After several years of desolation and action heavy Resident Evil games, the horror genre received a much needed kick up the backside at the hands of various enterprising indie studios. That tradition has continued, for better, and for worse – there are still a lot of interesting ideas being explored within the genre, but the tricks and tropes through which they are told are becoming increasingly saturated and overwrought. The Park is a prime example of this; it’s a gorgeous and undoubtedly atmospheric game, but it leans a little too heavily on clichés, and struggles to get an interesting narrative off the ground.
The Park is a self-contained story set within the fictional universe of The Secret World (AKA The Little MMO That Could), and it doesn’t take long for things to start getting weird. After a day out at Atlantic Island Park, a battered but beloved theme park built in the 1970s, Lorraine must re-enter the park in search of her lost son Callum. Before she can even make it up the entrance escalator, the park is plunged into a Silent Hill-esque state of chilling murkiness. All of a sudden, those creepy fairground jingles and soul-destroying chipmunk costume don’t seem like such a great idea.
Make no mistake, this isn’t some half-arsed, pitch-black, page collecting game ripped straight out of a Creepypasta and regurgitated onto Steam. Great care and attention has gone into The Park‘s production values, and it really pays off in the finished article. Bright neon lights flicker menacingly in the distance of Atlantic Island, while some really chilling sound design does a great job of building tension and leading up to some well executed jump-scares. The park itself looks wonderful, and is well signposted by clever lighting and sound tricks in order to prevent players from getting too lost.
Lorraine must wander through open areas of the park, and intermittently stop to take in the fun and fear of various fairground rides (it wouldn’t be my priority with a lost son out there, but hey). My personal highlight was the sinister swan ride, which re-tells the tale of Hansel and Gretel through shadow-plays, and sets the tone for the rest of the piece quite nicely. Though these moments are quite literally on rails, they meld well with the more open sections, and feel more like organic checkpoints than frustrating restrictions.
Though it isn’t afraid to reach into the horror-game Big Book of Tropes every now and then, there are some genuinely surprising moments in The Park. The game regularly messes with sounds and images most gamers would expect to be static, in moments that I’d be cruel to spoil. It’s a shame that there’s an entire section dedicated to haunted house-style cardboard cut-outs screaming “Boo!”, especially when the rest of the park is a little mores subtle in dishing out its spookier moments, but the park delivers on satisfying scares aplenty, even if they border on the cheap side from time to time.
The Park is a fantastic wrapper for a game that lacks substance. It struggles significantly with telling the story it wants to tell, and in evoking and emotion on behalf of Lorraine. Though she begins the game as a seemingly balanced individual, she soon starts to spiral out of control – but not in the way the game wants her to. Rather than express confusion at the park’s sudden transformation into a Tim Burton wet dream, Lorraine whimsically reminisces about happy times spent on Ferris wheels and log flumes. She feels completely out of sync with the world she’s in, which in turn makes you, the player, feel the same way. This isn’t the fault of the voice actor, but rather her direction. Her delivery is wonky, because it’s completely inconsistent from moment to moment.
The game’s perspective is also strangely disjointed. The Park begins with the camera trained on Lorraine, before it swivels round into first-person view, then back to third-person for cut-scenes and the game’s finale. The thing is, we don’t really need to see Lorraine for the story to work. She’s well designed and rendered, sure, but the scares and the drama feel much more visceral and personal from a first-person perspective. The finale, in particular, loses a lot of weight simply because of the camera’s positioning.
The endgame’s disturbing revelations lose an awful lot of their shock value, because most players will figure the ending out after about fifteen minutes. The Park is over-reliant on its metaphorical allusions to Hansel and Gretel, but it also doesn’t seem to know what kind of story it wants to tell. Underneath the creepy masks and circus music lies a story about motherhood, childhood and mental illness, but it sort of fades into obscurity behind the spooky fairground window dressing. It reminded me of Among The Sleep, a great horror game, but not a particularly potent interactive story.
Another odd quirk is the “Shout” mechanic, which allows Lorraine to call out after Callum, who in return provides her with a visual clue as to his whereabouts (i.e. which direction the player needs to go). It’s a novel idea, but since Atlantic Island Park is fairly easy to get around anyway, it isn’t necessary. It also doesn’t seem to work after the first half an hour – once I’d lost sight of Callum completely, the “Shout” mechanic had no use outside of making Lorraine seem more frightened by her surroundings.
Though it tries and fails admirably at blending a tragic story with horror gameplay, The Park is still an atmospheric, well presented slice of scares, one that accomplishes a great deal in a short running time. It handles jump-scares and creeping tension with equal confidence, it simply fails to stick the landing in any meaningful way.