If there’s one genre the indie scene loves to cover, it’s psychological horror. The unsettling journey into a deranged psyche allows disquieting and surreal imagery that touches on something deep within us, and as they’re by nature weird and experimental it’s something the AAA industry rarely covers.
Today we’re covering The Shattering, brought to us by Super Sexy Software, out on April 21, 2020, for PC via Steam.
Bits and Fragments
The Shattering takes place within the fragile mind of our protagonist John Evans, who is attending some form of therapy to recall a traumatic experience he’s suppressed. As far as psychological thriller stories go, it’s pretty basic… and that’s part of the problem.
Throughout the whole story I was struck by how by-the-numbers everything was. John Evans is a writer struggling with writer’s block, because of course he is. The overarching question is to try and recall his wife, and it’s implied he had a hand in her disappearance, because what else is a guy going to try and forget. We find out our protagonist was bullied incessantly as a child because we need to sympathize with him somehow. It feels less like a story of its own, and more like it’s going down a checklist of things known to make people feel for a troubled character.
Things do pick up a bit in the final act where we see his regular adult life, moving away from the clichés surrounding his breakdown and childhood and into what genuinely feels like a charming story of a man finding a ray of hope in a stressful creative field.
Unfortunately, while the final reveal turned out to defy my expectations, it also feels like it came a bit out of left field and resolves little. It didn’t feel like finding out was something that would help John improve in any way, it just let us know he’s a bit of a mess and… we kinda knew that already. The whole game kinda keeps repeating that point.
I suppose that’s the core of my issue with this game. Psychological horror/thrillers are a genre I enjoy, but they’re also a genre that’s very difficult to do well, and The Shattering feels like it doesn’t trust the player to get the subtle metaphors the genre requires, preferring instead to repeatedly ask “Do you get it yet?” about every point.
The Broken Path
There’s no beating around it, The Shattering has little gameplay to speak of. You walk from point A to B, examining things in the environment to move the plot forward. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’ve enjoyed plenty of “walking simulators” in the past, and honestly? We could have done with a little less gameplay here.
By far my least favorite moments were where I was stuck in a room and had to find the one tiny thing I needed to progress. Sometimes it was a case where the things I had to find were small and/or hiding behind other things. In other cases what clues I had been given so far were completely irrelevant to what I actually had to do to progress. I often wound up stumbling around a room clicking on everything desperate to find the stray pixel that would progress the plot.
The other issues had to do with the game’s signaling and visuals. Every so often you’ll have your inner monologue chime in as text appearing within the world, or you’ll interact with one thing and it’ll change things elsewhere that you now have to interact with. Problem is, it does absolutely no signposting to tell you about these, and if you don’t happen to be looking in their direction you can completely miss them.
One example early on involved writing on a typewriter in a hotel room. I had to sit down at the chair and look down to use the typewriter. I’m typing away and it was only by chance that I looked up, further up than just looking straight ahead, to see that the words my character was typing were appearing on the frame on the wall above the desk.
Both of these make it feel like the gameplay is directly getting in the way of the narrative, rather than helping to tell the story. It feels like the developers wanted to tell a story in a game, but then felt that because it was a game, you needed to collect a bunch of pictures, steal all the toothbrushes in a bathroom, or hunt down a missing pack of smokes. Really, it was the subtler gameplay moments that felt more effective, things like being asked to to stop a rattling painting and then unexpectedly smashing the wall with a hammer. It felt like The Shattering could have used more of these and less of the more involved item hunts.
Pieces of a Beautiful Puzzle
The music is fairly nice, but nothing that really stands out. The voice acting is on point, and I love the use of primarily black and white visuals with splashes of color to draw attention or convey a mood. The surreal elements, especially later on, are impressive and evocative. In spite of everything I’ve said elsewhere, I love the artistic expression here.
Now, that said, it’s not all perfect. Whatever they’re doing for their effects, it doesn’t appear to be well optimized. There’s a number of rooms where my FPS cuts in half, and this is a rig that usually has no problem running modern games on high settings.
There’s also a tendency to not show people at all, which I don’t really agree with. There’s a number of sections that feel artificially more difficult simply because I can’t see things like which seats are already taken. It’s just a minor nitpick in the end however.
In Need of Repair
I appreciate the passion that Super Sexy Software had for The Shattering, and I would love to see them continue and hone their craft but, as I stated earlier, psychological horror is a very difficult genre to get right and likely wasn’t a good choice for a group still learning the ropes. It’s a genre that has you walking a tightrope, where one side is incomprehensible and obtuse, and the other is ham-fisted and cliche.
It’s clear they tried. I love the art direction, they tried to pull off something more original towards the end, and the little optional things you can interact with are fun and whimsical. I’d love to see where they go in the future, but I cannot deny that this is a fairly flawed title.
Review copy provided by Deck13 for Steam. Screenshots taken by reviewer.