Sunday, October 28, 2012

Erie: Somewhat Eerie, Not So Scary

Erie is a free first-person horror game made by students of the University of Utah's EAE Master Games Studio Program, using the Unreal Development Kit. You play as Oliver Victor, a Red Cross investigator circa 1966, sent to search for missing workers after a nuclear power plant suffers a partial meltdown. Once in the facility, you become trapped and have to flee from the mutated horrors and escape with your life.

In terms of horror, Erie is competently designed at first, with effective (albeit somewhat crude) audio and visual effects contributing to the game's immersive atmosphere. For the first several minutes, that's basically all the game is: atmosphere. Your walk through plant provides a basic tutorial for controls, which should be perfectly familiar to anyone who's ever handled a keyboard before, while providing a few atmospheric scares to put you just a little on edge. Bats fluttering out from a vent in the ceiling, a woman crying behind a locked door, sudden noises, monsters darting past a window, and so on.

My reviews continues after the jump.

Once you get far enough into the facility, a strange monster appears, pursuing you through the labyrinthine hallways as you try to try to shut down the power generators to release the lock on the emergency exit. The monster itself is fairly frightening the first time you encounter it, simply because you're not expecting it, but the effect wears off far too quickly. All it does is mindlessly try to get to you, following you wherever you go, not letting you stop to examine your surroundings. If it catches up to you, it's game over.

The monster ceases to be scary because it's so simple and predictable that you never have a chance to feel tension or anxiety. There's hardly anything else going on in the environment while it's chasing you -- you're just supposed to be collecting keys scattered around the map while not getting killed by the monster. So the gameplay quickly devolves into a matter of "keep away," with the monster posing no intimidating threat because (1) you can sprint so much faster than it can move, (2) you pretty much always know where it is, and (3) as long as you keep moving, it won't ever catch up to you. After the first encounter, it becomes about as frightening as a friend following you around your house with a monster mask on his face.

Scattered throughout the plant are written notes which you can read to get the backstory of the research that was going on there, but since the monster is constantly chasing you, you can't actually stop to read them. In fact, you can't really stop to do anything, which makes studying and learning the confusing hallways even more of an annoying chore. The idea, I think, was to simulate a more panicked feeling of horror, with certain death chasing you through twisting corridors while you worry about taking a wrong turn or getting lost. But once it becomes apparent that your only goal is to collect keys and return to the generators, the game becomes one-dimensional and the monster becomes just a nuisance to your progress.

The one really cool feature that helps you navigate is a can of spray paint, which lets you draw arrows or write messages on walls so that you know when you've reached familiar territory, or so that you can find your way back to a certain location. It's a pretty helpful tool that I can see being useful in lots of other games -- it's just a shame that you don't always have time to stop and draw proper signposts for yourself. I basically just spent most of the game aimlessly wandering around, trying to decipher my own arrows, and being bored with the thing chasing me.

The game has a few technical problems and oddities as well, given that it's a student project being released to the public for free. For example, if you look straight up and jump, you can see your own character's head poke into view of the camera. Not a big deal, but it's certainly not supposed to happen. At one point I got the monster trapped in a three-sided pen, unable to escape because of his simplistic path-finding and behavior scripts, and he remained there for the rest of that playthrough.

Considering that Erie is a student project that's available for free, it's a fairly impressive endeavor and it's certainly worth playing. In the grand scheme of things, however, it did not feel like an effective horror game to me. Your mileage may vary depending on how easily scared you are.

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