window. On my second playthrough I tensed up as I climbed the basement stairs, waiting for a particularly jarring jump scare that I remembered from before. It never came. I think that was worse.
Unfortunately, it’s not all moonlight and black roses, especially when it comes to polish. The environments are detailed and grimly enticing, full of intriguing corners to poke about in, but the characters and animations have a stiffness that occasionally makes navigation frustrating. While the translations from the developers’ native Spanish are mostly solid, a few awkward phrases and some untranslated text stuck out. Hopefully these will get patched out soon enough, as will the depth-of-field bug that made it almost impossible to solve one of the puzzles.
That said, jank is often part of the charm of horror, especially when tiny budgets result in creative solutions. Rather than go down the action-survival route, Song of Horror relies on mini-games to control your characters’ sanity when evil closes in. Some characters are better than others at surviving these events, and I occasionally felt like the scales were tipped too far in the game’s favour.
Song of Horror often feels like an all-you-can-eat spooky buffet. Possessed dolls? Yes please. Ouija boards, smoky tentacles and haunted music boxes? Don’t mind if we do. Still room on the plate for a creepy child’s drawing of unknowable eldritch entities? Oh, why not. Let’s be naughty. This “anything goes” approach means that for every cliché there are also genuine surprises. Over the course of the first two episodes (of a planned five) I found myself wanting to look past the clunky controls and unwinnable mini-games, to find out what was behind the next door. Maybe it won’t be something bad.