I believe a horror game succeeds when it manages to do three separate things. First, it needs to draw the player in and ensure they feel properly immersed in the dark and moody world they’re exploring. Second, it needs to keep the player in a constant state of unease by using a combination of dread-inducing atmosphere and moments of abject terror. Third, it needs to provide a persistent story hook that properly motivates the player to push through their unease and brave whatever real or imagined terrors they might encounter.
Unfortunately for developer Camel 101, its new horror game Those Who Remain only partially succeeds on the second and third points outlined above, and miserably fails in regards to the first point. Those Who Remain bears the telltale influences of established horror franchises like Alan Wake and Silent Hill, but its original story of dark intentions plaguing a seemingly abandoned town is too often derailed by frustrating puzzles and inconsistent gameplay mechanics.
Down In Dormont
Those Who Remain casts players as a brooding man named Edward. The game begins with a typical spiel of opening narration in which the player watches from Edward’s first-person perspective as he drinks a glass of hard liquor and opines about his crappy life decisions. Oh, and he’s also holding a gun for some reason that’s never explained. Edward apparently has a wife and young daughter but is also cheating on his wife with another woman. The game begins with Edward driving to a seedy motel just outside the fictional town of Dormont to meet his secret girlfriend and presumably end the affair (or so he says at least).
Since this is a horror game we’re talking about here, things go awry shortly after Edward’s arrival. The hotel is entirely devoid of people, Edward’s girlfriend included, and when Edward attempts to leave someone steals his car and drives off. After deciding to walk into town, Edward encounters a spooky mob of dark phantoms wielding weapons like axes and machetes, and a voice in his head tells him to “stay in the light.”
This light-based gameplay mechanic is a recurring theme throughout Those Who Remain’s runtime. The player can often spot creepy-looking groups of phantoms with their glowing eyes standing ominously off in the distance. The phantoms always remain completely stationary, but attempting to pass through a space they occupy results in instant death. Therefore, the player needs to “open up” paths by triggering light sources, whether it’s from a parked car’s headlights, a handheld lighter, or simply flicking a light switch inside a house (apparently nobody in Dormont has ever heard of a flashlight).
Soon after his arrival, Edward encounters a teenage girl named Annika whose tragic past is directly linked to Dormont’s eerie emptiness and the presence of the grim phantoms. The game’s main narrative involves visiting various landmarks in Dormont (the local police headquarters, a fire station, a sawmill, a church, etc.), discovering how specific people associated with those landmarks wronged Annika and her mother, and then letting the player decide whether to forgive or condemn that person.
Locating the evidence needed to make a final judgment involves rifling through drawers and cabinets, finding specific objects like keys or tools to solve puzzles, and even exploring an alternate dimension to open up new pathways. Along with the ever-present phantoms in the darkness, other threats such as patrolling monsters and the angry spirit of Annika’s mother also attempt to impede Edward’s progress. And while all of these features and components might sound pretty compelling on paper, Camel 101’s baffling design choices often prove far more irritating than immersive.
The Horrors of Repetition
Camel 101 clearly wanted to make Dormont feel like a lived-in town by inserting a bunch of objects like cabinets, desks, lockers, and tables with doors and drawers that can be manually opened. In some cases, these cabinets and desks and the like contain crucial items needed to advance the plot and/or solve a puzzle, but most of the time they’re just empty. This creates a tedious “red herring” sort of gameplay loop where the player has to waste time rifling through every interactive drawer and cabinet in the vicinity in the hopes they’ll find an item they need.
The breadth of different actions the player can perform is also very limited, making the obtuse nature of the game’s various puzzles even more frustrating. Edward can move around, run, interact with objects, and review his current objective, but that’s about it. He can’t crouch or jump or do anything with the random non-essential objects he picks up other than put them back down or throw them. There’s also no in-game map or hint system to consult if and when the player gets stuck.
This extremely limited set of actions also means that segments, where the player must evade a monster, aren’t so much about proper “stealth” as they are about memorizing the monster’s painfully obvious patrol route and maneuvering around accordingly. And of course, if a hostile being does catch Edward, the player is kicked back to a previous checkpoint that’s often from many minutes ago, forcing them to re-acquire items and redo puzzles all over again. There’s naturally no manual save option either, just the auto-save checkpoint system which triggers far too infrequently.
Other minor issues mar Those Who Remain’s otherwise promising narrative as well. The models used for the few human characters Edward meets are of a laughably low quality, so much so that I was often left wondering why Camel 101 bothered to implement them in the first place. A similar lack of effort can also be found in Edward’s dialogue delivery. The voice actor portraying Edward often sounds bored and nonchalant, even when he’s speaking about something that should have some emotional impact or acknowledging the monsters that are chasing him. It’s a good thing that Dormont looks and feels so dark and foreboding because Edward often comes off as more of an impartially gruff bystander than a tortured man seeking to uncover a mystery.
Repeat Visits Encouraged
Those Who Remain isn’t a very long game, averaging out at 4-6 hours for a typical playthrough. My first playthrough took roughly five hours and that includes having to redo certain puzzles numerous times. I imagine a player who already knows what to do could work through the game in four hours easily.
There are multiple endings to unlock and achievements to earn, most of them attached to the judgments players bestow on Dormont’s citizens. This is clearly meant to encourage repeat playthroughs, but the game’s frustrating puzzle mechanics and convoluted ending unlock factors didn’t exactly leave me raring for another go. For my playthrough, I dispensed mercy and justice in a near-equal measure, forgiving those whom I felt were deserving and condemning those who willfully committed evil acts. And yet I was still hit with the game’s bad ending even though I hadn’t been entirely ruthless in my rulings.
Those Who Remain’s Steam page specifically lists “multiple endings” as one of its standout features, implying that there’s a great degree of nuance much like the multiple endings in a typical Silent Hill game. However, after my playthrough, I’m strongly suspicious that, in reality, there are really only two, maybe three endings tops. Unless you make Edward an entirely merciful chap who’s willing to forgive sadistic bullies, corrupt sheriffs, and selfish citizens who’d rather shoot other people than help them, have fun with your bad ending I guess.
I came in really wanting to like Those Who Remain, I even wishlisted it on Steam back when Camel 101 and publisher Wired Productions first unveiled it over a year ago. But despite its clear homages to the strange psychological nightmares which define the Silent Hill series, Those Who Remain gets too lost in the weeds of archaic gameplay and frustratingly antiquated design choices to be much fun.