During the CD-rom boom of the late 90s, most gaming magazines came bundled with demo discs to show off upcoming titles. Instead of the previous media wars fought with optimal screenshots and early preview coverage, the new weapons were discs loaded with exclusive demos and videos. I can recall so many issues of Official Playstation Magazine and PC Gamer that were bought solely for the shiny bit of plastic attached to their covers.
Even though most print media has fallen from the shelves, video game demos still persist as a means to sell product. Nearly all of the games featured on the Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network feature trial versions as a tempting gateway to a full purchase. As a result, my friends and I have made a metagame out of downloading piles of demos and binging on these trial versions for an evening of fun.
For this fantastically frightening month of October, I have gathered a handful of spooky game demos to play on my Xbox 360. Please join me as we take ghoulish glimpses into these terror-filled titles!
Anna: Extended Edition
At first glance, Anna seems like a unique horror title amongst a sea of zombie massacres and gory shooting sprees. The game takes place at an pleasant sawmill set in the gorgeous Italian mountains. Vivid colors, impressive graphics, and generally bright visuals serve as a contrast to the seemingly dark story that the player must uncover. But beneath this lovely exterior lies a horror beyond any player’s expectations: classic adventure game point-and-click logic.
That’s right folks- Anna is a game all about rubbing every single object you happen to accumulate upon every single interactive surface in the game. Most of the demo is spent trying to figure out how to get into the sawmill, which is where the really interesting bits of the game (supposedly) happen. In order to glean even the slightest inkling of the main character’s motivation to enter this rustic building, the player has to slog through a dozen pages of a rather bland journal. In an older game from the 90s, this sort of gameplay would have been acceptable and heralded as engaging storytelling. But in our modern world, where games like Bastion manage to enrapture players with a narrative woven into the core gameplay, forcing your player to read a digital journal just to get interested is a cardinal sin.
Anna: Extended Edition is a gorgeous game that should keep players engaged for an interesting story, but instead it sets up roadblocks and stumbling stones right from the start.
Whenever I am asked what sort of game I would design, my default answer is always the same: multiplayer Symphony of the Night. But since Harmony of Dissonance fell short of my hopes and dreams (no story, what gives?!), I have continued to plan for the inevitable day my ideal game would come along. Fortunately, an absolutely beautiful game by the name of Abyss Odyssey has come along to distract me once more.
From an indie studio based out of Chile, Abyss Odyssey tells the story of a warlock who slumbers at the bottom of a deep chasm. As this magician sleeps, the dreams that fill his mind become reality, and clamber to the surface to attack the populace of the human world. Fortunately, the warlock has also dreamt of three heroes who are willing to make their way below to wake their maker.
Much of the game plays like a side-scrolling beat em’ up with some fighting game flair. Players can upgrade their weapons and armor, unlock magic attacks, and work as a team to uncover new content. Abyss Odyssey also features roguelike elements, such as randomized dungeons and a mechanic where the moment a hero falls, a human soldier takes their place in a survive-or-permadie circumstance. What really makes this game stand out is the unique Art Nouveau visuals that suit the play-style so much, it’s a wonder we haven’t seen something like this before.
If you are looking for a lovely and challenging co-op experience, I would recommend Abyss Odyssey. If nothing else, just hop on their website and admire the beautiful character art.
Slender: The Arrival
At the start of Slender: The Arrival, there is a opening screen that encourages players to, “approach this game with an open mind. Make use of your own personal relatable experiences and memories of desolation in the wild. You’re on your own and your survival is up to you.” Right from the start, Slender imparts an atmosphere of dread to the foolish player who dared to play this game alone in a darkened room.
Fortunately, this game doesn’t have to rely on an unsettling title screen to maintain a general unease throughout the experience. Excellent lighting and environment visuals immerse the player into a series of not-so-abandoned locales, the first of which being the house of a longtime friend, deep in the mountains. As you investigate the artifacts left behind by your virtual pal, little glimpses of a literally faceless monster creep in from the periphery. The suited antagonist known as Slender Man pops up in scripted moments that may or may not be encountered by the player. Since these quick shots of the specter are not always seen, the seemingly random experiences keep the scares fresh.
The demo stops just short of a venture into the woods where the Slender Man directly hunts the protagonist, so it’s up to the player to overcome this fear and go forth… or you could be a sissy like me and give up immediately. Slender: The Arrival is a fantastic and creepy game to play this Halloween, so give it a glare if you’re in for a scare!