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Review: Fobia - St. Dinfna Hotel

27 Jun 2022

Despite their tried and true persistence as a popular genre, horror video games can sometimes feel a bit polarizing: you either love them or you hate them. Moreover, they have the tendency to feel somewhat insular as well, with many horror releases iterating and expanding upon the staples established by the genre’s most popular titles. It’s very easy to describe many horror games as Resident Evil- or Amnesia-esque, for example, to give someone a general idea of how a game operates.

Fobia – St. Dinfna Hotel, developed by Pulsatrix Studios and published by Maximum Games, bears a lot of resemblance to the recent first-person entries of the Resident Evil series at a glance. There are shambling zombies, you have guns with which to pump lead into said zombies, and a gorgeous environment to traverse with no shortage of puzzle solving along the way.

As a long-time fan of horror games, I went into Fobia with the assumption that I knew what I was getting myself into. And yet the further I progressed into the game, the more I came to appreciate a particular aspect of the experience that sets itself apart from other horror titles—all the while lamenting another that actively detracts from it.

Fobia St. Dinfna Hotel is available on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X as of June 28th, 2022. The PC version was played for this review.

New Detective

Fobia follows a very terrible day in the life of Roberto Leite Lopes, a recently graduated journalist looking to land his first big scoop. After receiving an email mentioning unexplained disappearances, he treks to the town of Treze Trilhas and checks himself into the St. Dinfna Hotel. After his initial investigation yields no results, he resolves to return home only to wake up and find the hotel in flames, immediately changing his goal of breaking a news story to breaking himself out of the hotel’s confines.

As with many games of this type, the circumstances of the narrative are mostly told by way of notes, journals, and computer logs scattered throughout the hotel’s halls, with the occasional cassette tape for good measure. One of the things I learned to love very quickly about Fobia’s storytelling is the freedom it affords the player to draw their own conclusions from the information given. It does a good job of putting you in the shoes of a journalist, asking you to do your own detective work alongside Roberto.

That being said, although Fobia absolutely takes all the requisite steps to tell its story well, the mysteries never coalesce into something interesting enough to really stand out from the crowd. The narrative’s background takes quite a few pages out of Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s book and the game sparingly utilizes the “scary little girl” trope, but it doesn’t do anything very innovative with either of them. Still, it’s easy to enjoy reading the scattered information that gives the overall mystery its shape, and it serves as a solid complement to the exploration-heavy gameplay.

A Less Hostile Hostel

Deciphering Fobia’s narrative isn’t the only part of the game that allows the player more freedom than one might expect. Once the initial excitement of escaping Roberto’s hotel room subsides, the player is left to wander the hotel floor, solving puzzles and scavenging for items at their leisure. As you find ways around the many obstacles and locked doors, more floors and passages open up to you, and the addition of every area is largely cumulative. The more progress you make, the more sprawling the game world becomes, eventually reaching point where it can be something of a challenge to remember how to return to every location you’ve been to before.

This alone is enough to set it apart rather readily from its contemporaries. Many horror games have the tendency to feel like haunted house attractions, where you’re simply following a path funneling you from scare to scare with the occasional puzzle roadblock thrown in. This isn’t the case at all in Fobia; it’s very much about granting the player free reign to roam through an eerie, atmospheric environment, and the gameplay is true to Roberto’s character as a journalist searching for clues and trying to stay alive. The St. Dinfna Hotel is gorgeously realized and detailed. Despite having to be uniform by necessity, each floor has distinctive features that set it apart from the rest, and building familiarity with the environment is a uniquely satisfying process.

The exploration is especially boosted by the night vision camera. It’s superficially reminiscent of the mechanic found in the Outlast games, but it serves a very different purpose here in allowing the player to see the hotel as it exists in something of alternate reality or timeline. A destroyed wardrobe will suddenly turn into a wall of levers and gauges, a bed will turn into statues and crates, or a completely blocked passageway will suddenly be navigable. The mechanic gets used with puzzles quite frequently, requiring the player to swap between the different versions of a location piece together a solution.

Optimal progress requires the player to be very thorough in combing each room. There is no informative objective list pointing you in the right direction, there is no easily accessible map labeling everywhere you’ve been, and the shiny highlight for items is limited. I found myself unsure of how to progress on one occasion, walking back and turning over everything from the start of the game, only to realize that I’d missed a lockbox on a desk containing a key in the newest room I’d gained access to. While it did lead to some aimless wandering, it certainly added to my immersion because the only way to continue was to find the solution for myself, and it’s easy to appreciate the game for respecting the player in this way.

Given its status as a horror game, it’s worth noting that Fobia isn’t particularly scary, even with its success at establishing ambiance and immersing the player. There is the occasional jump scare, and certain enemy placements will definitely surprise you, but these things happen so rarely that it’s easy to go multiple hours without seeing anything that gives you a jolt. This works to the game’s benefit in heightening its emphasis on exploration, but experienced horror fans won’t get much in the way of surprises here. One segment in particular features the same jump scare over and over again without changes, and its repetition makes each one comical by the time you’re on the other side of it.

You’ll notice there hasn’t been anything thus far about the first person shooter elements or boss fights in Fobia. This is because they’re the largest detriments to the experience, where the game feels the most unrefined. Enemies are encountered very rarely, and when they are present they feel toothless, dealing an unworrying amount of damage to your health bar and going down with a couple well-placed shots. Bosses are even worse, with most of them only capable of one or two attacks repeated ad infinitum until you shoot their obvious weak spot enough times.

Whenever combat is thrust upon the player, Fobia feels like a game at odds with itself. For most of its runtime it’s a deliberate, slow-paced puzzler, but then you’ll be forced into a boss fight that kills any sense of immersion with a jarring cutscene and blaring, triumphant music. Furthermore, the upgrade system (which is mostly for enhancing the reload speed, power, and fire rate of the weapons) feels superfluous and unnecessary because the default state of each is more than enough to see you through to the end.

The fact that the action sequences are mercifully fewer compared to the bouts of exploration is the game’s saving grace, but Fobia would have been a far stronger experience if they were removed entirely.

Hey, Look At This!

Fobia – St. Dinfna Hotel’s level design, lighting, and sound work are always a treat to the senses. They intertwine to create a realistic basis for the hotel that gives gravity to the paranormal elements that have affected its interior. Unfortunately, other aspects of the presentation struggle to reach the bar set by them. As an example, the first person animations are smooth enough, but enemy and boss movements often feel clunky and lacking in weight, undermining their visual designs.

The most egregious mistake Fobia makes, however, is its implementation of completely unnecessary cutscenes. If you’re about to see a new enemy or boss for the first time, the game will often remove you from Roberto’s perspective completely and zoom in on the subject, shattering immersion and ensuring a complete lack of surprise in the player in one fell swoop. It’s especially unfortunate when these cutscenes lead into boss fights. They clearly telegraph to the player, “Something is about to happen! Get ready! Here it is, have a look!”

It’s a confusing decision, to say the least, and one of the bigger reasons the game is lacking in scares. The atmosphere and intensity of the game would be much better served if there were little to no cutscenes at all, allowing players to get a closer look at the creatures (or run for their lives) on their own terms.

On the other hand, the audio is stellar. Everything sounds crisp and nothing feels out of place. Distant thuds and clunking footsteps spark the player’s imagination as to their origin and maintain a general sense of unease.The song that plays at each save point is hauntingly beautiful, although the boss fight music is typically a little too grandiose for the experience.

When it comes to voice acting, the English voiceover is quite lacking when it comes to line delivery and expressing emotion. This isn’t too large of a detriment given how seldom voice acting occurs, but Fobia also provides an audio track in Brazilian Portuguese with full subtitle support, should it take you out of the experience too much.

Checking In?

Fobia – St. Dinfna Hotel doesn’t offer the tightest of experiences. Its narrative themes and storytelling are overly familiar, the lion’s share of its boss encounters are unexciting ammo dumps, and the cutscenes that wrest control from the player to highlight the spooky thing in front of them are ill-advised immersion destroyers. Yet even in the face of all of these issues, I never felt a pull to put the game down for the sheer success of its exploration.

Slowly working your way through the hotel, taking in the gorgeously detailed environment, wracking your brain to figure out how to progress, remembering all of the blocked paths you can now access with a newly acquired key item—these are the moments when the game is at its absolute best. Had the title leaned into this as the main aspect of the experience, you could very well have been reading a recommendation for one of the genre’s premier titles. Instead, Fobia – St. Dinfna Hotel is an amazing exploration game that periodically gets in its own way with lackluster shooting and action sequences. It’s still well worth your time, but it’s disappointing to think about how much more it could have been.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by Maximum Games for PC. Screenshots taken by writer. Featured image courtesy of Maximum Games.