Platforms: PC (reviewed)
The Park is a curious sort of horror game experiment. Developed by Funcom and set within the world of the studio's pre-established horror MMO The Secret World, the game attempts to do two things at once: tell a self-contained story and also give fans of The Secret World a more intimate look into the MMO title's unique horror-themed fiction (there are rumors that The Park is just the first in a series of planned single-player games based within The Secret World). While The Park does contain plenty of chills and a captivating story centered around grief, hubris, and killers dressed as chipmunks (yes, you read that correctly), all of its moving parts sadly don't come together as seamlessly as I imagine Funcom wanted them to.
Less Is More
Funcom has made no efforts to hide the fact that The Park isn't a very long game. Even if you take your time and make sure to uncover all of the game's mysteries and secrets, you'll still see the credits roll at around the one-hour or two-hour mark. It's an interesting choice for Funcom to make considering most games these days (even those developed by indie studios) last, at a bare minimum, at least three times that amount. However, what The Park lacks in length it more than makes up for in atmosphere, tasking players to venture into the very spooky (and, as they soon discover, very haunted) Atlantic Island Park (a location which many dedicated Secret World players will instantly recognize).
The main story in The Park centers around a young woman named Lorraine and her young son Callum. After a day spent at the Atlantic Island Park, Lorraine and Callum are about ready to leave when Callum realizes he lost his teddy bear and races back into the park as it's closing, forcing the player (who controls Lorraine) to chase after him. What begins as a seemingly innocent mission of finding Callum and making sure he's ok quickly warps, however, into a twisted journey through Lorraine's fears and nightmares which are manifested through the park's various rides and attractions. The Park may not be a very long game, but the slow buildup of dread and foreboding that escalates with each new ride the player discovers certainly makes it feel a lot longer than a few hours.
The sparse nature of the game's story and length also extends into its control system. There is no HUD to speak of, and all players can really do is walk/sprint around the park and interact with objects by getting close and left-clicking on them. Right-clicking causes Lorraine to call out for Callum, which also has the helpful secondary effect of highlighting usable objects (such as readable newspaper clippings or doors that must be opened). Of course, if you fancy yourself a horror games purist, you can disable the highlighting effect and hunt down objects the old fashioned way.
While there is a semi-linear sequence of rides and attractions the game tries to steer you towards, Atlantic Island Park is laid out in a non-linear format, which means you're free to subject yourself to each attraction's signature spookiness in whatever order suits your fancy. Some rides can even be skipped entirely, though there are a few items you must find within certain attractions in order to access The Park's final endgame sequence, which means you can't simply run right to the end from the get-go. There are also certain in-game achievements which can only be completed within specific attractions, so completionists will have to subject themselves to all of The Park's horrors.
This open-ended format works from a gameplay standpoint, but it also means it's very easy for more adventurous players to accidentally trigger late-game story revelations. Since certain bits of the overall story (told through narration from Lorraine) are anchored to specific “checkpoints” in the park's layout (often being triggered simply by walking down a specific path), it's very easy to accidentally skip over a key plot development if you decide to experience the park's rides out of their “established” order.
A Twist That Falls Flat
Obviously I won't reveal any spoilers here, but I will say that the payoff which The Park tries to build up to just isn't there. Even if you progress through the game's sequence of rides in the “intended” order and actively hunt for the additional clues strewn around the park, there are still elements of the game's story which remain poorly explained, and the final big reveal is presented in such a rushed and confusing manner that you'd be forgiven for thinking you missed some key piece of the puzzle. I'm guessing Funcom purposefully wanted to leave the ending somewhat ambiguous, allowing players to come up with their own twisted theories, but to spend so much time getting players invested in Lorraine and Callum's story only to reward that investment with an ending which presents more questions than answers feels kind of cheap.
Not Worth The Price Of Admission
The Park can currently be bought for $12.99 on Steam, but I'd have trouble recommending it even if it cost half that much. The game commits the double sin of being too ambiguous for its own good while also forcing players to deal with gameplay issues including sub-par voice acting, poorly optimized graphics, and a short run-time with virtually zero replay potential. If you're really itching for a new horror game experience and you don't mind dealing with the above caveats, you're still better off waiting until The Park goes on sale at some point in the future.