Horror really is one of the most popular genres in the indie scene, and it’s easy to see why. Fear is such a visceral reaction that sticks with a player years after they’ve stopped playing. It allows for telling tales a bit more complicated than the usual fight against evil. It relies on the unseen and uncanny valley elements can even enhance it, making it easy to pull off on a budget.
It’s also a genre easily done wrong. Every step requires a subtle touch, and can easily wind up funny or unimpressive if approached poorly. While everyone remembers the spooky horror games that have caught the world by storm, there’s a thousand others that have fallen by the wayside, forgotten.
Today we’re covering one such indie horror title to see just where it falls: episodic title Song of Horror by Spanish developer Protocol Games, which recently released its final episode on Steam.
A Malicious Melody
The plot of Song of Horror revolves around a mysterious music box that plays a melody you just can’t get out of your head. Anyone who hears it is cursed to eventually die from the nightmarish creatures it attracts, and after investigating the disappearance of writer Sebastian Husher, publishing house employee Daniel Noyer unwittingly hears it and nearly becomes trapped by its dark power.
Thus begins a quest to uncover the mystery behind the music box, and find a way to break the curse. While Daniel is the main character, each chapter involves several playable characters to choose from, and here we have one of my favorite mechanics of the game: deciding who will go, and the risk of death.
Each character is an individual with their own ties to what’s going on, and will react accordingly. A daughter looking for her father, a business partner looking for their colleague, and a police officer checking in on a disappearance are all going to react to the same objects and encounters in different ways. At the same time, however, there is a permadeath mechanic where dying as a character means they’re dead for good, and the same things that may make a character narratively satisfying to play through an episode may also make them hard to justify risking. Unless you play on the easiest difficulty, which removes that mechanic anyway.
As for the writing itself, it’s some of the best horror writing I’ve seen come out of the indie scene in a while. They know when to explain things and when to just let fear of the unknown do its job. Each character has enough individuality to feel unique, and this is portrayed organically as you investigate your surroundings. At the same time though, it’s not the scariest horror game I’ve played. It’s atmospheric, sure, but the tone is more along the lines of Silent Hill than Amnesia. It’s unsettling, but not the sort of thing to give me nightmares.
Brains over Brawn
Song of Horror is a third-person horror title and if you’ve played the likes of Silent Hill or Eternal Darkness it plays fairly similarly: You explore environments, pick up items, and use them to unlock new areas and solve puzzles. The main difference, however, is the complete and utter lack of combat.
That’s not to say there’s nothing dangerous, far from it. It’s just that the Presence will absolutely kill you if it manages to get its claws on you. To start with, as you explore you’re encouraged to listen before going through a door. Some of them you can hear something on the other side, and going through will just immediately kill you. On top of this, doors you’ve already gone through can occasionally become dangerous, requiring you to always be ready to re-check them just in case.
The more major mechanic is the quick time events. They start with two in the first chapter, and each chapter adds a new one until you have five different possible encounters by chapter four. Each character also comes with several stats, and a higher strength makes the button mashing QTEs easier, while a higher Stealth makes the precision QTEs easier.
The door checking mechanic quickly became annoying, especially when puzzles required me to backtrack all over the map. Thankfully the ability to actually listen at the door is only present for doors you’ve gone through when they’ve become dangerous, so one just has to run up to the door and see if the option lights up, but it still meant needing to stop at each door I came across, and made running through strings of small rooms in particular fairly annoying.
The QTEs fared a little better. I appreciated the ability to alter the difficulty with stats, as I’m not the best button masher around, and when they appear you have a little bit of warning with an intro cutscene to steel yourself.
One last little nitpick about the two dangers: Perhaps it was just my imagination, but it felt like using the run button to move around made attacks more frequent. While it makes sense in context, making your position more known to the Presence, in gameplay terms it meant while I could certainly go faster, and even had a Speed stat to determine how much of an increase running was, I felt actively discouraged from pressing that button.
On to the puzzles, the other core part of the game. For the most part, I enjoyed these. All the ones focusing on exploration or item usage were fairly straightforward and felt satisfying. On the other hand, there are a few definite Puzzle sequences in each chapter that vary wildly in feasibility. For some, you’re able to find clues scattered about or the puzzle itself is fairly logical, and these ones are a joy to do.
Some of the other puzzles, however, required either some trial and error or I wound up needing to look them up and, even with the answer in hand, the puzzle made little sense. One of the most egregious examples in the final chapter is actually getting a patch to make the answer a little less obtuse, but there’s still plenty of other puzzles with a bit of moon logic attached.
Beauty in Shadow
Looking at it, I can scarcely believe Song of Horror is from an indie developer. It has well-rendered 3D environments, on top of some great character designs and drawn inter-level cutscenes. The variety in level design is a refreshing change of pace as well, even within the confines of a single episode.
Then there’s the audio design. The voice cast nailed the performance, and the ambient sounds really help sell the mood of never being quite alone. There’s little in the way of music, ironically enough, but the titular melody does play a bit whenever you make significant progress, and does tend to get stuck in one’s head.
Thrills from Start to Finish
Song of Horror definitely exceeded all of my expectations. It hits that “haunted house attraction” level of spookiness just right and, for the most part, the puzzles are a nice mix of exploration and inventive thinking.
It’s not without the occasional hiccup, and some of the puzzles could do with a few more hints, but overall? Song of Horror is one of the best horror games I’ve played this year. Best of all, it’s not QUITE done yet. Updates already planned in their roadmap include adjustments to the most egregious puzzles, fleshing out the final chapter a bit more (Another encounter with the Presence and a new character), and a new harder difficulty level.
If you’re a fan of older third-person survival horror games, I highly recommend picking this up!
Review copy provided by Raiser Games for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.