World of Horrors
Creating a surreal and disturbing atmosphere in your horror game is a difficult balancing act. When you have the game set in a realistic environment save for one or two horror elements like in The Convenience Store or The Closing Shift, you run the risk of boring your audience with the mundane. However when you create a completely surreal and disturbing environment it can at best be difficult to understand the stakes of the situation, as is the case with The Evil Within, and at worst the experience can be completely alienating, as is the case with Scorn.
It's odd to see so many games wrestle with this when a very workable framework has been provided decades ago with the Silent Hill games. Simply divide the game into a creepy but relatively mundane world and a surreal hellscape that mirrors it in interesting ways and you can have the best of both worlds. This way you have your setting grounded in the familiar while still getting the chance to use some truly grotesque and unusual imagery when you need to. For as often as Silent Hill is copied, it is a surprise that so many games neglect its balance of the realistic and the surrealistic.
Still, I had assumed the problem of a boring normal world and a nonsensical alien world that is impossible to understand or get invested in were at the very least mutually exclusive problems. However, against the odds Unholy has managed to have both simultaneously. The game takes place in The Eternal City, a rather bleak-looking afterlife, that has been taken over by a megalomaniacal dictator called The High Priest. The city has no connection to the real world and I found myself confused about its scale, the nature of its inhabitants, and even the basic mechanics of life there. Are they supposed to be the recently deceased or is this meant to be a parallel dimension?
Yet despite that confusion, I felt no motivation to figure any of it out because the basic premise of a city controlled by a tyrannical ruler is a video game cliché at this point. I have already been through the streets of Rapture, Colombia, and their innumerable knock-offs, and aside from a slightly gothic art style The Eternal City does not have much to distinguish itself with. Indeed, several aspects make it seem like the game is actively trying to make the premise more generic, like the addition of a zombie plague sweeping through the city's streets.
Through the Streets of the Eternal City
However dull and confusing the city may be, there are some rather thrilling moments to be had as you make your way through its ramshackle buildings. The game is split up into a series of semi-open areas, usually patrolled by enemies. You have no direct combat abilities but you can kill enemy guards with a variety of environmental hazards like landmines, electrical panels, and more cremators. This is great fun, as you explore the area, get a feel for the different obstacles blocking your path, and the different enemies you'll have to overcome, and gradually put together a plan to deal with them and move on to the next area.
For a game that is decidedly on the short side, Unholy has a surprising number of different enemy types and each has their own behaviour and powers. Zombies are mindless drones that will ignore you and blunder into traps on their own accord, while guards are marginally more intelligent and follow set patrolling paths. The witch doctors function like guards with a couple of nasty tricks if you aren't careful. Worst of all are the invisible hunters, who had me jumping at every errant noise.
Less impressive are the game's puzzles that you encounter between these sequences, which would not be out of place in a Skyrim dungeon. Occasionally you will be asked to solve rotating wheel puzzles, or move a few statues in a few specific directions (as depicted on a mural in the same room), or gather a couple of inventory items in the area. For the most part, these are the sort of puzzles that make me wonder why the developer bothered to add them at all. Save for a few extremely dull gamers, it's unlikely that they add any sort of meaningful challenge to the game. Unholy is short, but adding in this sort of non-content is not a valid strategy to pad out the average playtime.
The poor puzzles don't detract from the core stealth action, but unfortunately the same cannot be said for the unfathomably idiotic enemy AI. No matter how close guards are to you, you will always be able to hide in a locker and they will never try to pull you out. The enemies can't climb ladders, even the human ones that should be able to figure it out, so if you ever get in a tight spot you can simply climb up a ladder and look down on the helpless enemy below. They even struggle to navigate stairs. Luckily, there aren't too many of these in the eternal city so this problem doesn't come up much. All the same, these buffoonish antics from the enemies can rob some encounters of all tension.
Likewise, the Desire power-up you get about halfway through the game tends to trivialize a lot of encounters, as you can just chuck one next to a bomb or on the far side of a landmine and watch the enemies march to their doom. I would prefer if these were a bit rarer because as it was I could simply spam them whenever I got in a tough spot.
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Some compelling, albeit short, open ended segments. Good variety of enemies with unique behaviours.
Insultingly easy puzzles. Enemy AI is pitiful. Setting of the Eternal City is at once too alien to get invested in and too mundane to be intrigued by.