You want to know a game I absolutely love? The Beginner’s Guide. Except that line is kind of a lie, because The Beginner’s Guide is only a game in the broadest sense. There are few interactive objects in the game, and none of them have any bearing on the very linear experience the game offers; it is a mildly interactive experience that has been derisively called a walking simulator by some.
And, you know, people calling it that aren’t wrong.
The reason I start the review with that is because I feel that this is a genre which does indeed have a place to exist. There is space for games that are light on gameplay and long on mood and narrative and story. I want to make it clear that whatever feelings I may have about today’s title, none of them are in any way constructed out of some resentment for what the game is actually trying to be.
Given that introduction, you might have already drawn some conclusions about what my feelings are going to be. But let’s just play along as we move in through a look at Strobophagia, described as “rave horror” and released on Steam by Green Tile Digital.
Here’s the story you get introduced to in Strobophagia: you are at a rave. You have to take a phone and do stuff to get in. Everyone is acting weird and wearing masks. Follow around until you bump into something interesting and/or something you can interact with.
I’m being intentionally glib, to be fair. There is an actual story here, and a lot of it is based around the understanding that if you look at outdoor music festivals and strange cult-like religious ceremonies, there’s actually a fair amount of overlap between them in mood. In both cases you’re surrounded by a bunch of people who are all behaving in uncanny ways, far from any recognizable landmarks, and often reliant on the directions of strangers with the “official” instructions not always clear or well-dictated. Indeed, that’s the best part of the story here, places where those two concepts intersect and you realize that it wouldn’t actually be that far off the path if someone was performing some dark ritual at the rave.
Unfortunately, the story here is undercut by the fact that you don’t really get much, if any, sense of horror beyond the disorientation natural to huge crowds of people and flashing lights and the simple sense of being trapped there. For a horror game to work as… well, horror, you need more than just implications of sinister goings-on. You need a connection, a sense of things breaking down from the norms.
Right from the start, Strobophagia feels off-kilter and wrong, and you have no connection to the protagonist. While there are points where it definitely gets more wrong and unsettling, and the atmosphere succeeds at giving you a sense of growing unease, it never really stuck with me as horror beyond the unsettling imagery.
We’ll talk about that more below. I promise.
In one hand, you have a phone. In the other hand, you might have an object or you just have your hand. Smack people or objects, or pick stuff up to put elsewhere. Continue doing this until something happens.
Again, this is deliberately a bit glib, but this is definitely the sort of game that’s short on much in the way of meaningful actions from the player. There are a few enemies to smack out of your way along the path, but the majority of your time is spent bumping into walls, figuring out a puzzle or what else you need to do, and then clicking the things in order until you’ve found all of the stuff you conceivably can do.
The phone is actually a point of specific irritation for me, simply because it winds up being your only real way to interact with most of the characters while also being a bit of a pain to do so. Your primary way of interacting is by taking photographs and then sending them to someone on your contact notifications, but there’s also no indication of whether or not a given photograph will produce any useful interactions or even what you’re looking for.
Furthermore, it keeps feeling like you should have more of an impact on the game world than you actually do. Take your right-handed smacking of people, for example. Sometimes, people react when you smack them. Sometimes, they don’t. So you’ve got a line of people who are blocking you from moving in one direction, and you can hit them all day without a change in demeanor. But smack someone not on that specific line, and suddenly they get (justifiably) angry at you. This is made worse when it looks like you could easily slide past the people ostensibly blocking your path, even if they’re dancing along the way.
The puzzles are all of the type that particularly bother me, usually compounded by a lack of guidance or a difficulty in figuring out where relevant items are meant to be tucked away. These are the parts of the game that are the most… well… game-like, but they feel like the more frustrating forms of this particular gameplay rather than being interesting.
I almost feel like the game would have been better if it had jettisoned more of the interaction in favor of more direct approaches. Funcom’s sadly forgotten but overall enjoyable horror game The Park springs to mind, which had a similar general gameplay loop but had even less interaction and, well, gameplay. But you didn’t tend to notice, because so much energy was focused on atmosphere and imagery.
Oh, hey, we should talk about that imagery, huh?
It’s very clear how much work has been put into Strobophagia’s overall environmental look and feel, starting with the fact that even random people are neon-streaked androgynous bodies with masks that block out facial features. It’s an interesting decision, and part of me dislikes that even the non-inimical people around the rave are given that air of sinister intent, but it also does succeed at giving you a sense of isolation and being enclosed by not-quite-human mannequins all around you.
The sound and music design is also top-notch, so the one thing the game can’t be faulted on is the environment it gives you. That being said, the confusing layout of the areas and lack of solid signposting, while no doubt intentional as a path to confusing and disorienting the player, can get to be frustrating faster than they should be.
While some players have mentioned some persistent and game-breaking bugs, I personally didn’t run into any; be warned, however, as those seem to be recurring complaints. That being said, the developers seem to be taking bugs seriously and working quick to get them corrected, so that’s a good thing.
More pressing is the fact that the game is just plain short; while it does have multiple endings to discover, it is ultimately a pretty light and quick thing. Combine that with the existing issues with interactions in the game world, and there’s a certain degree of insubstantiality baked into the very nature of the title.
Alas, poor Strobophagia. You look really good. You have some promise. But you are, at the end of the day, just lacking the meat you really need to be worth an unqualified recommendation.
I don’t really dislike this game, on a whole. While it’s a wispy sort of thing, it’s clear that the developers had ambitions, and you can see the places at the corners where the ambition starts to creep in and almost promise to elevate the proceedings. It’s just that each time that happens, all you get is that hint, that idea faintly expressed until you just sigh and go about your business.
So the score I’m giving this game is on the high end of that same number… but ultimately, it’s a game I can’t really recommend to a lot of people. For all the neat ideas at play and the interesting visuals, it never quite has enough meat on its bones. There’s just not enough to rave about here.
Review copy provided by Green Tile Digital for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Green Tile Digital.