Before we dig deep into the meat of this review, let me first be perfectly clear in stating that horror as a genre for videogames is hardly a new concept. I mean, flash back fifteen years to the debut of the first Silent Hill and tell me that today’s spin on the spooky is refreshingly topical instead of tiredly necrotic. I’m not saying that genres can’t be recycled, because of course they can, they need to be. What I’m saying is that a key element of what makes horror games scary is the idea of the unknown. You don’t know what’s behind the door, and you can’t tell where that ghostly whisper is coming from, at least for the first playthrough, and therein lies the problem. Scares like this aren’t wash and wear, they’re a one-time thing, and it’s hard to replicate that over years of successive (successive, not successful) games.
As unfortunate as it may sound to some of you thrill seekers out there, I can honestly say I’m no fan of the horror genre, whether it be in games, movies, or trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night. It’s not that I think they’re boring, it’s just that I genuinely don’t like wetting myself or experiencing a heart attack. I don’t mind gore and I love suspense, but things like The Ring and Doom III send me over the edge. Now, to fear something and to downright avoid it are two different methods of coping, and today, for you lovely readers who take pleasure in my suffering, I braved the terrifying world of indie horror to review Saibot Studios’ latest installment, Doorways: The Underworld.
Doorways: The Underworld arrives as the third chapter in the Doorways series, where you, Doorway Agent Thomas Foster (voiced by Sam A. Mowry, an apparent DOTA 2 fan), must use some vague psychic powers to investigate the minds of the world’s most heinous killers in order to track them down and either send them to hell, arrest them, or ask them politely to stop. If any of this confuses you then good, you probably don’t have schizophrenia (I’m not a real doctor…like Zed). What I want you to do now is take that confused feeling and apply it to the rest of the game, because it doesn’t get better from here.
Tasked in this chapter with finding a German neurosurgeon-turned-nightmare-engineer, you must traverse such locations as an abandoned mine/prison, sewers, radioactive waste depositories, and the stereotypical spooky hospital, all in handless first-person (which is why they provide a headlamp, duh). The antagonist, Dr. Katharina Stein (I get it, she’s German), has supposedly been running gruesome experiments on both townsfolk and fellow agents alike, and it’s your job to find her and do something about it, maybe. Here’s where I assume Saibot Studios dove in without checking the water. First of all, why is it ALWAYS a German scientist? Throw some credit to Australia or Brazil, they have just as many practicing neurosurgeons as Deutschland. Secondly, how many times has crazy scientist been used? For Christ’s sake, I would be more scared of a psychotic pet store owner than a neurosurgeon at this point, simply because it hasn’t been exhausted in the world of horror.
Though it may sound like I’m nitpicking, I swear I’m really hinting at the bigger issue; repetition and scares do not go hand in hand. I mentioned earlier that a key component of what makes us fear things is mystery, and this is supported by our evolutionary will to survive. If, however, we know how the situation we’re in is going to play out, the mystery is gone and we can act rationally. Doorways: The Underworld fails to capitalize on this concept, and gives us everything we’ve already seen. How many dead girls in psych wards or human wheelchairs does it take to desensitize you? One or two. How many times do you see it in the game due to frequent deaths and ridiculous repetition? Five to ten. You don’t have to be good at math to understand that the ratio of surprise to annoyance is horribly skewed.
While we’re on the subject of annoying, let’s take a peek at the “ingenious puzzles” and tests of reaction time the game advertises. Puzzles, riddles, and non-aggressive tasks are a staple in the diet of horror/mystery games. You shouldn’t be able to physically attack a monster, the fear comes from not being able to do that, and that’s why puzzles work. You’re still engaged without diminishing the amount of terror you feel from being helpless. Puzzles here must mean a completely different thing. If finding labeled keys and checking your progress on an extensively detailed map found every twenty yards while jogging from a zombified Fat Bastard is a puzzle, then boy have I got some coloring books with your name on them.
All joking aside, the tasks in this game come in two forms: offensively easy and frustratingly impossible. Without giving away too much, some points of the game require you to use a certain psychic vision to find the next door or switch, with the catch being while in this vision the spooky demons can find you. I can’t tell you how many times I turned on this power only to be harpooned by some ugly harlot with bad teeth, simply because the maze was ridiculously hard and hints were as invisible as the game’s plot. The lack of middle ground between challenging and manageable in nonexistent, and this leads to the repetition of levels over and over again, changing the game’s genre from horror to memory.
Horror games, both indie and mainstream alike, run the risk of ruining the experience if they fail to set the tone. The one thing Doorways: The Underworld seems to do right is create a dreary, dark environment filled with the appropriate amount of dripping sounds, skittering, and corpses. The monster noises, composed mostly of grunts and moans, are exactly what I’d expect them to be, but just a bit more deranged than your standard ghoul’s usual utterance. Overall, though inexplicable in terms of adhering to the story, the separate levels you come across fit the profile of somewhere I wouldn’t want to find myself, and this lends a hand to a game that is in desperate need of appendages. The fact that this can all be viewed via the Occulus Rift is even better, because I bet nothing looks scarier than corpses in 3D virtual reality (minus, you know, the real thing).
While I admittedly scare easily, Doorways: The Underworld was only able to raise my heart rate a handful of times, exclusively on the first playthrough of each level or contact with each new abomination. With a storyline as crooked as my scoliotic spine and puzzles that can best be described as insulting, this indie horror flop is only scary in terms of its asking price. If you can’t stand leaving a trilogy unfinished, regardless of quality, then go right ahead and do your thing. But if you’d rather steer clear of a few cheap jumps and headache, go ahead and pass this one up.