Horror games are hard to do well. Ideally, you cultivate a sense of dread in the player. Something that gets under their skin, has their instincts screaming “run away!'” Yet they stay. They continue. Be it through an interesting story or unique mechanics, players tell themselves “I really don’t want to play this anymore, but I’m going to.” Even the non-masochistic ones. It’s a difficult balance. Another difficult genre is roguelikes, as I mentioned earlier with Elona. At the end of the day, your player will be sitting there, thinking to themself: “I just died horribly. On the last level of the dungeon. After spending 4 hours playing. Because I made a tiny mistake. Only one thing to do… start again and do better.” The player becomes vested in the character, their gear and achievements, but knows it can all be wiped out in an instant if they get careless.
In retrospect, it’s almost surprising someone didn’t try this before. The game we are covering today is The Consuming Shadow, made by Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw. You might know him as that British fellow who spends ~5 minutes a week verbally tearing a game a new behind. Don’t worry, there’s no inside jokes or anything you’ll miss if you don’t. I personally find it interesting to see a game critic get out there and try to do a better job than the developers he’s constantly trashing.
In TCS, you play what is only described as “A scholar.” He is certain that an ancient, powerful being will soon enter our realm. At Stonehenge. In three days. He knows this horrific event can be averted, but only if he knows who is trying to get through, and the proper spell to kick them back out. Between his car, phone, and pistol, he has everything he needs to search out the lairs of the Shadow’s minions, purge them of their evils, and get another piece of the cosmic horror puzzle. As one would expect in a proper survival horror/roguelike, however, there is simply not enough time, medkits, or ammo to do everything as well as you want to. Towns battling the Shadow will rot, hitchhikers will be left behind, and terrified women will be slapped across the face because the last girl who was like that turned into a creepy headless vomit monster.
Even as you obtain clues, they’re nothing obvious, nothing simple. You only know for certain that there are three ancients involved. One is actively trying to reach your world, another is backing them up, and some other one is trying to stop them. You have no idea which is which, and you don’t want to fire your big spell at the wrong one. The colors and runes associated with each ancient, and their relationships, change on each playthrough, as do the status of the towns you will visit. As such, most of the game is a matter of investigating. You piece together the spell as you acquire the supplies to make the journey under Stonehenge, the Shadow’s last bastion. This game tries to convey a sense of desperation, which it accomplishes with ease thanks to its resource starvation, and frequent passages about towns and people lost to the monsters. Oh, and your character will be trying to kill himself when his sanity runs too low. Try to avoid that in-between handling everything else, will you?
On that topic… dying in games in not fun. Dying in games where death means starting over completely is even worse. I would say this is one of the biggest aspects that puts off gamers from exploring the roguelike genre. TCS really impressed me in this regard, because the death doesn’t feel meaningless. At the game over screen, the player is given a score. Every monster killed, dungeon cleared, and clue found adds to the total. This is essentially turned to experience to determine the player’s level. The higher the player’s level, the more resources and such he will start with on the next run. The level isn’t wiped out, no matter how many times you die and start over, so the game rewards the player’s continued efforts with a tangible benefit. Picking up general knowledge is nice, but it’s meager compensation for dying, and this game understands that. Better yet, it has a cool explanation for it, basically saying that each life is an attempt in a different universe, and while nine out of ten times the scholar will fail, their combined momentum might push the tenth to a narrow victory.
Being a largely text-driven game, The Consuming Shadow leaves a lot to the player’s imagination. Most of the details of the monsters and locales are conveyed through text boxes. Even the monsters you engage are nothing more than vague silhouettes. All you need to know is that they’re not human, and they’re trying to kill you. There is no background music, from what I can tell. That doesn’t mean the game lacks ambiance. It can best be described as every unpleasant sound you’ve ever heard. You won’t be avoiding enemies just out of a sense of ammo conservation.
I highly recommend this game.
One last detail: I need to give credit where credit is due. If it hadn’t been for one Jim Sterling, I’d have never noticed this. He has a Youtube channel, where he regularly looks at games such as this one. If learning about these often-overlooked titles is your thing, I strongly advise checking into that. Links are all at the bottom, as usual. Note- the game is called a beta, but is functionally complete.