Preview: Remothered: Broken Porcelain

19 Sep 2020

As someone who really does love horror as a genre, horror games are a tricky beast to get right. Even more than other media, video games seem to almost hate the idea of horror down to their fundamental structure.

Let me explain. Horror, at its heart, requires a certain amount of loss of control. As cliche and trite as most slasher films are, there’s a very good reason why they always involve groups of young people partying like idiots instead of trying to break into a heavily fortified military compound. The idea is that the characters are facing something which cannot be overpowered, or shouted down, or fought away. Horror requires something strange and upsetting and frightening which you can endure, avoid, or be consumed by… not something you can just face and blow away.

Video games, by contrast, are about the accumulation of power. This can have issues with all sorts of narratives, but with horror it becomes even more pointed because it’s a genre about lacking control when most video games are about gaining additional control over the situation. It’s hard to become more horrified or stressed when you’ve gone from your piddly little garbage weapon of the start to dual-wielding enormous chainguns.

The worse example of horror in video games tend to wind up back at the old joke about survival horror meaning a game in which you have to fight three zombies with one bullet. (Sorry, Resident Evil, having zombies doesn’t make you very horrifying.) Good examples manage to still find a way to ramp up the tension even though you’re dealing with a video game. And Remothered: Broken Porcelain is aiming right at a horror staple by making itself a stealth game in which you play… a young girl with a broken arm.

For the record, Remothered: Broken Porcelain releases on October 20th on Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC via Steam. The Steam version was played for this preview.

Girls Just Wanna Not Be Stabbed To Death By Moths

In Remothered: Broken Porcelain, you’re playing as Jennifer, a young teenage runaway and delinquent who’s staying in the Ashmann Inn as a reform home for teenage girls. The Inn seems like a decent enough place. Stern but well-meaning staff, a bit creepy, your best friend Lin has kind of thrown you under the bus by trying to abscond and gotten you both in trouble. But after you have a brief argument with her, suddenly horror! The governess… headmistress… whoever she is, suddenly she wants to grab Jennifer and stab the shit out of you! Your friend is missing! There are dead pigeons being fed to creepy hands in the crawlspace! What the hell?!

In all fairness, Remothered: Broken Porcelain is a sequel to the prior Remothered: Tormented Fathers game, with a helpful plot summary to get you up to speed on that game. The summary of that text is… well, weird, and it seems like the story may very well have veered into some kinda nasty transphobic spaces with its ultimate plot twists. (I haven’t played it and can’t comment on it, but other people have noted that.) That having been said, this game doesn’t pick up directly after the prior one, but the summary is helpful in understanding the overall ethos at work here.

The biggest problem I found with the story in this preview (which, to note, is not the full game’s runtime) was that the move from “mundane” to “horrifying” is a very sudden and sharp leap off of a cliff – you go almost immediately from normal interpersonal discussion to suddenly running for your life without much in the way of ramp-up. This does make the moment feel marvelously tense as you are thrown into chaos without any forewarning, but it also feels like you don’t have much time to establish a baseline. There’s no build.

It’s a bit of a shame because my favorite bit of the ramp-up to start with was the dialogue between Jen and Lin. Rather than talking like someone’s ideas of teenage girls or like perfectly normal people, they talk like… well, a pair of girls who would be in a reform facility, complete with all of the intermingled affection and animosity you could ask for between two people who like each other but also kind of hate being forced into a shared space.

Jennifer’s voice actress in particular does a good job of selling her character here. You have to believe that this is someone willing to flaunt the rules and push away friends while also being genuinely scared for her safety when things get nuts, and she largely makes it work. It makes her sympathetic even if the story could use a bit more of a build instead of leaping right into chaos.

My Girl Wants To Run Away And Hide

Much of the preview was meant to focus on gameplay, of course, and in this Remothered: Broken Porcelain demonstrates the kind of horror it wants to be. Jennifer, as befits her character, is a young teenager with a broken wrist who has all the combat acumen of exactly that sort of person. Her very first opponent is a woman who is built solidly and is about half again as tall as she is. Your only real weapon is stealth.

And I do mean your only real weapon. There are two kinds of items you can carry – distraction items and defense items – but neither of them can be used aggressively. At best, you can distract a stalker (the game’s term for the enemies searching for you) and then shiv them in the back, but even that is kind of not a great plan, especially from the start. You’re hiding from someone who Jennifer’s words and disposition make clear is not exactly a friend, but not an enemy. She’s just… an authority figure who is now trying to stab you to death with scissors.

So you run. And you hide. Hide in trunks or lockers while the stalker goes past, distract if you need to, and try to figure out where you need to go next.

Herein lies my biggest two complaints about the preview. The first is that it is often unclear about where you’re supposed to be going at any given time. The lack of any kind of map or even something pinging you toward your next objective does make you feel more claustrophobic, but it tends to be a bit frustrating in a stealth game… as do controls that feel a bit soupy and unresponsive, especially if a stalker catches up to you and starts hitting you.

This might seem like a bit of an odd complaint; after all, people religiously praise Silent Hill 2, which had awkward locked camera angles and combat that was always a bit stilted. But the difference is one of degrees. In a stealth game, play revolves around having a sense of the layout of a space, where you can safely go, and how you can navigate around unsafe areas. The horror would still be present with snappier controls; having Jennifer seem oddly sluggish when she starts or stops moving means that instead of carefully scurrying into hiding, you need to be ready to start scurrying before there’s something to hide from.

However! These are also minor complaints, because the core gameplay loop is actually good. At least in the preview, you don’t have to deal with multiple stalkers but just one, and your survival is thus determined by your ability to figure out layouts and pick routes that obscure line-of-sight around doors while listening for telltale signs. Helpfully, the ambient music cuts out when your stalker is unaware of you but starts up when they are hunting, meaning that it’s very clear if you’re in immediate danger or can explore a bit more freely.

It also, well, gives you the sense that you are struggling and scurrying just the same. Unlike games which involve metal and the solidity thereof, you can’t deal with the stalkers. Your goal is avoiding them. Fighting is a desperate last-ditch option, mostly borne out of being trapped in an area and needing to get past them in order to hide. Picking up more items does give you more options, but it doesn’t turn you into a killing machine; just a scared girl who isn’t as likely to be run out of distractions or defenses you might need.

We Are Living In A Horrifying Hotel And I Am A 70s Girl

The game opens with a short animated commercial that nails the 70s aesthetic but doesn’t quite ring true, since I’m pretty sure televised ads for mood elevators weren’t really a thing in the 70s. It feels like satire in a game wherein everything else is played straight. Beyond that, though, the game nails its graphics perfectly. People are textured and modeled in ways that look human, with the stalkers seeming appropriately wrong without ever resorting to what amounts to zombie makeup. The area is dim, but never so dim you can’t see what’s happening; just dim enough that the place is hostile and unwelcome.

I did notice an annoying tendency for the game to stop paying attention to using mouse and keyboard and insist on my controller. It works well with a controller, but fairly warned be ye. The interface for opening drawers and searching specific items also feels a touch fiddly and sometimes required a bit more clicking than I like, although the same cannot be said for hiding spaces, vaulting barriers, etc.

Most of the music is quite good… but there’s a bit of what’s supposed to be ominous whistling that actually feels more annoying than frightening, I’m sorry to say. The music when you’re being chased is appropriately tense, though, and while the game does lean hard on the horror trope of “big noise for scare moment,” it does actually deliver the scare.

It’s also worth noting that some of the slight negatives I did notice – looser controls, for example – are slated for receiving more polish passes before launch. Of particular note are graphical issues that do crop up, although none of them happened for me. Still, just be aware that this preview is indeed a preview and some of the issues I noted can be addressed before launch.

I Wish That I Had Jenny’s Girl

Despite some misgivings or frustrations, Remothered: Broken Porcelain does succeed at what it sets out to be. It’s a horror game that actually does keep up a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere while playing.

My biggest concern about the full game, then, is not if it can maintain that so much as whether or not a player can maintain it. As mentioned, this is a game that doesn’t so much slide into horror as it leaps into it full-force. At least in the preview, there are no breathers or moments when things become less tense, only a constant sense of ever-present overwhelming dread.

That… can be a bit much to take in constantly! It can start to wear on you. And as much as I liked the preview, I do wonder if it can really maintain that energy for 10-20 hours without being downright exhausting.

Having said all of that? I certainly liked what I saw. So while I may have some misgivings about potentially transphobic plot points or the amount of stress the game could accumulate over time, I do think there’s potential here. And hey, I’m always into at least trying new things with horror in games.

Preview copy provided by Modus Games for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Modus Games.