“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
I do not identify as a frightful man. Sure, I’ve stated previously that I’m not the biggest fan of horror games, but that comes from a deep-seated loathing of jump scares more than anything else. Modern horror games have this crippling tendency to metaphorically blow their load with loud bangs and flash reveals, relying too heavily on a quick-n-dirty scare to terrorize the players. Environments drenched in gore and mutilated bodies are the set du jour, and it oftentimes feels like horror is a concept forgotten..
..It has been nearly two weeks since I started playing Ape Law’s Albino Lullaby: Episode 1, and I think I’m just now ready to go to sleep without the television on..
Albino Lullaby: Episode 1 looks like the Prom night dumpster baby of H.P. Lovercraft and Lewis Carroll. Taking place in an ever-changing asylum/house deep underground, the story focuses on an individual bent on escape, both from the twisting, turning halls of their prison and the ambiguous headmistress “Grandmother” and all of her disgusting “Grandchildren.” Players are kept mostly in the dark, and the story is revealed piecemeal through dialogue, exploration, and tiny notes throughout each level. There’s a bit about being processed, something regarding a dangerous grandchild, and the ever-repetitive house rules (be nice, no swearing, you get the point). The rest is left to the player’s imagination, and it’s hard not to fall into stride with the overall terrorizing atmosphere.
What set’s Albino Lullaby apart from the rest of its horror brethren is the near complete lack of gore, explicit violence, and jump scares. The game relies on expertly placed set pieces, twisted dialogue, and the player’s own panic to create one of the scariest experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of..well…experiencing. While much of the gameplay is devoted to exploration and button-pressing, a great deal of time is spent forcing players to stealth through large segments of the maps. While the sneak mechanics may be imperfect (see below), the buildup of tension adds a lot to the already thick layer of fear built up from the environment.
While the player controls prove simple enough – with nothing more than running, jumping, crouching, and pushing buttons/picking up select items – the game’s design and integration of mechanics feels a bit neglected. Invisible walls and impossible jumps grind everything to a standstill, and the level design is such that getting cornered by one/many of Grandmother’s terrifying Grandchildren becomes a common occurrence. The aforementioned sneaking segments have a tendency to trip players up with unannounced adjustments in enemy sensitivity, and it’s hard at times to decide if sneaking behind or next to a worm will end in your discovery. I know I can expect to die in almost every game, but I’d always rather it be by my hand, not by that of the game’s design.
The audible and visual aesthetics proved to be the absolute selling point for me. Albino Lullaby gives off the nearly cartoonish feel of The Nightmare Before Christmas, while at the same time employing bright colors and cleverly drawn set pieces. Each room is different from the next, ranging anywhere from an operation room to a cozy bedroom with a fire burning in the hearth. The incongruous mix of pretty colors, Victorian-style decor, and psychotic tone really made me uneasy, a feat usually reserved for late night burritos.
The accompanying soundtrack is decent enough to set the tone, but overall not nearly as impressive as the Steam page would have you believe. The voice acting, on the other hand, is hands down one of the best examples of “show, don’t tell” that I have ever heard, since much of the story’s details are revealed in overheard conversations between Grandchildren (Fun tip: for a real dose of don’t-go-to-sleep, let a group of worms see you and just listen to the things they scream as they chase you).
Overall, Albino Lullaby: Episode 1 left me horrified and amazed in equal measure. The absolute lack of today’s flimsy horror gimmicks makes this one of the most successfully scary games to date, and I absolutely cannot wait to see what Episode 2 and 3 have to offer.