Review: The Blackout Club

29 Jul 2019

Boxcar Goonies

We are experiencing a renaissance in modern pop culture of our favorite movies of the 1980s. The success of shows like Stranger Things and the film adaptation of Ready Player One have shown nostalgia is a strong emotion that is somehow affecting a generation who weren’t even alive to see it. The Blackout Club hopes to fill that spot in the video game world.  It succeeds in some surprising ways and fails in some shocking ones.

Developed and published by Question Games, The Blackout Club will be leaving Steam Early Access on July 30th, 2019, and will be simultaneously released for Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The Steam version was played for this review.

They’re In The Trees

The Blackout Club is an amalgamation of The Goonies, Stranger Things, and various Lovecraftian horror tropes. The game follows the adolescents of a cliffside suburb called Redacre, who seek to collect evidence that proves their quiet community has been taken over by a religious cult. Strange, sonic devices have isolated the suburb and squashed all cell service. All of the adults of the town have been brainwashed by the cult, leaving the children of The Blackout Club to fend for themselves and solve the mystery.

This is a very basic synopsis of the world of The Blackout Club. It a simple, yet serviceable setup for a story about kids fending off a supernatural threat. Much like Dark Souls, there is a lot more to the mystery of Redacre that only the most dedicated members of the Club will unravel. As I played and talked with members of the game’s community, I was loaded up with lore and secrets they had discovered since its launch in Steam Early Access in October of last year. The developer, Question Games, have done a fine job of giving me enough of a plot to pique my curiosity while also packing in hidden secrets to give hardcore fans a reason to keep exploring.

Do I Need To Repeat Myself

Much like many games of this generation, The Blackout Club is a multiplayer-focused experience.  You and three friends are tasked with sneaking about the town of Redacre, and its dangerous new underbelly, to disrupt cult activities while collecting evidence that will save the town. 

One of the more interesting aspects of the game world is your main hub, an abandoned train car that acts as a hiding place for the Club. Instead of loading into a menu I have seen a thousand times before, I am loaded instantly into the hideout. This gives me a chance to take care of any business I need without the pressure of holding up my teammates. I can read journal entries and dive into lore as well as read up on tutorials, give my character new abilities, and change my wardrobe. There is a second train car where I sleep, and an altar that can be used to communicate with something sinister. Once I’m ready, I can host or join a multiplayer session and launch a mission.

This is where this game quickly fell apart for me, and I will tell you how with a story. During one of my first missions, I spawn into one of the cliffside hiding spots on the edge of town with nothing but a taser in hand. Next to me there is a green box. I open it and remove its contents: a bandage and a lockpick. I creep up the cliffside and onto a path surrounded by trees.

After just a few moments I can see the back patio of a suburban home. I sneak up to the patio steps just in time for a Sleeper to burst out of the sliding glass door. Sleepers are the most prolific enemy you will find in The Blackout Club. They are the adults of Redacre; brainwashed and blind, they stumble about town listening intently for the steps of wayward children. I crouch down and back up into a tree. I’m relieved to see the branches envelope me, giving a feeling of safety and cover. The Sleeper shambles around the corner and into darkness. I exhale, realizing I had been holding my breath, and try to leave the safety of my tree.

But I cannot. The branches have become completely stiff and unmoving as if they were made of steel. It doesn’t matter what I do, I cannot leave the tree. It has become my timber cage. This is not a feature, it is a bug, and it is one that plagued my experience with The Blackout Club from start to finish. I can’t think of a better way to describe my time playing this game. I could go from frightened to frustrated and back again within a matter of minutes.

The gameplay is heavily reliant on stealth. The objectives of each mission are seemingly random, though there are VERY few objective types, and required me to either sneak around the neighborhood looking for clues or find a way into “The Maze” below Redacre to save a friend. The Maze is where I spent most of my time in The Blackout Club and it is easily the coolest and most annoying place to be. I gained access to The Maze through various hatches that have been built into the homes around town. Once down there I was greeted with winding caves, Sleepers, security cameras, and an atmosphere I can only describe as oppressive. Most of the mission objectives are down here, and sneaking in and back out was a challenge that only got harder as I progressed.

As I sneaked around I had to be very careful to not commit what the game calls Sins. Getting caught by an enemy, setting off security, or kicking down a door instead of picking its lock are all Sins. Committing too many summons The Shape, an invisible demon who will stalk myself and members of my group until we complete the mission. I can only see The Shape by closing my eyes, so I have to try and check in on him every now and then because once he shows up he is not going to leave me alone.

Being chased by The Shape is The Blackout Club at its most thrilling. Suddenly I am trapped in a game of cat and mouse that will only end with my mind being taken over or myself and my team escaping to our hideout. I can tell you there are few things as frightening as hiding in a closet with my eyes closed looking for the orange glow of The Shape. I found the “eyes” mechanic to be pretty interesting and original. If I got lost I could close my eyes to see glowing orange footsteps leading to my next objective, and I frequently got lost. I flipped frequently between laughter and screaming as I ran from The Shape, making so much noise every Sleeper in The Maze also began to chase me. I could almost hear Yakkity Sax.

All this goofy fun and terror quickly wore off, however, and were replaced with annoyance, frustration, and boredom.

The biggest issue I have with The Blackout Club is the gameplay loop. It becomes stale rapidly. It only took completing a handful of missions before I stopped seeing new objectives. After sneaking into The Maze to pickpocket evidence off an enemy for the 30th time I couldn’t see much reason to keep playing.  The game world is relatively small and doesn’t really encourage much exploring. There are two areas of the neighborhood to unlock as you level up but they don’t really add anything to the experience. It’s just a few more houses and a school. 

The Maze was really the only area that changed significantly as I progressed through levels. New sections opened up without warning, making me yet again feel like a stranger in an area I had become familiar with. Various traps were placed randomly around with greater and greater frequency. More enemies were wandering about than before. Gaining experience and leveling up took so long that it made the repetition of the missions even more noticeable. By the time I realized The Maze was expanding I wasn’t sure how much I really cared.

Masters Of Atmosphere

Other than its engaged and generous community, The Blackout Club has one saving grace: its presentation. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed just looking and listening while I played. While the textures and animations aren’t much to look at, the lighting and sound design are fantastic. In the streets of Redacre there seems to be just a light fog, but the air is still. Other than the occasional security drone buzzing overhead or the muttering of a wandering Sleeper, it is silent. Creepy to be sure, but I’m not yet scared for my life.

Once I went down into The Maze I can tell you I very much wanted to leave. The floor is frequently blanketed in a white mist, Sleepers whisper to themselves as they blindly search for you, and there is a constant, oppressive hum. I can’t describe this hum in a way that truly captures how it made me feel. It was like someone lightly groaning in my ear until it echoed in my skull. What really shook me though was finding where that hum was coming from.

The Maze is covered with structures that seem held together by this array of springs. They criss and cross all over the various chambers. I looked at one and it was vibrating. That hum was coming straight from the spring. When I followed it around the corner I saw a Sleeper playing the spring like a harp. It was both an impressive and unpleasant surprise to learn that horrible sound wasn’t just ambient noise, it had a source.

Bitter Sweet

Despite all my ranting and raving I did find many things enjoyable about The Blackout Club. It set the stage for its world well and I enjoyed the conceit of kids trying to save the neighborhood. There were enough hidden stories and lore to keep me interested as I went along. Stories of daemons and gods and cults are always fascinating and I could feel the mystery around me as I crept through dark streets and skulked through humming, misty caves. 

It’s just a shame it was held back by its shallow content and repetitive gameplay. I can describe my feelings towards this game thusly: I’ve completed my mission but I still need to escape and The Shape is chasing me. I’m scared and running for dear life. I can see my escape zone but right as I round a corner I walk into a tree. I’m trapped again, and The Shape takes over my mind.

~ Final Score: 6/10 ~

Review copy provided by Question Games for PC. Screenshots provided by reviewer. Featured image provided by Question Games.